Utah Farm Draws a Rare Breed: The American Shepherd

Utah Farm Draws a Rare Breed: The American Shepherd
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Utah Farm Draws a Rare Breed: The American Shepherd

Utah Farm Draws a Rare Breed: The American Shepherd

DIXIE NATIONAL FOREST, Utah – “The goal is to graze them,” said Scott Stubbs as he watched the 1,470 ewes and lambs chewing on the dandelions, clover and grasses of Castle Valley. “Fill them up, which makes them big.”

Mr. Stubbs, a fifth-generation sheep farmer in southern Utah, didn’t expect to give a hands-on Shepherd seminar this summer, but he was stuck. He needed a second experienced shepherd, and the one to arrive in the spring from Peru did not get approval for a special agricultural visa. Now, backlogs at some foreign passport offices and US consulates – made worse by the pandemic – were delaying a replacement.

That’s why Mr Stubbs ended up hiring Duane Rogers last month, a type of worker rarer than a blue lamb in these areas: a newbie born in the United States and eager to herd sheep.

Labor shortages are common this summer, especially in Utah, where the unemployment rate is 2.7%. The Cedar City Marriott didn’t have enough housekeepers to do daily housekeeping, and Denny’s outside Beaver had a sign on the door asking guests to be patient with understaffed staff. But the predicament that Mr. Stubbs and farmers like him face is older and more serious.

“Nobody wants this type of work,” Mr. Stubbs said of ranching and farm work. And most U.S.-born workers haven’t wanted it for a long time – at least at the wages most farmers say they can afford. That’s why more than 200,000 temporary foreign farm workers, mostly from Mexico, were allowed to enter the United States last year to pick cherries, tomatoes and tobacco or to tend livestock. The number of visas issued has more than tripled since 2011, and it increased in 2020 despite the pandemic, after food and agriculture workers were called essential labor.

Mr Stubbs, 54, started using the farm visa program, known as the H-2A, eight years ago. Through an agency, he hired a Peruvian, Ronal Leon Parejas, who is still with him.

Prior to that, other than family members or the occasional high school student who stepped in for a few weeks, the only people in recent years willing to herd sheep were Native Americans or undocumented immigrants, Mr Stubbs said. This year, the Navajo Shepherd who worked for him needed knee surgery. At 68, he probably wouldn’t come back.

“You take out a small herd, but you can’t get labor,” said Mr. Stubbs, who raises his herd for both wool and meat. ” It hurts. “

Mr. Stubbs, who was 5 or 6 years old when his grandfather taught him how to move a herd from a meadow to a stream in the Federal Forest where his family has grazing rights since the 1800s, knows it is is hard and lonely work. His first month of breeding alone was after the eighth year. “I thought I was going to die,” he said, even though his mother drove to their farm nearly 20 miles away every day to watch him. “I lost 30 pounds in 30 days.”

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A shepherd should stay with the sheep 24 hours a day for a period of about 10 months in the open air, in sun and rain, hail and snow, as temperatures climb to 100 degrees or drop below freezing. The work day begins at sunrise and ends at sunset, although there may be nights when you have to help guard dogs scare off a coyote or puma. There are no weekends or holidays.

The H-2A program has been criticized for its low wages and lack of worker protection. For workers benefiting from the visa program, the salary is set by the government and has increased in recent years. In Utah, it’s $ 1,728 per month plus transportation, room, and board. In this case, the room is a 14ft by 8ft sheep wagon that has a bed, wood stove, gas grill, and cooler. Mr. Stubbs delivers the requested food – eggs, bacon, sandwich meat, bread, chips, cookies, soda, and cans of chili and corn – every few days, along with water.

And that’s the deal that Mr. Rogers agreed to three weeks ago. “I’m grateful Scott gave me a chance,” he said.

Mr. Rogers put on his beige leather gloves. “I like being in the mountains and I don’t mind being alone,” he said. His wife, whom he met a few years ago on Western Match, an online dating service for cowboys and country folk, lives in South Texas with her stepson and two step-grandchildren. -daughters. He arrived in Utah with five dogs and his father’s old saddle.

At 58, Mr. Rogers tried his hand at various jobs. He grew up in Hayden, Colorado, where his father owned a small farm and raised cattle and sheep. He served in the military for 12 years and toured Panama before joining the National Guard. In addition to raising cattle and working as a laborer on a ranch, he drove trucks, maintained highways, worked in construction, plowed snow, and looked after women and children who had been arrested at the border and locked up. in Immigration and Customs detention centers – a job he said he hated because of the conditions.

During a lengthy rehabilitation after a truck accident in 2017, Mr Rogers said, he spent a lot of time thinking about what he wanted to do. He had cared for small flocks of sheep in closed spaces, but the idea of ​​running a large flock in the open had always exerted a magnetic attraction. He was fascinated by nomadic life, and had watched dozens of documentaries about it. And he was delighted to train his dogs to keep sheep.

He was unemployed when he saw the ad on the state job site and applied.

“I love cattle, but sheep are a lot more entertaining,” and a lot smarter than people think, he said. “Lambs do some of the funniest things. In the morning, when they feel good, they will climb the rocks and play the king of the mountain.

The sheep offered a symphony of throaty bleating punctuated by hollow claws of bells hanging around their necks as Mr. Rogers and the dogs led them to a midday water break. As the sheep and lambs moved forward, they launched swarms of grasshoppers that can strip a green field faster than any flock. It’s one of the many hardships plaguing western farmers this season, with extreme heat and prolonged drought reducing crops and killing pastures.

The delay in hiring a second shepherd posed another challenge for Mr. Stubbs. Since he had no one to graze the sheep, he had to keep them on the farm, feeding them bales of hay that he could have sold otherwise.

For the past few weeks, his son Marty has helped train Mr. Rogers in animal husbandry, so he hasn’t been there to help his father with farm chores or run his own sheep shearing business. There are many days, Mr Stubbs said, where he and his teenage daughter ended up working until midnight.

One morning, Marty Stubbs saw a little white lamb that was not using its left hind leg. He followed her, threw a loop of rope and suddenly lassoed her hind legs. He jumped off a chestnut horse named Trigger and held the lamb, pushing his left knee against the belly of the animal. He examined the hind hoof, pushing with a knife to loosen a stuck stone or thorn.

Mr. Rogers took out a brown bottle of penicillin and a large syringe from his bag.

“How many CCs do you want?” ” He asked.

“Six,” Marty replied.

He closed his knife, took the needle and drove it into the lamb’s hindquarters, then marked the animal’s back with an orange line in chalk. He raised his knee and the lamb limped.

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“If you know where they’re going, that’s okay,” Marty said of tracking the sheep. “The problem is if you don’t know where they are and you have to find them.”

However, knowing where the herd is likely to be heading is something that only comes from experience. Mr. Parejas said it wasn’t until his fourth year that he really felt comfortable.

His herd was about 10 miles east of Mr. Rogers’, and he was about to take it across Highway 143, through thick clusters of pine and juniper, spruce and poplar. trembling aspen, up to Mount Haycock. As the sheep spread out on the road – they have the right of way – queues of cars and trucks set back on either side of the double yellow line, their passengers alternately irritated and enchanted by the woolly procession.

Mr Parejas, 32, has not been able to return to his own small farm in Peru or his 4-year-old son since February 2020, before the pandemic struck. He hopes to come in December, at the end of the season, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his efforts to get a green card – an award that would allow him to work and live in the United States without restrictions.

“It’s very hard and very lonely,” he said through a translator. “I miss my family.” Still, it’s better now than in his first two years, when he didn’t have a cell phone with WhatsApp and Facebook to keep in touch.

He remembers his first night trying to sleep in the desert, when he heard a coyote howl. “I almost cried,” Mr. Parejas said.

Now he’s trying to help his nephew get an H-2A visa so he can work for Mr. Stubbs as well. He said he could probably earn as much if not more than an hour in Peru, but getting an employer home to pay what he owed can be a hardship. Working here offers a reliable salary, he said.

Mr. Rogers also appreciates the reliable paychecks and the fact that he has no expenses during the season and can cash his entire salary. He hopes to start paying off a big debt.

Even so, he says that for him the gains are secondary. “Money is not everything, life is everything,” he said. “All you leave behind is your story, and it’s a good story to tell my grandchildren. “

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