Utah Farm Pulls a Rare Breed: American Shepherd

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Utah Farm Pulls a Rare Breed: American Shepherd

Dixie National Forest, Utah – “The object is to keep them grazing,” said Scott Stubbs as he observed 1,470 ewes and lambs chewing on Castle Valley’s dandelion, clover and grass. “Get them done, which makes them fat.”

Mr. Stubbs, a fifth-generation sheep farmer in southern Utah, hadn’t expected to give a practical shepherd’s seminar this summer, but he stuck. He needed a second experienced shepherd, and the one who had to come from Peru in the spring was not approved for a special agricultural visa. Now backlogs at some foreign passport offices and US consulates – compounded by the pandemic – were delaying a replacement.

That’s why last month Mr Stubbs hired Duane Rogers, a type of worker rarer than a blue sheepdog in these parts: an American-born beginner keen on sheep-herding.

Labor shortages are common this summer, especially in Utah, where the unemployment rate is 2.7 percent. The Marriott in Cedar City didn’t have enough maids to offer daily housekeeping, and there was a sign on the door outside Denny’s Beaver telling customers to be patient with the short-handed staff. But the crisis facing Mr. Stubbs and farmers like him is more dire in the long run.

“Nobody wants this type of work,” Mr Stubbs said of animal husbandry and agricultural labor. And most Native American workers haven’t wanted it in a while—at least at the wage most farmers say they can afford. That’s why last year more than 200,000 temporary foreign farm workers, mostly from Mexico, were allowed into the United States to pick cherries, tomatoes and tobacco or raise livestock. The number of visas issued has more than tripled since 2011, and soared in 2020 after food and agricultural workers were marked as part of the essential work force, despite the pandemic.

Mr. Stubbs, 54, began using the agricultural visa program, known as the H-2A, eight years ago. Through an agency, he hired a Peruvian based Ronal León Parezas, who is still with him.

Previously, in addition to family members or the occasional high school student who pitched in for a few weeks, those interested in raising sheep in recent years were Native Americans or undocumented immigrants, Mr Stubbs said. This year, the Navajo shepherd working for him needed a knee operation. At 68, he probably won’t be coming back.

“You’ve put out a small herd, but you can’t get labor,” said Mr Stubbs, who raises his flock for both wool and meat. “It’s going to hurt.”

Mr Stubbs, who was 5 or 6 years old when his grandfather taught him how to move a herd from a meadow to a creek on federal forest land, where his family has had grazing rights since the 1800s, Know that this is a difficult and lonely job. His first month alone was after eighth grade. “I thought I would die,” he said, even as his mother drove about 20 miles from his farm to see him every day. “I lost 30 pounds in 30 days.”

A shepherd has to live with the sheep 24 hours a day in the open range, in sun and rain, hail and snow, whether the temperature rises to 100 degrees or drops below zero. The workday begins at sunset and ends at sunset, although there may be nights when you need to help guard dogs scare away a coyote or mountain lion. There are no weekends or holidays.

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

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And that’s the deal Mr. Rogers accepted three weeks ago. “I’m grateful that Scott gave me the opportunity,” he said.

Mister Rogers pulled on his tan leather gloves. “I love 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 his stepson and two step-granddaughters. He arrived in Utah with five dogs and his father’s old saddle.

At the age of 58, Mister Rogers has tried his hand at various jobs. He grew up in Hayden, Colo., where his father owned a small farm and raised some cattle and sheep. He served in the military for 12 years and visited Panama before joining the National Guard. In addition to grazing cattle and working in the farm, they drove trucks, maintained highways, worked in construction, plowing snow and guarding women and children who were arrested at the border and at immigration and customs. Enforcement was locked up in detention centers – a job he said he hated because of the conditions.

During a lengthy rehabilitation after a truck wreck in 2017, Mr. Rogers said, he spent a lot of time thinking about what he wanted to do. He cared for small flocks of sheep in enclosed areas, but the idea of ​​working in a large open-area herd had always carried a magnetic pull. He was fascinated by the nomadic life, and had seen dozens of documentaries about it. And he was excited to sheep-train his dogs.

He was unemployed when he saw the advertisement on the state’s job listing site and applied.

“I like cattle, but sheep are a lot more amusing,” he said, “and a lot smarter than the people he’s given credit for.” “Lambs do some of the funniest things. In the morning when they’re feeling well, they’ll climb rocks and play the king of the mountain.”

The sheep were performing a symphony of guttural bleats pierced by hollow tongs from bells dangling around their necks as Mister Rogers and the dogs directed them toward the afternoon water break. As the sheep and lambs moved forward, they kicked up swarms of locusts, which can engulf the green field faster than any swarm. It is one of many troubles Western farmers face this season, along with extreme heat and prolonged droughts that are crippling crops and killing grazing lands.

The delay in hiring another cowboy posed another challenge to Mr Stubbs. Because he had no one to graze the sheep, he had to keep them on the field, feed them with bales of hay, or else he could sell.

For the past few weeks, his son Marty has been helping Mister Rogers train the herd, so he hasn’t been around to help his father with farm work or go into his own sheep-herding business. There are days, Mr Stubbs said, when he and his teenage daughter ended up working by midnight.

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One morning, Marty Stubbs saw a small white lamb that was not using its hind left leg. He ran after her, threw a loop of rope and in one swing bled her hind legs. He jumped off a chestnut horse named Trigger and grabbed the lamb, pushing his left knee against the animal’s stomach. He examined the hind hoof, striking it with a knife to loosen a stuck rock or thorn.

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

“How many cc do you need?” He asked.

“Six,” replied Marty.

He closed his knife, took the needle and poked it into the back of the lamb and then marked the animal’s back with an orange line in the chalk. He lifted his knee, and the lamb turned away.

“If you know where they’re going, that’s fine,” 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 go is something that only comes through experience. Mr Parejas said it wasn’t until his fourth year that he really felt comfortable.

His herd was about 10 miles to the east of Mister Rogers, and he was getting ready to take them to Highway 143 atop Haycock Mountain, through pinyon pine and thick groups of juniper, spruce and White Quaking aspen . As the sheep cross the road—they have the right of way—cars and trucks line up on either side of the double yellow line, their passengers being teased and infatuated with the woolly procession in turn.

Mr Parezas, 32, has not been able to return to his small farm in Peru or to his 4-year-old son since February 2020, before the pandemic hit. He hopes to travel in December, when the season ends, unless it interferes with his efforts to obtain a green card—a reward that allows him to work and live in the United States without restrictions. make capable.

“It’s very difficult and very lonely,” he said through a translator. “I miss my family.” Still, it’s better now than in his first few years, when he lacked a cellphone with WhatsApp and Facebook to keep in touch.

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

Now he’s trying to help his nephew get an H-2A visa so he can also work for Mr. Stubbs. He said he could probably earn as much if not more than an hour in Peru, but that getting an employer back home to pay his dues could be a trial. He said that working here gives reliable salary.

Mister Rogers also appreciates the reliable paycheck and the fact that he has no expenses during the season and can bank his entire salary. He hopes to start paying off a large debt.

Yet he says that earning is secondary to him. “Money is not everything, living is everything,” he said. “All you leave behind is your story, and it’s a good story to tell my grandson.”

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