Sheep (and ranchers) Find No Home on the Range


Seth Victor

From the tone of the NY Times article, John Bartmann doesn’t sound like a bad man. Though some readers might demonize him because he is involved in animal farming, this isn’t the CEO of a major industrial producer, and it would be inaccurate to lump him in under the same heading. I expect Mr. Bartmann knows a thing or two about sheep husbandry, and likely has his own grievances with the CAFO industry. Still, his plight is indicative of the complicated issues surrounding modern farming, and is not free from critique. The decline of the modern rancher, especially in the drought of 2012, highlights many of the problems with food in the United States, through both animal and environmental perspectives.

Let’s start with the animals. Mr. Bartmann is one of several thousand ranchers for whom sheep are business. This is a smaller operation, which means that each animal has a value that is going to determine if Mr. Bartmann breaks even, gets a small profit, or has to go further into debt. Though I don’t know how his ranch works, I would hazard a guess that his situation forces him to pay attention to the welfare of his animals, whether through necessity or humane inclinations. But, not to get caught up in the mythos of the rancher-cowboy, the American knights so steeped in mysticism and romance, let us not forget that this is a business that depends on killing the animals to be effective. Therein lies a problem.

As the article notes, ranchers like Mr. Bartmann are held at the mercy of a few select feedlots that will buy his animals for slaughter; “the top four companies control about 65 percent of the market for lamb and as much as 85 percent of the market for cows.” Ranchers are forced into situations akin to the robber baron days of the late 19th century. The buyers control the prices, and the ranchers have to take what they can get. The sheep do, too, which means no matter how kind a rancher they started with, they will be in a concentrated feedlot at the end. Though sheep aren’t quite as packed as chickens, it’s at least more concentrated than the bucolic pastures we’d like to imagine. Given the Matthew Staver for The New York TimesFDA regulations that favor big business, even if Mr. Bartmann wanted to slaughter his own sheep, the amount he would be forced to invest in the facilities to do so would almost certainly drive him to ruin. With feed prices rising and a buying market that is (perhaps) artificially keeping the worth of sheep low, the independent ranchers that are left are being forced out of their livelihoods. Before any lamb advocates cheer, consider that as long as there is a market for mutton and mint jelly, sheep will be raised for food, and a vacuum of independent ranchers will be filled with the large agribusinesses that remains.

While the plight of the ranchers is regrettable, we cannot avoid questioning whether they should even be there in the first place. As our hero has explained, the west, especially the southwest, is the setting of the misapplication of the Jeffersonian yeoman ideal, the belief that a family farmer can overcome the adversity of nature, and by divine providence tame the land to produce crops. In this instance we have ranchers producing sheep, but at the same whim of what was once called the Great American Desert. The closed-circuit water resources in the west cannot sustain our current farming, both of plants and animals, and they haven’t been able to for a long time. Though climate change is contributing to this recent trial, our continent is fickle, and is known to go through droughts. The more we develop the west, however, the worse each subsequent drought will be in terms of economic disaster to the GDP and individuals. This devastation makes the damage from Katrina and Sandy miniscule in comparison; there just isn’t a roller coaster in the water for you to see the danger. Much has been made about the billions of dollars New York and New Jersey have requested in federal assistance over the last month, but there is hardly any media coverage on the billions and billions needed annually as a matter of course to keep farming and ranching on life support.

Let’s not lose our perspective on the sheep, either. No matter which way you look at it, the sheep get the short end of this catastrophe, and it is a catastrophe. Under the best conditions, they are still getting sold for slaughter, even if we entertain the idea of a humane life somewhere on the road from lamb to lamb chop. Under current conditions, we have young lambs dying in the drought, others being imported from New Zealand and fairing about the same, and Mr. Bartmann having to “[trim] his flock of 2,000 by one-third.” Trim? 2,000 were heading for the feedlots anyway. Does this mean 667 sheep were killed before they were market ready for no profit and no food? Animal advocate or not, that is a senseless waste of life.

Western farming and ranching is a complex mess, much more complicated than this post even begins to explore. Suffice to say, the plight of the sheep ranchers could be a poster for the importance of reform in our food infrastructure,  without even getting into the problems inherent in CAFOs. Here is a problem that is tied to the land we so desperately try to manipulate, and here is a climate that cannot support our luxuries. We often note how the raising of animals affects the environment; here is the environment affecting the way we raise animals, but it is obvious that both are inexorably linked. If we have a hope of saving the sheep, the ranchers, and, frankly, our country, we need to figure this one out quickly, and stop simply treating the symptoms.

6 Responses

  1. Whenever I find myself especially liking the prose of an article on this blog, I look to the by-line and it’s more often than not Seth’s name that I see there. Thanks, and I look forward to reading more of your work!

  2. Clicking on the Times article, I see, on the left side, the amiable face of rancher John Bartmann peering at me out of his truck’s rolled-down window.

    Just below that photo, I see the sweet faces of lambs in the feedlot peering at me through wooden fence slats.

    I feel for Mr. Bartmann. As the Times story makes clear, he was born to be a sheep rancher. Given the circumstances of his youth and the time in which he grew up, he had no choice. I’m sure Mr. Bartmann works hard to support his family. He doesn’t look like someone who deserves to take a financial hard “hit,” to use his word.

    And yet . . . and yet I cannot fully sympathize with him and the 80,000 other U.S. farmers who raise lambs and sell them to feedlots for finishing and killing.

    That’s because I feel even more — ever so much more — for the little lambs and their mothers.

    Their perspective is completely ignored in the Times piece. They are treated like the “absent referent,” as Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, calls the “terminal animals” used in the food industry to produce milk, eggs, and flesh.

    When I was compiling Creature Quotes three years ago, I received permission from a kind British photographer to use several of his works. Then I timorously asked him if I could feature another one of his photos — of a lamb — next to a quote written by Scottish poet, philosopher and social critic John Oswald (1755-1793). I was sure he’d turn down my request after reading the quote. But to my surprise, delight, and relief, he gave the green light. At the end of his email, he remarked that the quote’s sentiments didn’t change his mind, that he would continue to eat lamb and feature plates of meat on his Flickr page. That callous-sounding remark shocked me then, and it shocks me now. How could anyone enjoy capturing the white-wooled essence of innocence in their camera lens and then go home and cook up the flesh of a baby lamb?

    If you’d like to read Oswald’s haunting description of a pitiful mother sheep moaning for her missing lamb and see the accompanying photo, you’ll find them on p. 6 of Chap. 8:

    Yes, Seth, I agree that a solution to the climate crisis cannot come too quickly. Not just because the sheep “get the short end of this catastrophe.” But because they get the short end of the stick every day, and have for thousands of years. It’s unjust, and we cannot afford to be unjust to anyone any more. When we ignore the plight of others, we are being unjust not only to them, but to ourselves. And we pay for our ig-nor-ance and our injustice. We pay in the form of deteriorating ethics, destroyed environment, and devastated economy. These are effects of our refusal to express compassion to all. In other words, the looming crisis is, first and foremost, a moral and spiritual one. And its answer is, above all, a moral and spiritual one.

  3. I have sheep here at the farm sanctuary. I want all to know that they equal any companion animal, like dogs/cats for sweetness, intelligence and There is no humane ranching, all of these dear sheep suffer untimely ends at the same slaughter kill factories as CAFO animals. The other myth is that sheep are stupid and why not, if they are given their worth it would disrupt the sheep industry.
    We thoroughly enjoy spending treasured time with the resident sheep here at our farmed animal sanctuary. We love and appreciate their kind with their friendly, plus intelligent ways. I love that they too eat a plant-based diet and are the best companions ever to sooth a human’s heart! At the very least, dear readers, PLEASE do not buy dog food with lamb meat for your own companion carnivore pets ( we have 3 dogs we feed veg dog food to), and remember that these lovely souls are as equal to your dog or cat or horse, so it’s like feeding a dog to a dog, if they do eat lamb-meat based pet food.

  4. I so agree with Montanavegan. In fact, her lovely comments about the sweet nature and intelligence of her sanctuary’s sheep reminds me of the sheep featured in Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home.

    If you haven’t seen that DVD yet, MV, it’s a treat! In fact, the website ( says you can buy 10 copies at half-price and sell them (in your store) at full price. That’d be a great way to raise more money to feed your woolly herbivores!

    By the way, I made a Christmas donation to your sanctuary a few days ago. And I encourage other BLAWG readers to do so; it’s the only sanctuary for “farmed” animals in the entire state of Montana!

    And another “by the way”: I have V-dog ( shipped to my sister’s dog, Missy. My sister loves it, because I pay the bulk of the bill, and Missy loves it, because it’s so yummy and hearty! One advantage is that Missy doesn’t eat as much of the V-dog as she did her previous (animal-derived) food, which was not as nutritious or filling or compassionate (to anyone).

  5. I have a difficult time understanding the position on not feeding lamb to carnivorous pets. As long as people still eat sheep and lambs, the unwanted body parts will continue to exist whether or not we turn them into dog and cat food. For the most part, farm animals are not specifically raised to supply dog and cat food companies.

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