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As America Loses Its Taste for Lamb, Life is Changing for California's Migrant Sheepherders

As America consumes less lamb and California's drought continues to devastate farmers, Bakersville's sheep herders are getting creative.
May 31, 2015, 4:48am

Photo via Flickr user montanapets

I am sitting in a restaurant called the Wool Growers in Bakersfield, California, where a framed photograph of a sheep wearing a newsboy cap hangs on the wall opposite me. Its gaze makes me deeply uncomfortable as I cut into my lunch: a lamb chop. I can't remember the last time I had lamb and I definitely don't remember it being this good, and this is the problem currently facing California's sheep industry.

While pork is the other white meat and beef is what's for dinner, lamb has never had a marketing campaign to drive consumers to the grocery store. Last year, the average American's lamb consumption dropped below a pound per person, the lowest since such meat consumption has been recorded. It is a fact of which my lunch dates—Melchor Gragirena, owner and manager of El Tejon Sheep Co., and his wife, Karen—are intimately aware.

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Bakersfield is a part of California's Central Valley, or what many know as the brown-beige expanse that one must drive through to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It's charming , in a Steinbeck kind of way. The flat valley, with its proximity to the Mojave desert, allows for easy trailing of livestock up to the neighboring Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the seasonal winter rains mixed with the warm dry summers mean that alfalfa and wild grass are almost always available for grazing. While far from California's most beautiful vista, it's a landscape ideal for agriculture, livestock, and the certain type of lifestyle that accompanies the two.

Melchor is a spry 70-something who speaks with a thick Spanish accent and talks about sheep with a passion usually reserved for politics or football rivalries. (In fact, the only thing that rivals Melchor's enthusiasm for sheep farming is that for his forty-five year marriage to Karen which, in Melchor's words, "is the best thing that ever happened to me.") At the age of 19, he came to the United States from the Navarra region of Spain. His father had recently passed away and, after seeing neighbors from his village successfully make the trek to Bakersfield, Melchor decided to do so himself in order to save money and buy his mother a house. He arrived in Bakersfield on October 27, 1961, and, as he remembers, "The next day I was a sheepherder."

Pride of ownership, the appreciation for a hard day's work, reverence for the land: It's all there in Bakersfield's sheep herders, tenants of the American dream.

Sheep herding came to Bakersfield the same way Melchor did, by way of the Pyrenees Mountains. The Pyrenees are a mountain range that make up the natural border between France and Spain, an area also known as the Basque Country. The Basques are a small ethnic group that boasts surnames with an impossible number of vowels and a seemingly inherent proclivity for livestock care. In Bakersfield, the sheep industry is closely tied to the Basque culture.

As with most migrations, ethnicities prefer to move to areas previously settled by those they know. So, the same way the Italians settled the Bronx and the retired took to Florida, the Basques flocked to the Central Valley. When Melchor arrived in Bakersfield, the majority of the sheep herders were Basque, with each sheep herder being placed in a "sheep camp " with a bundle of sheep for company. When imagining a sheep camp, picture a wooden tractor trailer with only a bed, single-burner stove, small storage space , and a retractable table. Hygiene was understandably lacking. Camp tenders would travel to each outpost with water, groceries and a contractual weekly two-gallon allotment of red wine.

Carrizo Plains. Photo via Flickr user Mikaku

The sheep herders came from the old country on the recommendation of fathers, brothers, in-laws , and neighbors, with some eventually going on to start sheep companies of their own. The first paycheck Melchor received was for $180 from the sheep company that he now runs. He proudly recalls, "The first check I ever got had the name El Tejon on it."

But, since Melchor's initial paycheck, the landscape of the sheep industry has changed. "Every sheepman is getting older," Melchor explains. "Even the young ones are old, now." A large danger to Bakersfield's sheep industry is that those who had dedicated their life to its continuation are aging out, and there are few replacements.

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While talking over coffee, Frankie Iturriria, president of the California Wool Growers Association and manager of I&M Sheep Co., reiterates this threat. "I think the biggest thing is you are not having a lot of young people come back into this industry." He continues, "The kids are growing up and going to university and once you get your degree there is not a lot people that want to come back to the sheep business." A graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Iturriria just happens to be one of the people.

Iturriria's father, Paco, came to Bakersfield from the Basque Country, starting as sheep herder and then going into business with one of his brothers to start I&M. He explains that, in his experience, the sheep farmers do not expect their children to take over the family businesses, and that sending their kids to college is a major point of pride for many of the sheepmen. All three of Melchor's children graduated from prestigious California schools, and he is quick to talk about their successes, all which lie outside the sheep business.

Iturriria says that California has gone through prolonged droughts before, and he's confident that he can make it through the months and years of pitiful rainfall.

But Iturriria knows that tending sheep isn't for everyone, especially under current conditions. The sheep business has been in some amount of decline since the 80s. By both Frankie and Melchor's count, the number of sheep in Bakersfield's Kern County have decreased from roughly 150,000 to about 25,000, currently. The reasons for the decline span everything from the strength of the US dollar to desert tortoises.

Sure, Americans are also eating less lamb—and a lot of the lamb they do eat comes from outside the United States. Australia and New Zealand produce the majority of lamb that the United States imports, and imports make up nearly one-half of all lamb consumption. Iturrurua explains: "This year the dollar is strong so they can come in here and undercut our prices." Even after being shipped across the world, the Aussie and NZ lamb is still cheaper than domestic, including the cost of production. Australia and New Zealand have large, open expanses of land that can hold a lot of sheep and require few sheep herders to watch over them. In California, land has always been a sacred commodity.

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Traditionally, sheep graze in Bakersfield and the surrounding foothills until the beginning of spring, when the sheep herders make the 45-day trek through the Mojave Dessert up into the Sierra Nevada, where the sheep do much of their feeding and are sheered for wool. The sheep are then sheared for wool, just in time for it to be deftly woven into a J. Crew pullover for Christmas. But due to the expansion of home developments and oil production, the grazing lands are shrinking. Sheep are required to stay a certain distance away from all farmlands growing leafy greens, for fear of E. coli.

Swaths of land are also set aside as protected habitat for endangered species that have a predisposition for respiratory illness. There are the California bighorn sheep that contract a pneumonia that is carried by domestic animals, or the endangered desert tortoise that often get respiratory infections. The later ailment is not directly associated with sheep but, when trailing through the Mojave Desert, the sheep are at risk of disturbing the tortoise's habitat. So the sheep are trucked from one acceptable grazing area to another, which Iturriria admits "is easier on the sheep and on the people. It's just different."

And then, of course, there's the drought.

California's water shortage has been well documented in media, often portrayed in apocalyptic terms alongside scary statistics. Here's one more: For all of 2014, Bakersfield's Kern County only received slightly under seven inches of rain, and this winter has been the third driest on record for the state. The lack of rain equates to less growth for grazing, and for many sheep farmers this means reducing the size of their flock or seeking out external, often costly, sources for feed. "They either want you to cut back your time of use or they want you to cut your numbers back," Ithurriria explains. "They" are the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the land in the Sierra Nevada that many of the sheep farmers use for feed. But Iturriria says that California has gone through prolonged droughts before, and he's confident that he can make it through the months and years of pitiful rainfall.

When hearing Iturriria talk about his work, it all sounds very romantic—again, in that Steinbeck kind of way. Pride of ownership, the appreciation for a hard day's work, reverence for the land: It's all there in Bakersfield's sheep herders, tenants of the American dream. The day I sat down with Iturriria, his father, now 81 and still in the sheep business, was taking the day to make the eight hour drive up into the mountains, to Bridgeport and back, to check on the feed. "It's a love of the livestock and lifestyle," Iturriria tells me as his reasoning for staying in the sheep industry, even after he outlined the numerous external and internal threats to his chosen profession. "You are just forced to be a little more creative."

In fact, while we drank our coffee, Iturriria's 2000 ewes were grazing Carrizo Plains at one of the nation's biggest solar farms, clearing away grass from underneath the panels. Two types of farming: One so antiquated it holds biblical importance, the other distinctly of the 21st century.

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