Utah Farm Draws a Rare Breed: American Shepherd

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DIXIE NATIONAL FOREST, Utah — “The point is to keep them grazing,” said Scott Stubbs, looking at the 1,470 chewing sheep and lambs. Castle Valleydandelion, clover and herbs. “Keep them full, which will make them fat.”

Mr. Stubbs, a fifth-generation sheep farmer in Southern Utah, didn’t expect to deliver a hands-on shepherding seminar this summer, but he stuck with it. He needed a second experienced shepherd, and the one who was supposed to come from Peru in the spring was not approved for a special farming visa. Now backlogs at some foreign passport offices and American consulates – compounded by the pandemic – were delaying the new one.

That’s why Mr. Stubbs last month hired Duane Rogers, a rarer type of worker than the blue lamb in these areas: an American-born novice with an aspirations to herding sheep.

Labor shortages are rampant this summer, especially in Utah, where unemployment is high. 2.7 percent. The Marriott in Cedar City did not have enough maids to provide daily housekeeping, and there was a sign on Denny’s door outside the Beaver asking customers to be patient with understaffing. But the situation facing Mr. Stubbs and farmers like him is longer and more serious.

“Nobody wants that kind of job,” Mr. Stubbs said of animal husbandry and farm labor. And most American-born workers haven’t been wanting that for some time — at least with wages that most farmers say they can afford. Because of this, more than 200,000 temporary foreign farm workers, most of them from Mexico, were allowed to enter the United States. last year with picking cherries, tomatoes and tobacco or for livestock. Too many visas issued Has tripled since 2011Despite the pandemic in 2020, food and farm workers increased after layoffs. characterize as part of necessary labor.

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

Mr Stubbs said that prior to that, Native Americans or undocumented immigrants were the only people who wanted to herd sheep in recent years, apart from family members or high school students who occasionally come for a few weeks. This year, the Navajo shepherd working for him needed knee surgery. At 68, he probably wouldn’t be back.

“You’ve taken out a small flock, but you’re not getting labor,” said Mr Stubbs, who raises the flock for both wool and meat. “It hurts.”

Stubbs, 5-6 years old, knows it’s hard and lonely work when his grandfather teaches him to move a herd from meadow to creek on federal forest land his family has had the right to graze since the 1800s. His first month as a solo shepherd was after the eighth grade. “I thought I was going to die,” she said, even though her mother drove from their farm nearly 20 miles away every day to check on her. “I lost 30 pounds in 30 days.”

A shepherd must stay with his sheep in the open field 24 hours a day for a period of about 10 months, in sun and rain, hail and snow, whether temperatures rise to 100 degrees or fall below zero. The workday starts at sunrise and ends at sunset, but there may be nights when you need to help the guard dogs scare away a coyote or mountain lion. There are no weekends or holidays.

H-2A program, criticized for low wages and lack of worker protection. Pay for workers covered by the visa program is set by the government and has increased in recent years. $1,728 per month plus transportation, room and board in Utah. In this case, the room is a 14 x 8-foot sheep wagon with a bed, wood stove, gas grill, and cooler. Mr. Stubbs delivers requested foods such as eggs, bacon, sandwich meat, bread, potato chips, cookies, soda, and cans of chile and corn, along with water, every few days.

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

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

Mr. Rogers, 58, tried his hand at various jobs. Hayden grew up in Colo, where his father owned a small farm and raised some cattle and sheep. He served in the military for 12 years and made a tour in Panama before joining the National Guard. In addition to working cattle and ranching, he has driven trucks, maintained highways, worked in construction, shoveled snow, and protected women and children who were arrested at the border and locked up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. He said he hated the circumstances.

Mr. Rogers said he spent a lot of time thinking about what he wanted to do during a long rehab after a truck accident in 2017. He had looked after small flocks of sheep indoors, but the idea of ​​running a large open flock had always exerted a magnetic attraction. He was fascinated by the nomadic life and watched dozens of documentaries about it. And he was excited to train his dogs to herd sheep.

He was unemployed when he saw the posting on the government job posting site and applied.

“I like cattle, but sheep are much more fun,” and much smarter than people believe them, he said. “The lambs do some of the funniest things. When they feel good in the morning, they will climb the rocks and play the king of the mountain.”

The sheep, Mr. Rogers, and the dogs performed a symphony of throaty bleats, punctuated by hollow tongs of bells hanging from their necks, as they led them to their noon water break. Sheep and lambs crawled along, kicking flocks of locusts that could cut through a green field faster than any flock. This one of several pains Western farmers this season in extreme heat and prolonged drought things that reduce harvests and kill grassland.

The delay in hiring a second shepherd presented 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 otherwise sell.

For the past few weeks, his son Marty has been helping train Mr. Rogers in herding, so he hasn’t been around to help his dad with the farm work or mind his own sheep shearing. Mr Stubbs said there were days when he and his young daughter worked until midnight.

One morning, Marty Stubbs saw a little white lamb that was not using its hind left leg. She followed him, looping a rope, and lassoing her hind legs in a single swing. He jumped off a maroon horse named Trigger and, holding the lamb, pressed his left knee into the animal’s stomach. He examined the back claw, poked it with a knife to loosen a stuck rock or thorn.

Mr. Rogers took a brown penicillin bottle and a large syringe from his saddlebag.

“How many CC do you want?” He asked.

“Six,” Marty replied.

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

“It’s okay if you know where they’re going,” Marty said as he tracked 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 headed is only a matter of experience. Mr. Parejas said he didn’t really feel comfortable until his fourth year.

The herd was about 10 miles east of Mr. Rogers’s and was preparing to lead them along Highway 143, through thick clumps of pine and juniper, spruce and white trembling aspen. Mount Haycock. As the sheep fanned along the road—they have the right of way—the back-to-back rows of cars and trucks on either side of the double yellow line alternately disturbed and fascinated the passengers 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 outbreak began. As long as it doesn’t hinder her efforts to get a green card, she hopes to visit in December when the season ends – an award that will allow her to work and live in the United States without restrictions.

“It is very difficult and very lonely,” he said through a translator. “I miss my family.” Still, it’s better now than in its first few years without a cell phone with WhatsApp and Facebook to communicate.

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

Now she’s trying to help her nephew get an H-2A visa so she can work for Mr. Stubbs. He said he could probably earn that much, if not more than an hour in Peru, but it might be a trial for an employer to return home to pay off his debt. Working here provides a reliable paycheck, he said.

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

Even so, he says, for him, gain is secondary. “Money is not everything, living is everything,” he said. “All you have left behind is your story, and it’s a good story to tell my grandchildren.”

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