Humble with Gratitude on National Ag Day

Today is #NationalAgDay. Doing the itty piddly bit of ag work I do has changed my life and my mind about a lot of things during the past four years. It has corrected a lot of my urban, uninformed, mainstream misconceptions.

It is quite an experience to be on the receiving end of those misconceptions, too, what with PETA telling the world that shearing means I skin animals alive. Here are some before and after photos from my Saturday morning shearing that depict reality.

Before:

 

After:

I view the organic label differently now. There are certified organic pesticides that will kill a sheep if ingested and that I don’t recommend for anyone. I have seen sheep suffer for that label, skinny and desperately sick and in need of antibiotics they do not receive. By contrast, I’ve sheared “feed lot” animals that have a much better quality of life than farm animals. Things are just not as simple as the grocery store labels want to make them look.

I know smaller, local meat processing facilities with a dozen or so (deserved and appropriate, believe me) citations from various regulatory agencies, but folks don’t criticize them and save the vitriol for the large processor who does a far better job. They can tell you precisely how long it takes (down to the day or hour) for a certain something to make its way out of a sheep’s system.

I am exhausted by folks who can only conceive of all animals as pets to serve (in most cases) emotional human needs, and do not appreciate the incredible work they do in protection and herding. I am heartbroken when I hear that an uninformed person saw a friend’s herding dog in a truck bed, outside in the rain, and called the police. Never mind that the dog worked all day outside in the rain, is fine, and would hate to be confined indoors. That person literally cannot conceive of a working dog.

I wish banks and health insurance companies were regulated to a fraction of the degree that farms are. A fraction.

I hear a lot about unregulated immigrant labor, but I have yet to witness it. I know the H2-A visa program well, and it is more tightly regulated than you can imagine. I have learned so, so, SO much from the Peruvian shepherds I have met, the living stewards of unbroken generations of a shepherding tradition that this country largely abandoned decades ago. No, there are not Americans to do this work. Ask ag companies how many Americans they go through (10, 15, 20) before they finally give up and get some highly qualifed H2-A workers.

You know how many people go to shearing school and actually want to work as shearers afterward? Not many. You know how many white folks I see working the vineyards during the crush? A handful, maybe two. And that’s when there is plenty of overtime pay and it’s not a bad deal.

I have seen the bias at banks of all sizes, unwilling to lend money to a rural business with a sound, airtight business case but perfectly willing to hand over a jumbo mortgage or a loan for yet another food delivery app.

Because the banks will not loan, money to start rural businesses must come from elsewhere. This new administration has proposed budget cuts of $95 million to USDA Rural Development programs, and cuts of more than $4 billion to USDA Ag programs overall. These cuts would take us back to the 1978 USDA budget, when I was a baby.

The USDA Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program has been critical to the small but promising growth in U.S. wool production and to re-establishing wool textile manufacturing back on our shores. In northern California, funds from this program have helped to support the production of California wool cloth (grown in Modoc County and woven into twill fabric at Huston Textile, a business started by an Iraq veteran), wool batting and bedding, and more. Big brands, small artisans, and home hobbyists are all interested these products and paying premiums for them.

Just when things look promising and have some momentum, and wool producers start to see some benefit, here comes this 1978-level USDA budget. Last year, in 2016 fiscal, the USDA VAPG program had $44 million of grant funds available. This year, it has just $11 million available. I need to know why. I struggle to understand why an Iraq war veteran starting a mill should not receive support from the government he defended.

People often ask me when I am going to get sheep and land of my own. After four years working with livestock and doing some farm sitting (awake all night believing that if there is one night the coyote or mountain lion will come, it will happen the nights that I’m responsible), I usually say “Uh uh. It’s too hard. I’ll stick with shearing. It’s easier.” And it’s not easy.

To everyone who chooses the harder path, day after drought or flooded or wildfire day, thank you. I absolutely bow down to you on #NationalAgDay.

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