The Ergonomics of Farming

Just got back from a short time away and some spontaneous adventure (the best kind of adventure).

Seb and I left Friday and headed to Prince Edward County to a class reunion with all but 2 of our classmates from last year’s Fleming College Sustainable Ag. Program.  It was exciting to reunite and hear about the farming adventures (and misadventures) our classmates experienced this passed season.  A highlight of the weekend: One of our classmate’s partners happens to be a physiotherapist and she did an impromtu “Ergonomics of Farming” lesson with us, at our request.  Human-scale farming can take quite a toll on the body.  Sure, it may be a much healthier than sitting at a computer all day, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t trade-offs for choosing the agrarian work-life.

So the winter is beginning and now is the best time to practice and strengthen for the coming season.  So how do we keep our bodies limber?

Amy began by explaining the “lumbar curve”, a natural curve in our low back.  If you put your hands on either side of your spine in this area, your mid to low back, you should feel that this area is soft.  That is because each part of your spine, or lumbar vertebrae, are surrounded by a jelly-like substance or “disk” that cushions and protects.  If you lean forward you will notice the lumbar vertebrae are no longer soft- all the “jelly” is pushed to one side of the vertebrae- doing this too many time can damage a nerve causing back pain.  So if the natural state of the lumbar curve is soft, this means all the time spent bending over weeding, lifting, harvesting etc. can take quite a toll on this area.    (This video tells a bit more:

Tip #1: How to lift:

Many of us, myself included, think that we cannot bend when picking things up, and that we must keep our back straight.  That is not entirely true.  When lifting you should start with feet shoulder width apart facing the object you are about to lift straight on (so you don’t have to twist to pick it up).  Keep your head up, and your chest open with shoulders back.  Engage your stomach muscles.  Now bend your knees and lower down to meet the object, keeping head and shoulders facing forward, allowing the natural curve in your lower back to stay curved.   Lift the object as close to your body as you can.  This is a bit different than the “straight back” message many of us have heard.

I Recommend watching these videos for another overview of what I mean:

Proper Lifting Techniques Part 1

(Sorry for the poor quality pictures, I couldn’t resist including them)

Proper Lifting Techniques Part 2 – at 1:04 they will show you a proper lift.

His shoulders could be back more, and his chin should be lifted with eyes facing forward.

Tip #2: For Repeated Activities:

When doing a repeated actions for a while make sure to stop every half hour or so and stretch in the opposite direction.  In the example of bending over forward, put your hands on your low back and bend backward.  If possible, change positions frequently.  If you and on your knees weeding you may be able to alternate having one leg up, both knees on the ground, or standing and bending over.  You could even set your watch to change position every 10 minutes.  And to protect you knees wear kneepads.  If you carry things on your shoulder such as feed bags, make sure to switch the shoulder you use to keep the muscles balanced.

Tip #3: Brainstorm!
Brainstorm ways you can make the “lifting” tasks manageable for all labourers on your farm.  One farm I know uses only the small bins you can buy at the grocery stores for harvesting because that are manageable for all their workers when full.  Another farm has a 40 pound limit.  Use wheel barrows, or a buddy whenever possible for heavy things, or invent a tool to help you with the given strenuous task and share your designs widely:)

Tip #4: Flexibility alone does not make a healthy body.  If you do yoga constantly, or are an avid stretcher, you still may be susceptible to injury.  In addition to good stretches, you should also do activities to build muscles.  For most of us farmers our backs are stronger than our stomachs, and this means we often overcompensate with our backs to do activities our stomachs should be helping with.  So we need to spend a bit of time strengthening our stomachs.  Sit-ups and crunches ARE NOT good ways to strengthen the stomach because they cause a tightening of the “lumbar curve”- something we all do far too much of already.  So instead, activities in which our natural lumbar curve is present are good such as: the plank.  I have recollections of having to hold the plank for extended periods of time in high school gym class  – Amy informed me this is not what you should do.  Instead try to do the plank for 10 seconds.  Do this several times in a row with a rest in-between.  After a week you may be ready to try doing this for longer.  Work up to holding for an extended period of time.  Make sure your hips are level with our back and not sagging to the ground or extended to the sky.

Another good stomach strengthening exercise begins in the “cat” yoga position, on your hands and knees.  Straighten your back, and lift opposite arms and legs, while keeping your hips level with one another like this.  Keep neck in line with spine and facing the ground.

And finally, the similar excercise done from the side.  I don’t think I can explain this one so you’ll have to find instructions online.



And another few good stretches:


I’m sure there are many more tips and tricks – if you have any please make them known!

Since it is hard to know if you are doing these sorts of things correctly I recommend doing further research online into these techniques and stretches, or finding a good physiotherapist who can show you these things. Good luck in protecting your back and becoming awesomely strong!

And consider supporting this awesome initiative someone is taking on to create a “Yoga for Farmers” video!


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