AgrAbility program helps Wathke keep farming

The Country Today– Jim Massey

MADISON — When Larry Wathke of Fall Creek slipped and fell 50 feet in his silo in De­cem­ber of 1993, he didn’t know if he would walk again, let alone be able to con­tinue to op­er­ate his six-gen­er­a­tion dairy farm.

But 22 years later, with the help of the AgrA­bil­ity of Wis­con­sin pro­gram, Wathke is car­ry­ing on his fam­ily’s tra­di­tion on his 320-acre Eau Claire County farm. He is milk­ing about 60 cows in a tie-stall barn and the farm has been retro­fit­ted with as­sis­tive mod­i­fi­ca­tions that have made it pos­si­ble for him to con­tinue in his cho­sen pro­fes­sion.

“What (the AgrA­bil­ity pro­gram) has done for me has made it a lot eas­ier for me to con­tinue to farm,” Wathke said Nov. 4 at the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ad­vi­sory coun­cil meet­ing in Madi­son. “We’ve been able to keep the fam­ily farm go­ing. They came out to our farm, saw what I needed, and it has worked out well.”

wahtkeAgrA­bil­ity is a grant-funded pro­gram that is a part­ner­ship be­tween Easter Seals Wis­con­sin and UW-Ex­ten­sion. The pro­gram pro­vides ser­vices and adap­tive equip­ment to farm­ers with in­juries, dis­abil­i­ties or other lim­i­ta­tions who want to con­tinue farm­ing and liv­ing in­de­pen­dently.

When Wathke landed at the bot­tom of the silo af­ter his 50-foot fall, he had sig­nif­i­cant in­juries to his feet, an­kles, back and in­ter­nal or­gans. More than nine hours of surgery were re­quired to in­sert more than 40 screws and sev­eral metal plates in his an­kles, legs and feet.

Wathke spent 22 days in the hos­pi­tal and didn’t walk for an­other three months af­ter that. But about five months af­ter the ac­ci­dent, he was back in the barn, milk­ing cows again.

How did he do it?

“Willpower, I guess,” he said. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Wathke got along for more than 10 years with­out AgrA­bil­ity’s help, but he was strug­gling to get his work done. He had trou­ble walk­ing over un­even ter­rain and stand­ing for long pe­ri­ods of time while milk­ing cows.

Jeff Kra­tochwill, an Easter Seals ru­ral re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion spe­cial­ist, worked with Wathke to de­ter­mine what changes needed to be made to al­low him to keep farm­ing.

Among the adap­ta­tions on the farm were a rail sys­tem that moved equip­ment from the barn to the milk­house; a side en­try door in a skid-steer so Wathke didn’t have to climb over the bucket to get in; al­ley mats to pro­vide cush­ions over the con­crete in the barn; and drive-through gates that open and close with­out the need to get on and off of a farm im­ple­ment to get through.

His trac­tors and farm ma­chines were also equipped with quick hitches to al­low him to hook up equip­ment eas­ier and a large-square-bale pro­ces­sor was added to grind up bales to make them eas­ier to feed.

“Th­ese things should help me keep farm­ing for years to come,” Wathke said.

About $50,000 was spent on the var­i­ous im­prove­ments on the farm, Kra­tochwill said.

Wathke’s wife, Sheri, said it has been good to see her hus­band ex­pend less en­ergy when car­ry­ing out his farm work.

“It’s great this pro­gram is out there for the farmer that needs the ex­tra help so they can stay farm­ing,” she said. “He still comes in at night and he’s limp­ing, and he’s not go­ing to to­tally get rid of that. But it’s not as harsh on his body as what it was.”

The farm has been in Wathke’s fam­ily for 154 years, and his son, Mark, and Mark’s son rep­re­sent the sev­enth and eighth gen­er­a­tions on the farm.