The American sheep industry is getting battered by a perfect storm of problems, hitting all at once and from all sides.

The main affront is a package of new federal rules aimed at improving pay and working conditions for foreign sheepherders in Wyoming and throughout the West. The sheep industry warns that the proposed increase in pay would render their sheep operations uneconomic. If the proposed rule changes are made by the Department of Labor, there will no longer be an American sheep industry, and herders will be out of work and have to go back to their home countries.

It’s a lose-lose proposition for ranchers and sheepherders. If the worst-case scenario hits, the biggest loser of all may be American consumers.

For many decades, the industry has relied on sheepherders to protect livestock from predators. It’s a hard, isolated life, with workers on the range 24/7 for low wages. Federal regulations require Wyoming ranchers to pay their herders $750 a month — no more and no less, or they are subject to fines and other penalties.

It’s a job hardly any Americans want. The feds require ranchers to place expensive recruiting advertisements in newspapers that yield few if any applicants. This is supposedly done to protect the American labor force from foreign competition.

So ranchers must turn to herders in Peru, Chile and Mexico to do the work. Through the federal H2-A immigration program, they pay for the workers’ temporary visas and travel to the U.S. When their labor force arrives, ranchers must provide them room and board.

Some employers provide excellent working conditions, but many do not. A two-year survey of sheepherders in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah conducted by Colorado Legal Services found that 70 percent of the men did not have toilets, and more than half did not have electricity.

And 42 percent of the surveyed workers had their immigration documents held by their employers, which may well explain why complaints are few. No one wants to be deported. The herders are often required to sign contracts in English, but most don’t speak the language.

Still, many of the sheepherders come back to these jobs, year after year, because they can earn about four times the money they would make at home.

The new federal rules have been proposed at the worst possible time for the industry, Carbon County rancher Pat O’Toole said. It’s the busiest time of the year on the ranch, and the Labor Department initially only had a 30-day public comment period. Fifteen days were added, but the deadline already expired on June 1.

Lamb prices are down this year, by 12 percent to 15 percent. On top of that fiscal reality, O’Toole and industry associations have no doubt the new rules would result in huge increases in payroll and expenses, forcing many ranchers out of business.

The feds want to double the herders’ pay in most sheep-producing states, but O’Toole said when other expenses are added to the mix, including carting in food and water to remote areas, the average rancher will probably see his or her expenses triple or quadruple. That’s a level that can’t be sustained by most operations, including his own.

“The entire labor issue is a disaster,” an exasperated O’Toole said, noting that the H-2A program’s red tape often delays foreign herders from beginning when they’re needed.

Workers have been difficult to come by this year. O’Toole said he wasn’t even able to hire a sheep-shearer. “We couldn’t get our sheep shearer this year because there aren’t any sheep shearers. There aren’t enough permits [through the H2-A program]. And Americans just don’t want to do that kind of work.”

O’Toole said the sheep industry was blindsided by the rule changes, which were announced in April without any warning. “We just didn’t see it coming,” he explained. “[The new rules] are designed to eliminate a whole category of grazing, and the Department of Labor made absolutely no effort to communicate with the industry.”

O’Toole said ranching has been a very honorable way of life for generations, “but today it’s been sort of demonized. It amazes me that people who work outside in nature are not seen as the future anymore.”

O’Toole says he runs a model operation. He has a dozen herders from Peru, and he makes sure they have good food and shelter.

The rancher, who long ago learned to speak Spanish so he could better communicate with his herders, worries about what would happen to them if the industry collapses and they are forced to return home. “Some of these guys have been with me for 20 years or more,” O’Toole said. “I consider them my friends, not just workers.”

The impact on the world’s food and fiber supply if the sheep industry craters would be devastating, O’Toole said. He’s part of a national think-tank effort led by the Meridian Institute that is trying to mediate this latest agricultural crisis. He’s also president of the Family Farm Alliance.

“I think there will be a lot of pressure put on [the Labor Department], because what is going to happen to the food supply?” O’Toole said.

If the rules are approved, the rancher said he expects the issue will be locked up in court for quite some time, since it will be a bonanza for lawyers on both sides. He’s hoping, though, that a rational solution can be agreed to by all parties.

While he’s waiting to see how this agricultural crisis unfolds, O’Toole can’t help but shake his head at the situation. “We’re trying to see how you can almost double the food supply for the world’s [projected] 9.7 billion population in the next 30 years at the same time [the H-2A program] is under assault by its own government,” he said.

An incredibly tricky immigration question is also at the heart of this conflict. Officials naturally want to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country, but what happens when federal rules are so burdensome that the program to recruit legal immigrants no longer works?

Still, O’Toole said he’s optimistic about the future of his industry, in part due to the resilience of ranchers who persevered after the elimination of the National Wool Act in 1993, which among other things phased out direct price support payments to producers.

“I think we can overcome it,” he said. “We’re survivors at heart.”

I’m glad they are, especially for the sake of the food, clothing and other products they provide the world, but I hope these latest woes spur federal officials and leaders of the industry like O’Toole to work together to re-examine their business model, which it appears can’t depend on foreign workers any longer.

That would be a huge sea change, but it’s an issue that has come to a head largely because the feds haven’t made gradual changes in labor laws affecting the industry. Absorbing the proposed rules doesn’t seem economically possible, even with the five-year phase-in the Labor Department wants.

I usually don’t have much sympathy for industries that spend much of their time complaining about federal overreach, especially when it would improve the lives of poor workers and the conditions they labor under. But I agree with O’Toole, who said, “I’ve been doing this all my life, and I don’t need 50 more pages [of regulations] written by someone who doesn’t know how to raise sheep.”

The feds need to understand dropping a bombshell on livestock ranchers isn’t justified, especially if it creates a less diverse food supply and erases employment opportunities for workers who have helped keep the industry alive for a long time.

CORRECTION: This column was updated on June 3, 2015 to correct figures to express lamb prices. — Ed.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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