Friday, February 12, 2010
The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction

Survey provided an inaccurate report of sheepherders' lives, treatment
By Guest Columnist

I normally don't reply to something I feel is as biased and unscientific as the recent survey H-2A sheepherders done by Tom Acker, a professor at Mesa State College, and Jennifer Lee, of Colorado Legal Services. I never read such drivel.

They said they had interviewed nearly a third of the herders in western Colorado, but I have yet to find one herder who was interviewed. We are just across the county line from Mesa County in Delta County. We have 10 herders from Peru and not one of them was interviewed. My men would have told them a different story than they reported.

Ranching is a tough business, with long hours and short pay. I grew up on the ranch and did the very same work as our hired men. I spent many nights in a sheep camp in the mountains with these herders. At that time, most of the herders were from Mexico, and they worked year after year because they loved the life, not because it paid lots of money.

When the men we have now hire on under the H-2A program, they are well aware of the hours and hard work involved, as well as the wages set by the U.S. Labor Department. It takes a special kind of person to be a sheepherder because you are alone with your dogs, horses and sheep a lot of the time. These people enjoy the outdoors and being by themselves. If we or they were in it for the money, we wouldn't be in the ranching business and they wouldn't come back year after year to herd sheep.

We aren't like a professor or a lawyer, where we have cozy jobs in a warm building with all the facilities.

Also, the rancher's income isn't guaranteed. It depends on what he can get for his wool, lambs or calves. Last year the price of wool was lower than it has been in 12 years, but groceries and gas were a lot cheaper then.

Our ranch pays more than what we are required to by the federal government. Bonuses rely on what we get for our lambs and wool, and on the job each man does.

As far as food, each of our men averaged around $500 per month for what they ordered and ate. Electricity and working toilets? How would that be possible when our camps are either on the desert in the winter or in the mountains in summer. Do hikers, backcountry skiers and campers have electricity or toilets?

Most of these men come from the mountains of Peru, where they live in houses with six or eight other people and make a few dollars a day. When they come here to work, every bit of their paycheck can be sent home because they pay no taxes, no insurance, no groceries or rent. Our ranch pays all that, on top of their wages. Few people here in the states have $1,200 at the end of the month that is free and clear.

Lee said if we would double our wages, we could get Americans to herd sheep. We haven't had a local ask for a sheepherding job in 30 years because most can't be alone for long periods of time.

Even so, working conditions aren't as bad as stated. The herders go out in the morning, move the herd off the bedground and let them graze for the day while the herder is back in camp or visiting other herders or calling family on his cell phone. Then in the afternoon, they bring the herd close to the bedground and stay with them until they are settled.

As a result of this report, two state lawmakers say they plan to introduce legislation that would force us to pay by the hour. If this passes, most of the sheepmen in Colorado will have to get rid of their herds. It seems odd to me, with high unemployment and economy in the tank, that lawmakers would do something that endangers a very large industry in Colorado.

I have been in the ranching business all my life and have weathered battles with many environmentalists and anti-ranching groups. We have managed to survive in this business when prices hit bottom, during dry years or when costs were high. I will continue to fight for ranching until I die. Even if they put me out of the sheep business, we will run our cows, but with fewer men and less money going into the local economy.

My family has been ranching here in this area since 1881 and I'm fourth generation. My nephew, Kip, who runs the sheep now, is fifth generation.

The H-2A survey was very unfair and hurtful to a great many dedicated ranchers. There are bad apples in every basket, but I dare say there are a few in higher education and the federal and state governments.

Had the survey been more equitable, we would have known about it before we got blindsided. At a conference between some sheepmen and the two people behind this survey, one sheepman offered information about how many herders were unhappy. Ms. Lee, with no facts of her own, disputed his statement and said the number had to be much higher. It seems these people care only about their agenda. And that agenda is the hard-working rancher.

John A. Hotchkiss is a rancher in Hotchkiss.