Oct. 28, 2005
Capital Press Agricultural Weekly

Old World Meets New in Range Sheep Operation
By Peggy Steward

CENTERVILLE, Wash. - Hands in his pockets, Max Fernandez walks slowly uphill, trilling a high, haunting call into the wind. Dozens of lambs around him raise their heads, bleat in response and turn to scamper after the sheepherder in long lines.

Fernandez runs one of the last two range sheep outfits in Washington state. Each year he moves his bands from area to area, often covering hundreds of miles in a season, a few miles a day, allowing the sheep to graze as they move along.

He says he's carrying on a proud tradition - one that his family dates to the year 1400 in Spain, generations before part of the family immigrated to Chile, where they continued to raise sheep.

"I'm proud of what we do," Fernandez said. "I'm proud to be a sheepherder."

Fernandez, 65, has been in the United States since the 1960s, when he emigrated from Chile to attend college. He married Ann, a schoolteacher originally from Iowa, and together they spent time in Alaska and raised two daughters.

Fernandez spent many years exploring for oil drilling sites in South America, working for a major oil company. In 1980, the family bought rangeland south and east of Centerville, Wash., and built up a major sheep operation.

The ranch centers on a comfortable, modern ranch house. And there's modern farm equipment for putting up hay.

Hired Chilean sheepherder David Barreantos has a modern modular home and proudly shows off his cell phone, a computer for e-mail and the Internet, television and a VCR - all provided and paid for by Fernandez.

Animal power

Despite the modern conveniences, the Fernandez Ranch uses traditions that are decidedly old-world. Fernandez and his Chilean herders use oxen teams - mammoth 3,000-pound Horned Herefords - to pull high-wheeled, hand-made carts piled with hay to feed the animals.

Dogs - lots of dogs - stand guard day and night. Long-coated Great Pyrenees keep coyotes and other predators at bay.

"Coyotes don't bother these dogs," Fernandez said.

Dozens of border collies respond to Spanish commands and hunker down around the perimeter of the sheep flocks, keeping wayward lambs from wandering too far.

For his sheepherders, Fernandez keeps a varied remuda - stout Icelandics, spotted Appaloosas, quick quarter horses.

Once lambing season - generally March and April - is over, the Fernandez sheep bands are on the move. From the home place, Fernandez and his sheepherders move the sheep on a nine-mile, four-day trip to the top of a ridge where the view is spectacular - Mount Adams looms to the northeast, Mount Rainier farther north, the Columbia River and The Dalles, Ore., are to the south and Mount Hood looms to the southeast - then down near the Columbia.

The bands of sheep are moved often to avoid abusing the fragile rangeland, much of it leased from state or federal agencies or the tribes.

While on the range, the sheepherders live in small, neat trailers, provided and stocked by Fernandez. On a typical day, after breakfast, the sheepherder moves the animals to new grazing grounds, where they graze until about noon. The flocks and herder rest until 2 or 3 p.m., when they start to move back toward the trailer for the night. The herder cooks supper, maybe plays the guitar or listens to a portable radio. Some sheepherders are skilled artisans who use their free time to make braided rawhide lariats or carve intricate heavy wooden stirrups for their saddles. Dogs bark if predators appear.

The bands move on rangeland for about six months, until mid-October, when it's time to return to the ranch for weaning and shipping.

The winter months are relatively quiet - Fernandez and his workers estimate they put in only a few hours a day.

Range life seems idyllic. But where a generation ago, many sheep operations thrived in Washington, now only Fernandez near Centerville and the Martinez family, based near Moxee, remain. The longtime sheep processing plant in Ellensburg, Superior Farms, closed several years ago, to consolidate near its headquarters in California. And lamb imports from New Zealand and Australia have changed the market.

Labor challenges

Fernandez wants to stay in business - sending his lambs to California or the Midwest for fattening and his wool to Pendleton Woolen Mills. But he said there are many pressures facing the sheep industry, and he lists labor issues as the biggest concern.

"We can't get U.S. workers," he said. "We advertise, but nobody wants to (do the) work."

Shearers come from Australia and New Zealand, on stopovers to the United Kingdom. And because American sheepherders are non-existent, Fernandez relies on Chilean sheepherders, in the United States on H2-A guest-worker visas and under contract through the Utah-based Western Range Association.

State and federal labor laws are complicated and expensive to comply with, Fernandez said. Federal law says he must pay a government-set base of $650 per month. He must provide housing, utilities, transportation to and from Chile, health insurance and two weeks' paid vacation each year.

He also must provide food and supplies. In all, Fernandez estimates he pays as much as $2,300 to $2,400 a month for each herder, including bonuses he pays above the required base rate. During the summer, he has two workers; during the slower winter months, only one.

The workers are exempt from all state and federal taxes, including Social Security, and they sign a contract before they leave their homeland that spells out their employment conditions, Fernandez said.

Into court

A few years ago, Fernandez found himself at the center of a labor lawsuit that went all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court, and earlier this month, the state's high court ruled in Fernandez's favor.

The justices said, in a 5-4 decision, that sheepherders working for Fernandez are exempt from Washington state's Minimum Wage Act. The case, Herberto Berrocal and Rafael Castillo v. Max and Ann Fernandez and the Western Range Association, was first filed in 2002.

Berrocal and Castillo, Chilean workers in the United States on temporary H2-A visas, walked off their jobs in 2000 and sued for wages they said were owed them. The employers filed a countersuit for breach of contract.

Columbia Legal Services, representing Berrocal and Castillo, argued the men were paid far below the state's minimum wage, currently $7.35 per hour. State law doesn't allow room and board to be factored into minimum wage calculations.

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled the Minimum Wage Act clearly exempts workers who live or sleep at their worksite and those who spend a lot of time on call, not actively working.

Dissenting justices wrote that the law was ambiguous and could be interpreted either way.

Ryan Edgley, a Yakima attorney who represented Fernandez and the Western Range Association in the case, said state law is clear that when workers regularly intermingle personal activities with work activities, employers and employees can negotiate a flat salary, rather than an hourly wage.

It would be difficult to sort out when the sheepherders were working or on personal time, for instance when they were taking a nap or watching TV, waiting for sheep dogs to bark an alert, Edgley said.

Lori Isley, a Columbia Legal Services attorney in Yakima, said her clients felt they had a strong case and are disappointed in the ruling.

Fernandez said he was offered a settlement early in the case, but refused to give in when he knew he was following the law.

Fernandez said he treats his workers fairly. "People who work for me are very happy," Fernandez said. "They have opportunities here they don't have in Chile. They can save money to send home. One worker saved $23,000 to send home because I provided everything he needed."

Fernandez said government regulations and the threat of lawsuits by agencies like Columbia Legal Services make it tough on ranchers. He wonders why he should have had to pay $60,000 in legal costs to defend himself in a lawsuit he said never should have been filed in the first place.

"Why sue me?" he said. "I'm following the law. If they have trouble with the law, they should work with the Legislature."

He also questions the legal system and all the courtroom debate about the grammar of the Minimum Wage Act.

"Where were the state agencies in all this?" Fernandez said. "They never indicated I wasn't following the law. It's a shame in America when individuals have to prove they are innocent."

Back to work

Despite the recent spate of news headlines since the state Supreme Court ruling, the pace at Fernandez's Centerville ranch appears to have returned to normal. Flocks of lambs, fresh off their mothers, wait in a pasture to be shipped to feedlots. In paddocks, rams mingle with oxen and horses. Ewes move up and down the hills, slowly nibbling on bits of grass and hay.

Barreantos, 19, the Chilean sheepherder working this winter for Fernandez, seems unfazed by the attention focused on his employer by the court case. From the southern part of Chile, Barreantos is from a family of very poor sheepherders who have few opportunities in their homeland.

"I like it here," Barreantos said in Spanish, smiling broadly and pointing to the Centerville ranch, and checking for messages on his cell phone.