One morning this month, I helped four Peruvian herders load 780 +/- goats into a semi-trailer and a gooseneck stock trailer. We started at 5:30 a.m. and finished just before 7:30. In addition to loading the goats, we packed up the herders’ camps, disassembled the corrals and loading chute, and took down electric fences - a busy and productive morning, to say the least!
As we were leaving, I heard an update on immigration reform on NPR. The legislation under consideration in the U.S. Senate would allow more guest workers - both highly skilled and unskilled, according to the reporter. A follow-up story made the point that sheepherders were among the unskilled workers addressed by the legislation.
I've worked with guest-worker herders from Peru for three seasons now. Much of my own work on a day-to-day basis closely resembles the work that my Peruvian friends DiDi, Jhonal, Jhonny and Edwin do. I wouldn't call it unskilled by any stretch - while I couldn't do computer programming, I have no doubt that most software engineers (foreign or otherwise) could not do the work that I do!
As the day progressed, I tried to break down my work into jobs or tasks that non-shepherds would understand. Here's what I do - perhaps not every day, but certainly during the course of a year:
· Animal behaviorist
· Dog trainer
· Ovine midwife
· Range ecologist
· Marketing specialist
· Web designer
· Chief executive officer (of Flying Mule Farm Worldwide Enterprises)
· Fencing contractor
· Truck driver
· Chef (at least in terms of recipe development)
While this list is not all-inclusive, it is representative of the variety of competencies that small-scale farmers and farmer workers must possess. The work of farming and ranching – of producing food and fiber – requires people who are flexible and who can think on their feet. It requires problem solvers. My friend Roger Ingram, who is the livestock farm advisor for our county, relates a similar experience at the ranch he’s visited in Argentina. The hired hands at that ranch, says Roger, “can barely read or write, but they have the ability to follow a grazing plan, treat sick cattle, manage calving, make minor repairs to a windmill, etc.”
Jim Muck, who farms vegetables in Wheatland, California, puts it this way: “Farmers and ranchers have to be generalists and have the ability to see patterns and make decisions based on what they see, hear, feel, and touch. We use skills that cannot be taught in a classroom, but must be learned by doing and experiencing.”
Someone with a college education might be highly skilled in an office environment, but totally lost on a 130,000 acre ranch in Argentina that is 2 hours from the closest town. They might also be totally lost on a 500 acre ranch (like mine) that’s just 5 minutes from town. To me, the term “unskilled labor” suggests that as a society, we don’t value the skills and knowledge necessary to provide our daily nourishment, our clothing or our shelter.
Watching the herders work these last few years, all I can say is - unskilled labor my foot!