Sheep farming 101: At the water cooler

They drift together in the January chill, their heavy jackets, hats, coveralls and boots a palette of rich, earth tones. Behind them, rows of pickup trucks stand guard, the array of chrome grills proof that farmers are equal opportunity when it comes to machinery purchases. Newcomers arrive, gravel crunching under heavy tires.

The soothing cadence of dozens of different conversations ebbs and flows as they trade reports on the wet weather, prices of grain and the latest on oil and gas leases. A hodge-podge of wares surround them. Gallons of apple cider. Fifty-pound bags of grain. Piles of freshly cut firewood. Cattle sorting equipment. Squat towers of hay and straw.

It’s almost time.

A couple minutes after noon, one man adjusts his seed cap and raises his voice, instantly shifting into a sharp, rapid-fire monotone.

The auction has begun.

The water cooler

It’s a routine that’s repeated every week, although the past few years have taken their toll. The whitewashed sale barn is now a mottled grey, the paint peeling. The gravel parking lot isn’t as full as in years past. The sales have shrunk.

Despite the beating it has taken, it still represents something to farmers: community.

And perhaps that’s part of what keeps it going – it’s a tangible reminder that in spite of the often-solitary independence inherent in farming, there is still a need for a “water cooler,” a place to gather, shoot the breeze, share the frustrations and the victories.

Global ‘community’

As we waited to bid on straw, I realized as many times as I’ve been through this routine, I’ve also seen this played out elsewhere.

Like Australia.

In 2004, I traveled through New South Wales with a sheep industry group. As part of the trip, we stopped at a typical Australian livestock auction. I can’t even convey the size – suffice it to say, even in a somewhat depleted economy then, there were hundreds of cattle and thousands of sheep for sale. I wrote about the trip (which included some time in New Zealand) here.

Or Haiti.

In August 2010, I traveled there to do a magazine story on an NGO focused on water purification. The end result is here.

As our truck rattled along a dusty road from Leogane to the mountains to distribute water purification systems, we passed a gathering of people and cattle. As the scene flashed by, it was identified as a cattle auction (there was just enough time to snap a couple of photos). In the midst of the rubble from the earthquake eight months earlier, it seemed to be a nod to the country’s agricultural roots and an attempt at normalcy. 

Ohio. Australia. Haiti. Three different scenes, worlds away from each other – but all with the same goal.

At each, farmers – large and small – gather. They share news and swap gossip. They evaluate the goods and livestock on hand. It’s their community.

Community comes in different forms, and no matter what form it takes, it’s important. It’s what makes us human. Over the years, I’ve come to treasure it – and I’m thankful for the reminders of that importance, no matter where they are on the map.


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