Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sharing the Work

For much of the year, the work of raising grazing livestock on rangeland can be solitary. At the small scale of our operation, most of the day-to-day work of caring for our sheep is done alone. During the summer months, I irrigate our pastures and take care of our lamb flock; my partner Roger takes care of the ewes. We only work together every couple of weeks. On larger sheep operations - and on many beef cattle operations - the daily work takes place in isolation - a herder or a cowboy, on most days, will work by him (or her) self. The marginal economics of rangeland agriculture, I suspect, is largely responsible for this solitude - there simply isn't enough income to be derived from grazing livestock on large landscapes to justify a huge crew.

Because most of our work is done in our own company, those times of year when we work together are especially enjoyable. I'm reminded of this every year at shearing time. Shearing day, for us as for most sheep operations of any size, is an intense day of hard work. It's also a day when we work - and laugh - together. We share a meal. We enjoy a beer when the work is done. Everyone pitches in. Branding day, in my experience, is the cattle ranching equivalent. Neighbors, friends and family work hard, side by side, and share a meal when the work is done.

I was reminded this week that there are other times in the production year when sharing the work is important. Roger and I were invited to help some friends ship ewes and turn out on National Forest land north of Truckee. We met the first load at the allotment; we followed the trucks back to Virginia City to help load the second half of the band. My friend Emilio Huarte, the ranch foreman, talked about how much he enjoyed shipping days in the past. "All the old Basque guys would come and help," he said. "Some of the guys would stay in camp and cook all day. I miss those times - most of those guys are gone now."

Later in the week, I had occasion to talk with some old family friends in Sonora (where I grew up) about their memories of driving cattle to the mountains. Dick Geiser, who played softball with my Dad when I was a little kid, remembered herding their cows up Phoenix Lake Road past the house where I grew up. "It took 5 or 6 of us to keep the cattle moving and out of people's yards," he told me. Like Emilio, he missed those times.

I sometimes wonder if our fast-paced world makes sharing the work more difficult. How many of us can take 2 or 3 days away from our "real" work to cook for the crew in sheep camp on shipping day? How many of us could take 5 or 6 days off work to walk a herd of cattle to the mountains? And yet as I think about these conversations over the last week, I'm realizing that working together is important for many reasons. Working together allows us to learn from one another. Working together helps a younger generation learn and an older generation share its wisdom. Working together creates the memories and happiness that can make the long stretches of solitude bearable. If I'm invited to help Emilio again, I'll volunteer to cook for the camp!

After I returned from helping ship the sheep, I shared a text conversation with a younger friend who ranches here in Auburn. Joe Fischer manages a purebred cattle operation and runs a few sheep on the side. Joe and his family have helped us at shearing for the last several years. We both agreed that learning to work together was a value we hoped our kids would learn. We both agreed to be more mindful about finding time to share our work.

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