Op-ed: The Forgotten Essential Workers

Life during the COVID-19 pandemic – if I told you to go read the story I wrote about how it has impacted me, your expectations would probably be something close to this: my life had been turned upside down, everything is different, and I’m experiencing something completely unprecedented.

At least, that’s the story I’ve gotten from most of the people I’ve asked. I have friends that went from living on their own, working a full-time job, and living their best life to being back at home with their parents, unable to leave the confining walls of their childhood home, and searching for creative alternative options for toilet paper. Some of them aren’t lucky enough to go back to their childhood home. Some of them don’t have a home to go back to and they’re alone.

That’s a pretty big shift in a little over a month, I would say. But if that was your expectation about what my personal experience has been like – you’d be wrong. Life for me during the COVID-19 has been a lot like going back in time a few years. Or, in other words, going home; because my home is on a ranch in Texas.

I am what my industry calls a fifth-generation rancher. My family has been raising cattle since 1895. I grew up in a way that a lot of people don’t understand, because only about 2% of the U.S. population lives like my family does. That 2% represents American farmers and ranchers; people who dedicate their entire lives to feeding the world in meat and crops, providing cotton and wool and leather, and countless other goods. The intricate ins and outs of what it takes to be a farmer or rancher could fill countless books – so it’s not something I will attempt to do. But I would like to point out the essential work that people in agriculture do, that oftentimes goes unnoticed. The work is always essential, but it’s especially important in times of crisis. Ranchers and farmers don’t take time-off; they can’t stay home. They have constant responsibilities, and it’s their care and commitment to these responsibilities that keep your pantry stocked.

Right now, universities and schools and places of business have been closed all over the country; basically everything but hospitals and grocery stores have been shut down. Almost everyone has been ordered to stay home. Despite all of this, not much has changed about the day-to-day life of a rancher or farmer, because their jobs can’t be put on hold. Animals and crops that need care don’t know what state stay-at-home orders mean. Beyond this, many live miles from town, and practice very self-sufficient lifestyles. So the majority of people in agriculture are used to what others call “isolation.” Not much has changed…except that their jobs may be more important now than ever before. With projections that the economy will continue to plunge due to shut downs, the jobs of farmers and ranchers are vital. Feeding the nation and the world in times of crisis is not an option. Food banks and grocery stores having access to produce is non-negotiable. So while most of the world is out of work, farmers and ranchers will continue to do what they’ve always done: step up and sacrifice to provide. The pandemic has presented challenges to the agriculture industry undoubtedly; it has served to make a difficult job more difficult. But the industry will adapt and adjust in order to continue to serve.

There has been a lot of talk recently about sacrifices that essential workers are making during this time; like healthcare workers, and grocery store managers and shelf stockers. And there has been much gratitude shown toward them, as there absolutely should be. But what I haven’t heard a lot of during this pandemic is gratitude toward farmers and ranchers, because it seems that people can think far enough to thank the person that stocks the shelf with the item that they need to feed their family, but they fail to think of the person that worked day in and day out to make that product available to the grocery store. Or the nurse can be grateful for the medical mask that helps protect them from the virus that has caused such destruction, but they fail to think about the year of hard work that went into growing and harvesting the cotton that the mask is made of. There are a lot of essential jobs that have been overlooked and gone unrecognized and unappreciated during this pandemic. I point to these jobs in agriculture because I have a special connection to that industry, but there are countless jobs that I have overlooked only looking at my own world. So perhaps this can merely stand as a reminder to continue to thank those working in healthcare and grocery stores, but to also try our best to think of all the other people sacrificing their time, and sometimes even their safety, to provide for us during this time. And the next time you go to the store, or put on a pair of leather shoes, or eat a piece of meat, think of the sacrifices that were made in order to make that product available to you – and then thank a farmer or rancher.

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