Now that only “necessary” workers are to continue at their jobs, we have learned that “necessary” can be very basic. The world turns on the backs of truckers, plumbers, mechanics, waiters, janitorial staff, railroad workers, quick stop employees, cooks, and teachers, among many others. None of the medical personnel, the office staff, eating establishments, schools—the list is endless—could function without the people who keep the workplace clean. We take for granted that the medical community will be there when needed, that fire calls will be answered, that the lights will stay on, the garbage will be hauled away, and the grocery store stocked. We assume someone will pick up when we call 911, and that the mail will arrive on time. 

Some of my family can work from home, but most have to show up. The truckers have kept on trucking. The human service personnel are a mixed bag—some can work via the internet; others have to be on site. Duties haven’t changed for the granddaughter who’s employed at a quick stop and service station. The teachers are working harder than ever to educate students online. Our construction worker hasn’t missed a day, but his wife was laid off when the pre-school closed. Now she’s homeschooling two elementary students and learning to appreciate the real teacher. One family member works at a meat packing place. Guess which one I worry about most. County officials have even more to address than normal. Some of that business can happen on zoom, but a lot has to be hands-on. Farmers are out in the fields, but social distancing is easy on a tractor. Ranchers go to work at all times of the night and day, especially in spring.

Which brings me to branding. Even in years like this one, when the market is in tatters, we stay up nights to calve out cows, and those calves eventually have to be branded. It’s a job that requires help, and suddenly we have a list of necessary folks and the dilemma of deciding how to protect everyone. People are addressing this in various ways. Some rent or buy a calf table, which is a device that catches the calf and places it in position to be branded. This is efficient, although a lot slower than having several ropers and sets of wrestlers.

Others will brand on many different days with just family to do the work. Some will hire high school kids instead of asking neighbors to risk exposure. But other procedures go along with branding; vaccinations, castrating, and running the iron. These require a worker with some experience and skill, usually older neighbors. So, on the home place we will hire a crew of high schoolers, but some neighbors who need to trade help with us in order to do their own brandings will be present too.

Branding generally means a big festive meal, but this year it’s hamburgers on the grill and one server wearing gloves and mask while dishing up individual plates, and seeing that the chow line maintains social distance. Some ranches are just handing out sack lunches and sending the crew on their way. Ordinarily, older neighbors who are unable to handle the manual labor are still expected to come for the meal and visiting. This year they are disinvited, as are relatives and friends from near and far, who show up, sometimes for the weekend. This is nice for the cooks, except that it’s customary for neighbor women to bring a side dish and help with serving. Not this time. When the dust settles, it’ll be interesting to see what new ranch customs appear, but I hope that neighboring will always continue.

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