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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 Lewandowski.
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 lift.
- 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 nerve.
“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. 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 arthritis.”
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