Letter from Saskatchewan
Let's talk sheep, madam secretary

By Paul Beingessner


Meet Paul

Saskatchewan farmer Paul Beingessner has missed only a handful of deadlines in writing a weekly column during the past eight years. He covers Canadian agriculture from a High Plains perspective. His straight-talk style informs readers about corporate influence in national and international agriculture, national ag politics on both sides of the border, and why some farmers do the things they do. Click here for more information about Paul.


TRUAX, Saskatchewan, Canada, January 21, 2004:

Dear Secretary Veneman,

I sat down today and decided I would have to write a letter directly to you. It's come to this because all the pleas to the flunkies around you seem to have fallen on deaf ears. I guess I'm not the only one who knows how hard it is to get good help.

When you saw the Canadian stamp on the envelope, you likely figured right away I was writing about this whole mad cow business. But before you dismiss me like the Japanese did to you Americans, let me tell you that I don't have a big beef with you over our cows. Well, actually I do, but that isn't the purpose of this letter. We'll save that for another time, preferably after time has put a bit of space between us and the cow from Washington state.

It’s sheep that concern me today. You see, when you closed the border to our cattle, in an "abundance of caution", you also cut off our sheep exports. Sheep, it seems, have the same number of stomachs as cows. Now, I can't figure out the connection between wasted brains and multiple stomachs, but it appears there must be one, because the bureaucrats who set the rules between our countries lumped cows and sheep together.

I can see why you did what you did about banning our cattle. At least initially, I mean. After all, we did it to everyone else, so we can't expect much different when the shoe is on the other hoof. And I did appreciate that you started letting in boneless cuts of beef. It brought the price of cattle up a bit here. Now, if only I had sold my calves then… My defense for missing that boat is that I was following the advice of Harlan Hughes, an American cattle specialist, who said I would stand to cash in big when the border reopens.

Now that the border opening to live cattle looks remote again, I need to figure out what to do about those calves. I've got a few options here. Well, one really… it's to background them until next fall and sell them as yearlings. Doesn't do much for the cash flow, but at least it delays the problem.

But I gotta tell you that the real trouble is with my sheep. It may be news to you, but sheep don't keep. I can't throw my lambs on pasture and sell them as long yearlings next year. In about three more months, they won't be lambs any more. Once they hit one year old, they'll be sheep. As far as the market is concerned, any sheep is an old sheep. While old sheep may be great to count when you can't get to sleep, no one wants to eat them. Well, no one except the folks in the country to the south of you.

The people in Mexico seem to have quite a liking for Canadian sheep. They'll take all the cull ewes and rams we send them, and even pay a decent price. Trouble is, we can't get them there, because your country is in the way. Not only can we not sell our lambs to you, we can't even ship our sheep across your country in a truck! There's no pulling the wool over your eyes on this one, either. Nothing gets by your border guards anymore. Heck, my truck-driving brother-in-law was even forced to down his roast beef sandwich before your gun-totting border patrol would let him take his reefer into your country.

I know sheep don't make much news down there. Nor up here either, for that matter. Maybe it’s because admitting in public that you raise sheep just gets all those tired old jokes going, so us shepherds are pretty quiet folk. Meek as lambs you might say. But just because we're not flocking to the streets doesn't mean you should ignore us. Sheep producers are taking a pretty bad bleating here, and we don't even have the options the guys with cattle have.

And the real irony is that everyone knows sheep don't get mad cow disease. In fact, I'm willing to bet even you and the pencil pushers at the USDA know that. So, what possible reason can you have for keeping the border closed to our lambs? With the stroke of a pen you could make this baaad business all right again. If you don't, I might be forced, like a true Canadian, to send you another letter full of bad puns. Lord knows, we could all do without that.

Regards,
Paul Beingessner


© Paul Beingessner, beingessner@sasktel.net . The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.