HARRISBURG, Pa, (WHTM) — Austin Dean is a longtime Carlisle resident who was forced to move back home from New York City after his college campus was closed due to COVID-19.
Frustrated with the sudden turn of events, he struggled to adjust to the new lifestyle of being away from his friends and taking classes online.
However, one day, Austin was introduced to an “eye-opening” and “therapeutic experience” in a place be never expected to find it.
This is Austin’s story as told by him:
About a month ago, I moved home to Carlisle from New York City when my last semester of college was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. As I was adjusting to online classes, life away from my friends, and a future filled with uncertainty, a neighbor stopped by my family’s farm. He told me he was looking for someone to feed and water his flock of a hundred sheep a few nights a week. When I took him up on the offer, I could never have imagined how eye-opening and therapeutic the experience would be.
Ben Shughart, 28, lives with his wife, Kayla, and their extended family on Rockledge Farms, home of The Center Cut Company, in Newville. His work at a local butcher shop is classified as essential, and he moonlights as a sheep-shearer, which means his day-to-day life has largely stayed the same since Governor Wolf’s stay-at-home order took effect. Like many local farmers, the Shugharts raise and sell all kinds of livestock—sheep for wool, lambs for slaughter, rabbits, laying hens, meat chickens, cows—in the time they can find in the mornings, nights, and weekends. Ben asked me to cover for him on the days he shears until late, sometimes getting home after 9 p.m., to keep his flock healthy and lighten his workload.
Even though I’ve lived in rural Pennsylvania since I was young, the livelihoods of our farmer neighbors were always something of a mystery to me. At Rockledge, I’ve gotten my first exposure to the vibrant inner workings of a livestock farm, part of the backbone of Central PA’s agricultural economy. Early each morning, Ben and Kayla bottle-feed weeks-old lambs who have been rejected by their mothers and turn the ewes out to pasture. Every evening, they herd their flock back inside and distribute a hundred pounds of dried corn, several bales of hay, and fresh water with electrolytes. They give sick ewes shots of antibiotics, bottle-feed the youngest lambs again, and feed grain with probiotic powder to the older ones. Their rams, in a separate enclosure, get their own hay and water. Once a week, they chase down three or four lambs for slaughter, which is about as easy, I’ve learned, as teaching a dog to read. And come summertime, they’ll be feeding and watering meat chickens in addition to hunting for the five or six dozen eggs their laying hens hide in the barn every day.
The Shugharts, who both work full-time, take care of their animals every night when they get home before they feed or entertain themselves. Taking on these tasks just a few times a week has given me immense respect for the physical and mental strength necessary to keep so many stubborn beings alive. Wading through a sea of a hundred hungry sheep all yelling for the corn in my bucket requires a bodybuilder’s thighs, a stern but steady hand, and endless perseverance. Helping out the Shugharts has taught me humility and gratitude for all the local farmers who work tirelessly, for insufficient pay, so our supermarkets and our bellies can stay full of food. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work on their farm, but in my opinion, it’s a travesty that Ben and Kayla work full-time, while also farming full-time, in order to make ends meet. Agriculture is essential not just for Pennsylvanians but for all Americans, and our farmers deserve to be compensated accordingly.
Like so many of us who have lost our jobs, our routines, and more, the absence of normalcy in my life has left me worried and frustrated. But helping the Shugharts carry on with business as usual has been a healthy reminder that this pandemic, too, shall pass. It has also given me a place to be, chores to keep me busy, and time and space to connect with a part of our local economy which is all too easy to overlook. If you’re getting cabin fever in quarantine, I would suggest you ask your neighbors (from a safe social distance) what you can do to help them out. You never know what skills or respect you might learn—and what benefits you might reap.