Just another day on the farm
Vail CO, Colorado
My mate Jack is a better driver than me. His gap-toothed smile and blond head barely clear the top of the steering wheel, and he gets leverage from a pillow or pile of clothes. Then he’s off down a dusty track, shifting from neutral to first, then first to second. I can drive stick, but with nowhere near as much consistency. Oh, and did I mention that Jack is only seven?
Jack probably doesn’t even know that he’s already part of the workforce, but he is ” and part of the global one, at that. He ” as well as his three older sisters, none of them older than 15 ” learned to drive as a wee kid so that his dad could feed out off the back of the truck while cruising along at a steady pace. Many farmers can do this themselves by putting the truck in gear, then jamming a broom handle or a brick against the accelerator to keep the car moving, however, this can result in trucks careening through paddocks at breakneck speed with no one in position to stop them. Therefore, kids like Jack provide a much safer alternative than having a phantom driver at the wheel.
I’ve been hanging out with Jack and his family at the farm this week, and I of course wish that it was my life, although I realize that my position as an outsider affords me an idyllic view of things. Farming is a business, and just because you may live in a pretty place and spend your days making sure that your animals are well-fed and looked after, you are never immune to the cutthroat, competitive, thankless, always-at-the-mercy-of-the-Man forces that dominate the industry. It is also dirty and exhausting work, which is what I got a taste of my first day on the job.
It was shearing day on the farm, and what a sight that was to behold. Sheep shearing is quite the operation, and as I watched, I chatted with some of the wool handlers (the girls who keep the floor clean by sweeping away and gathering fleeces, as well as tidying up the wool before it got tossed into the press) and learned a bit about the trade. Talk about skill and precision! The shearers need to work quickly and efficiently, and they do so by handling the sheep in a particular way so that it stays still and then starting in with the clippers in a specific order (belly first). It’s one ewe after the other, with a break for lunch and a smoke, and then full-on through the hot afternoon. After the sheep is shorn, it gets booted out of the woolshed through a little trapdoor, and it then does a little flying leap into the paddock. Quite funny to watch, actually. After the sheep come leaping into the world, their freshly-exposed skin pink and tender in the sunlight, we need to give them their vitamins. That is, we are going to drench them.
I am given a little hard-shelled plastic backpack with a tube and squirt gun attached, not unlike what you’d see a landscaper using with pesticide or plant food. In the pack we put a drench mixture of vitamins and minerals, as well as an anti-worming agent.
Each sheep needs a shot of this purple stuff before they are released back into the paddock. We fill up a chute with sheep, and then hop in. The sheep are obviously not pleased to have humans straddling them and shoving a little metal tube into their mouths, so it requires a good deal of strength on my part to simultaneously get their mouths open and also keep a knee firmly at their backside so they don’t turn and run out before they get dosed. I felt a bit like a dentist with an insolent child as a patient, except these kids happened to be covered in nicks and scratches from the recent shearing, and when I was done with the first batch I was covered in sheep blood, snot and grime. No worries, though; I hopped on the back of Jack’s motorbike, and he took me down to the lake for a swim. Just another day on the farm.
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