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It’s a Stretch
Planning and preparation are essential to execute critical
farm operations. But few farmers ever pause to make sure their body mechanics
are up to a physical task.
Lincoln, Nebraska farmer Del Ficke has learned to approach
his farmwork in a more measured way, thanks to occupational therapist Anna
Ficke, 45, had his first back surgery in 1999. He had been
sitting in a tractor all day when he felt an excruciating pain shooting up
through his legs. “I didn’t know what was wrong,” he says.
By 2003, continued pain forced him to seek help at Nebraska
AgrAbility in Lincoln. “The best advice I got was to use a utility vehicle,” he
says. “I don’t have to throw my leg over it. It’s a smooth ride with less
vibration, and the seat is contoured. I carry everything I need in it.”
In 2004, Ficke had back surgery again.
Lewandowski, 24, interned at Nebraska AgrAbility, a joint
effort of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Easter Seals Nebraska, in
2012. She met Ficke and offered him specific exercises.
See photo above: Del Ficke demonstrates the proper way to
- Left: Begin by stretching your legs.
- Middle: Stand close to the load with your feet spread apart
(about shoulder width) and one foot slightly ahead of the other. Squat down,
bending at your knees. Tuck your chin while keeping your back vertical.
- Right: Get a firm grasp of the object. Slowly lift with your
legs by straightening them. Never twist your body. Once the lift is done, keep
object close to your body.
Ficke began exercising 10 minutes every morning. He focuses
on twists, side stretching, and leg stretches to manage pain from his sciatic
“She helped me quite a lot,” he says. “If a person will take
a little time, it’s possible to eliminate further issues.”
As part of her doctoral degree, Lewandowski developed a
brochure illustrating a stretching program
“Farmers are agricultural athletes,” she says. “They do
heavy lifting and repetitive work. If their muscles are unprepared for physical
demands, their risks increase, and they may need therapy.” Lewandowski works at
St. Anthony’s Regional Hospital in Carroll, Iowa.
Working with Ficke, she created a 45-minute YouTube video to
demonstrate proper stretching and bending, and body mechanics. (View the video
at www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzdUdDVG_Ps.) Nebraska AgrAbility featured the
20-minute video at Husker Harvest Days last September.
Some of Lewandowski’s tips require a change in habit. “Farmers
always should climb off a tractor or combine facing the steps,” she says.
Ficke says that livestock farming heaps wear and tear on the
body. “I can make tasks easier, but I never completely get away from manual
labor,” he adds.
Ficke, who also works at Easter Seals Nebraska, sees a need
for earlier intervention. “When you’re young, you think you’ll last forever,”
he says. “We need to get the message out to young farmers.”
His job offers many cautionary tales. “We see a lot of back
injuries caused by degeneration of the spine,” he says. “It’s surpassing
Today’s technology helps farmers continue to work into their
seventh and eighth decades.
Some technology is more of an investment. “If farmers are
given the choice of buying better machinery and technology to save wear and
tear on their bodies, or using that money for their families, few choose to buy
new machinery,” Ficke says. “But disabling injuries are extremely expensive,
and they last a lifetime.”
Prevention is the best strategy. “All of the exercises I’ve
shown can be done standing up,” Lewandowski says. “If farmers target areas
where they have specific problems, it could make a difference.”
Photography: Anna Lewandowski