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Technology helps farmers deal with health risks

Posted on Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 6:52 am

Missouri farmer Ronnie Harris, right, is working with the University of Missouri’s Agrability project to get lifts so he can get on his tractors.

Missouri farmer Ronnie Harris, right, is working with the University of Missouri’s Agrability project to get lifts so he can get on his tractors.

—(Story reprinted with permission of Missouri Farmer Today)
By Benjamin Herrold
Missouri Farmer Today
On the morning of Dec. 5, 2012, Audrain County farmer Ronnie Harris woke up and tried to get dressed, just like every other morning.
But, this time, he fell to the floor. Harris had suffered a stroke in his sleep.
He later found out the stroke was possibly caused by elevated L protein levels, a hereditary condition.
His left side was initially paralyzed, but gradually, his strength and coordination have been coming back.
After months of physical therapy and rehab, Harris came home to the farm in February, but then on April 19 he fell and broke his hip, putting up another obstacle for his recovery.
For Harris, who grows corn and soybeans, recovery from the stroke and hip surgery have given him time to think about his health, something he says farmers often don’t make a priority.
He says this is especially the case with long-term wear and tear on the body with the aches and pains that add up from day after day of work. Harris also did some bridge work as supplemental income.
“You start thinking about it when it starts hurting,” Harris says. “. . . I would jump down off of stuff that’s 6 or 7 feet tall instead of climbing down.”
Harris’ wife, Tonya, a teacher, remembers several farmers among the patients at the hospital getting joint replacements.
“Hip replacements seem pretty common for farmers,” she says. “There were several patients who were farmers.”
Some long-term health risks are associated with farming, says Jon Bailey with the Center for Rural Affairs.
“I think all the data shows that farming is still one of the most-dangerous occupations,” he says. “The nature of farming kind of lends itself to those long-term, chronic kind of conditions.”
Bailey says farming today is less physical, but the new technology brings new challenges.
“Certainly, I think the physical nature of farming has changed,” he says. “Technology and maintenance bring their own risks.”
Bailey says it seems farmers are interested in their long-term health, particularly having health insurance.
“Obviously, having health insurance is step number one in dealing with these long-term conditions.”
Under the Affordable Care Act, Bailey says health insurance plans are required to have coverage for mental health issues as well, if farmers need that.
Harris says the long road back has been tough mentally some days with the insurance paperwork to navigate and sometimes slow progress.
“Some days you kind of get depressed when it’s raining and you need to be in the field,” he says. “But, then the next day you’ll be better.”
Harris has a hired hand to work on his operation. His son, Kaleb, is busy with high school, sports and FFA activities, but he is interested in joining the farm after college.
In the meantime, Harris has found an opportu-nity to get more involved on his farm through the University of Missouri’s Agrability program.
Several months after his stroke, Harris heard about the program from a neighbor who had used it.
Agrability seeks to help farmers who are disabled or suffering from chronic health conditions remain in production agriculture.
Agrability coordinators provide assessments as to what technology can help the farmer, and make referrals for farmers for the equipment they need, as well as funding sources for the assistive technologies.
Harris is working with Agrability to get lifts so he can get on his tractors.
“I think I can run the tractors if I can get up on them.”
Harris says getting the lifts to get on his tractors hasn’t been easy.
“It’s been a pretty slow process.”
Still, he is encouraged by the prospect of being able to get out and see his fields from the seat of a tractor again.
Harris says the lifts are one of several examples of how technology can make farming safer and easier on the body. He is optimistic the next generation of farmers will have fewer joint replacements.
“It’s a good thing, my son Kaleb, he’s more computer-oriented,” Harris says. “You can run your irrigation from your phone now.”
Harris also has neighbors who have auto-steer technology for their tractors and combines. He says that also can spare wear and tear on the body.
“My neighbors who have auto steer, they say you’re not as tired and wore out at the end of the day,” he says.
Tonya adds new air seats “really save your back.”
It’s been a long, challenging recovery process for Ronnie Harris, but he’s optimistic for the future.