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Feature   |  Fall 2007

Gaining ground

Farmers no longer forced into retirement by disability

Mike Williams is the strong, silent type—a perfect fit for the stereotype of men who make a living from the land. The 61-year-old Williams has lived and worked on his family's Greene County farm his entire life, spending long hours in the field as he planted crops, baled hay, raised livestock and repaired machinery.

man and pill bottles

Mike Williams (inset with wife Diann) suffers from three types of arthritis and other health conditions, but he's still able to stay active on the farm. Williams relies on assistive technology devices, such as this utility vehicle, and help from family and friends.

Like many farmers, Williams thought the aches and pains just came with the territory. But the pain that accompanied agricultural work finally reached a point that he could no longer ignore it—or stay silent about it. He suffers from three types of arthritis—psoriatic, rheumatoid and osteoarthritis—all of which can cause chronic pain or long-term damage to the joints. His stiff, disfigured hands are unable to do many of the tasks he once performed easily on a daily basis. Pain and swelling also affect other joints and sap his endurance, which means he spends more time in bed than on a tractor.

"I was always big and strong and could carry four buckets of water at a time," Williams says. "If something was in my way, I moved it. But the years of hard work have taken a toll on my joints. Driving a tractor all day long doesn't sound all that hard, but, at the end of the day when I get off it, I'm pretty tired."

A growing problem

Although Williams lives in a sparsely populated area of southeastern Indiana, as an arthritis sufferer, he has plenty of company. "About one-third of all farmers in this country have some form of arthritis that keeps them from doing daily chores because of either stiffness or pain in the joints," says William Field, Purdue Extension safety specialist and project leader for the Breaking New Ground (BNG) Resource Center. BNG's outreach program serves agricultural workers who suffer from disabilities, such as arthritis, visual impairment, back injury or amputation, that make it difficult for them to continue farming or ranching.

 "We see how difficult it is for farmers like Mike to keep working and to stay active longer in their lifetime," Field says. "We believe it's important to educate agricultural workers about arthritis and come up with some adaptive aids or solutions that reduce the stress on their joints and make it easier for them to work."

grain bin

Steps up the side of this grain bin make it easier for Brookston, Ind., farmer Keith Morgan to access the bin. Morgan, who was assisted by Purdue's Breaking New Ground outreach program, has also added steps on his tractors and a platform lift on his combine.

Earlier this year, BNG teamed up with the Arthritis Foundation, Indiana Chapter to produce Gaining Ground on Arthritis: Managing Arthritis in the Agricultural Workplace, an educational DVD to help people understand arthritis and to provide practical tips on protecting joints, managing stress and modifying work practices. The DVD's May release coincided with National Arthritis Awareness Month.

Attracting attention

Williams, who was featured in print and broadcast media around the state when the DVD was promoted, is increasing awareness by talking publicly about his private battle with arthritis. He wants others to learn about the disease and the resources that are available. "It's worth it, if I can prevent someone else from going through what I do," Williams says from the kitchen table—the hub of the farm. Williams hopes that his son Kyle, 36, will heed this advice and adopt practices that reduce repetitive movements while he is still young enough for it to make a difference.




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