Organic Broadcaster

Holistic approach to farm chores keeps women’s bodies strong longer

Lisa Kivirsist uses a a ClassicRiser Standing Desk by FlexiSpot so she can stand or sit as she works. Changing positions frequently, whether at a desk or weeding a row, is one of the expert tips for healthy body care. Photo by John Ivanko


By Lisa Kivirist, MOSES

As we jump into the thick of the busy summer farming season and the daily to-do list is long, it’s easy to lose sight of our most important tool: ourselves. Prioritizing body care and approaching tool and machinery use in a pro-active manner reaps benefits way beyond our farm’s bottom line. By cultivating a holistic approach to our daily chores, we ramp up safety, efficiency, and longevity and the ability to keep doing what we love into our later years.

Understanding and prioritizing ergonomics and body care will be covered at our MOSES In Her Boots women farmer workshops this summer, providing a unique opportunity to delve into these issues from a female farmer lens. These In Her Boots workshops offer a welcoming setting based on peer-to-peer networking with expert advice. Whether you’re a seasoned woman farmer needing to reprioritize care for you or a beginning farmer ready to launch, there’s something for you to learn here this summer.

“Female farmers naturally take good care of our animals, soil and crops, but it’s easy to overlook ourselves,” shared Dr. Josie Rudolphi, an associate research scientist at the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis. Rudolphi will be one of the “resources in the field” at these In Her Boots workshops to bring a scientific perspective to health and farm safety. “When we talk about sustainability, we focus on the farm itself and other resources, but not the farmer. That equation needs to change, especially for women farmers who also often take primary responsibility for other demanding roles like child care.”

“I’m excited to host an In Her Boots workshops this summer for women farmers because so often it’s intimidating to learn about machinery from men, who tend to just do things instead of allowing you to be capable and learn yourself,” said Hannah Breckbill of Humble Hands Harvest Farm in Decorah, Iowa, who hosts the July 26 session. “I love to create a space of mutual learning, of figuring out what we need to know and then figuring out how to learn it together.”

Need a dose of pragmatic inspiration as we kick off the growing season? Here’s a sneak preview of the themes we’ll be covering at the In Her Boots workshops with five tips for practicing healthy body care in daily farm routines.

Plan Your Day
Plot your farm tasks so you can scatter a diversity of tasks throughout the day. “Varying your activities and not doing any one thing for too long is one of the best strategies you can do for your body,” advised Liz Brensinger, co-founder of Green Heron Tools, an agricultural entrepreneurial venture that creates ergonomically correct tools for women farmers. “Personally, now that I’m in my 50s, I’m more acutely aware of my body after I’ve been working in the same position for too long and know to change tasks.”

Break up longer chores into smaller segments: If you are moving a large compost pile to your vegetable rows, after every couple of wheelbarrow loads, change motions, squat and find a row to weed for a while.

Minimize Risk
“A core learning for us is that too many women take physical risks out of necessity,” explained Ann Adams, the other co-founder of Green Heron Tools and a former nurse. “We simply want to get the job done as fast as possible and don’t think that we should do something a different way, like using a lever as opposed to lifting something directly.” Stepping back and thinking through a task before jumping in can go a long way in promoting safety and health and shrinking risk.

“Farm safety often is more of an afterthought than a priority and it’s easy to forget how hazardous an industry agriculture is,” Rudolphi added. The In Her Boots sessions will be going over the basics on tractor safety, the piece of machinery that causes the most fatalities within agriculture, yet is ubiquitous on farms.

Be Conscious
“When our bodies are hard at work on the farm or in the garden—and our minds are distracted/busy elsewhere—we’re much more likely to hurt ourselves. And, the older we get, the longer it takes to heal,” Brensinger explained. “The main way to avoid getting hurt—whether by falling or cutting oneself with a pruner or getting a sore back from doing the same task too long—is to be fully present in your body and conscious of your surroundings and what you are doing.”

Don’t try to do too much at once or be preoccupied thinking about your next task. Fully engage in and enjoy the task at hand and complete it successfully and safely before moving onto something else. If it’s a big task, break it up and intersperse other activities for diversity.

“Prevention is the best strategy to protect our bodies,” Rudolphi added. “Vary tasks and don’t keep your body in any one position for too long. Prevention is important because we want farmers to do what they love for as long as they can. If you take care of yourself, you avoid injury that can not only hurt yourself, but hurt your bottom line, too, if you can’t work to get your harvest in. Unlike other professions, farmers don’t get sick time or readily have someone else do their job.”

Many short-term as well as chronic aches and pains are a result of too much repetition of the same movements or postures. Whenever possible, stand for a while, sit for a while, and then stand again. When standing, periodically shift your weight from side to side and do some knee bends. When sitting, it’s best to have your legs uncrossed to facilitate optimal blood flow and avoid putting pressure on any particular area. Break up your static motion with short breaks.

Know Your Body
Take the time to understand your body and be able to recognize what your body needs and what works for you.

“To do self-care well, I’ve had to be really intentional about it,” Breckbill said. “I do this mostly by prioritizing sleep and making sure I eat real food at regular intervals. Being aware of how my body is moving and thinking through how I can switch up the movements to keep everything in balance is also key.”

“Now that I’m in my 60s, I practice yoga every morning and attend yoga class one night a week in town,” shared Denise O’Brien of Rolling Acres Farm in Atlantic, Iowa, and founder of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN). “The stretching movement helps support my joint health and the whole experience of getting off farm and going somewhere else where I only need to follow the teacher’s instructions relaxes my mind. I barter vegetables with my yoga instructor, so it’s a win-win for both of us. We’ve become good friends.”

Invest in Proper Tools
Think of any tool, whether it’s a simple shovel or mechanized chainsaw, as an extension of your body, something that should work in tandem with the rest of you. Keep in mind the key ways female bodies are different than men’s when it comes to farm work:
• less upper body strength
• narrower shoulders and wider hips
• proportionally shorter legs and arms
• greater flexibility
• shorter than the average male — five inches on average

The trick is to recognize these physical differences and account for them, particularly as we age.

“Changes in muscle mass are a completely normal part of the aging process, but it is important to be aware that our bodies simply do not have the same level of strength we used to have and to find alternative ways to accomplish tasks,” Adams advised. For example, even though you may have been able to lift that 50-pound bag of feed single-handedly in the past, as you get older, divide that feed bag into two 25-pound loads or use tools to help you lift and move, such as a wheelbarrow.

Women’s joints are looser than men’s depending upon where we are in our menstrual cycle, which may make us more vulnerable to injury, from exposure to vibration. Bone density also naturally breaks down as we age, so it’s important to consistently exercise to keep our bones strong. Fortunately, farming gives you the types of exercise you need to keep bones strong, such as reasonable lifting. “Anything that puts stress on the bone will keep it strong,” Adams added.

At the In Her Boots sessions, we will have a variety of ergonomically correct tools to try out, as well as tips for adapting equipment for safety and better body care.

Lisa Kivirist runs the MOSES In Her Boots project and is the author of Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers. She and her family run Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B outside Monroe, Wis.



From the May |June 2018 Issue

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