0:00 / 0:00

5 Years in Idaho


A little-known government program brings people from South America to work for American sheep ranchers


5 Years in Idaho Ian Stevenson

On a chilly night in June, I camp out next to Juan’s sheep camp. As the sun drops over the western edge of the canyon, I listen to a poorwill and watch the light fade from the sky.

Sitting quietly beside my tent, I can hear the sound of Juan’s herd, a mile or two away, across the canyon.

I am in Idaho to research the various interest groups that interact with public land. I am living in Hailey, a small town nestled in the mountains of central Idaho. Knowing that there were shepherds in this area working for American ranchers, I wanted to learn more about them. I called a few ranchers and asked if I could talk to the shepherds who work for them. They told me, vaguely, where their shepherds were, and earlier that day I had set off with an interpreter to look for them.

Driving along a gravel road, we came across a small white tent that looked like a pioneer wagon. It was rectangular, perhaps 8 feet by 12 feet, and made of white wood and stretched fabric. It sat atop a green trailer with wheels. When we approached, a short man in a pale yellow collared T-shirt and straw-colored baseball cap poked his head out of the trailer. His name is Juan, and he is a shepherd from Peru. Given his vulnerable status in the U.S., I have elected not to use his full name to protect his anonymity. After a few quick introductions, we began to talk about what brought him to Idaho. His flock was nearby, and so can be heard in the background.

Juan: In 2013, 2012, I had a friend from my hometown whose uncle was working as a shepherd in Idaho. My friend knew me since we had worked together for the same rancher in Peru, in the countryside with the few animals that we had there. My friend then put me in touch with his uncle, and our boss recommended me to work in Idaho. I’m from farmlands, I have always worked with sheep, llamas and alpacas, and so when I came for my first contract I settled in very quickly.

Once he knew about the job, Juan then had to talk with his family about what working in the U.S. would mean for them.

J: My wife said, “How can you go so far away, I’m going to miss you,” and the kids said the same. But I said “No, you know I have to go to the U.S. Here we almost don’t even have enough to survive—we just barely have that, and no more. Maybe in the U.S. I can make a little money, and work, and we can be comfortable. And there will be ways to communicate, we’ll talk on the phone every day, maybe two or three times a day. Later, my wife came with me to go to my flight and we said goodbye, and well, my wife cried, and then I did, too. And then I went on my flight.

I arrived on April 3rd, 2013. My first flight left Peru at one in the morning, and I arrived in Los Angeles at eight in the morning. I flew to Los Angeles and then to Salt Lake City, and from Salt Lake City to Twin Falls. There I was picked up and taken to the ranch, and started working pretty much as soon as I arrived.

In addition to having to leave his home, Juan was unsure of what the work would be like. Having lived on a small farm with only a few animals, he was worried that his new job would be difficult.

When I got here, well, the sheep came out and I saw the amount and thought it was really a lot of sheep for one person to take care of, because here just one person looks after each flock.

Juan has a special visa from the U.S. Department of Labor to work for American ranchers. Called an H-2A visa, it’s a program designed for seasonal or temporary agricultural work in the U.S. For the duration of the 3-year contract, Juan lives with his sheep. He spends his days almost entirely alone in the mountains and prairies of the American west. After those three years, he can return home for 3 months to see his family. Then, if he wants to still work in the U.S., he returns for another three years. This is his fifth year as a shepherd, and his second contract. Though almost all American sheep ranchers employ shepherds from Peru and other South American countries, Juan and his cohort are a little known group.

A couple of hours after meeting Juan, I returned to Hailey. But before I left, I arranged, through our interpreter, to come back again that evening, camp by him, and join him the next morning when he herded his sheep. I wanted to learn more about what being a shepherd was like.

Juan wakes up at 4. He turns on his light, ignites his gas stove with a match, and begins to boil water for coffee. Before sunrise, it is cold out in the mountains, and the stove begins to heat his camp.

He takes cheese and bread from a shelf, unwraps each, and begins to slice them up for breakfast.

As we sit close together, enjoying the heat of the stove, Juan asks me where I am living, and, eventually, where I am studying. At this point, the interpreter I came with the day before has gone home. To be clear, my Spanish is terrible. It is just me and Juan now, and our lack of a shared language makes talking difficult. After a couple of failed attempts, I manage to communicate to him where I go to school.

Juan: Universi–Hailey?

Ian: Ubers?

Juan: Universidad?

Ian: Ah, no..uh…Yo universidad a Rhode Island. It’s uh…very far. It’s in the East.

Juan: Oh.

Ian: Massachusetts? Boston?

Juan: Boston?

Ian: Near Boston.

Juan: Oh, Boston.

We sit for another few minutes in Juan’s camp, and then he goes outside to saddle his horse.

Outside it is freezing, and I zip up my coat and stand watching him as he deftly readies his horse and assembles the supplies—different food for different

animals, and other parcels, like penicillin for one sheep, go into his pockets— before we set off down the still-dark road.

It’s alright keeping up with Juan on the road, but after a couple of hundred feet, we dive off into the scrub, bushwhack through sage brush, cross a creek, and head steep uphill. I have to almost run to stay behind him.

Walking to the sheep, we cover a couple of miles quickly. As he works, Juan walks what must be up to ten miles a day.

As we get closer to the herd, birds begin to call, and it the sound of the sheep grows louder.

Finally, standing at the peak of a tall hill, Juan’s entire herd lies before us, bedded down along the hill’s instep.

Untying a plastic sack from his horse’s saddle, Juan calls out “food” into the pre- dawn darkness, and begins pouring dry dog food onto the ground.

Juan has three border collies who sleep under his sheep wagon and help him herd. They had trotted along with us to the sheep that morning. Their noses snuffled in the sage whenever they could. In addition to those three, there are two guard dogs who live and sleep with the sheep. They are trained to do so from birth. Those dogs are Great Pyrenees, and they are big, white, and lumbering.

Juan feels close to his dogs, and he sometimes worries about what will happen to them when he leaves the U.S. When I meet with Juan again a few weeks later for another interview, one of his dogs has been taken to his boss’s house because she is pregnant, and Juan is waiting excitedly to hear about her puppies.

J: I have a lot of dedication to the sheep, and I like going out into the open fields, it’s fun. Sometimes it’s lonely, but I get to know the dogs and I bond with them, and it’s peaceful. Dogs are a man’s best friend, right?

That same morning in June, after his two white guard dogs have eaten, we sit and wait, watching the sun rise, talking about where the sheep would go that weekend, and about the coyotes we both had heard earlier that morning.

Juan: Mucho coyotes, wah wah, wah wah.

Ian: Yeah, yeah. But it’s no problemo?

Juan: No. Dog–woof, woof.

Referring to his guard dogs, which bark and scare the coyotes away.

Juan: Coyotes–rassuh.

For the rest of the morning, Juan herds his sheep slowly down the creek, pausing frequently to let them graze. While he waits, Juan chats on the phone with friends and family back home in Peru, or with other nearby shepherds who work for the same rancher, who happens to be one of the largest in the state. Sometimes, an errant sheep or a dog that needed direction would interrupt the phone calls.

[Juan talking to friend, whistles]

Equipped with his cellphone, Juan is able to call home frequently.

J: I call my family’s landline from my cellphone, because there’s still no internet where they live. So we just talk—I call them and we talk. Sometimes once, twice, or three times a day. If I’m free when the kids get out of school, around two in the afternoon, then I’ll call them, ask them how they are doing, how was school, and then they ask me how I am and tell me to take care of myself. I really miss them like they miss me a lot.

Still, despite his ability to stay in frequent communication with people back home, Juan worries about his family and wishes he could bring them to the U.S. He has three children—two daughters, ages 6 and 17, and a son, who is 14. When Juan returned home after his first contract, his 6 year-old daughter called him “uncle” for weeks before she understood he was her father.

It’s always stressful, because I’m alone, and that’s why I call my family and talk two or three times a day. Sometimes I talk with my brother, or my sister, and sometimes we laugh for a while, but sometimes my family is out of the house and they don’t answer the telephone when I call, and

when that happens I wonder, “Oh my gosh, why are they not answering the phone? Did they just go out, or has something bad happened to them?”

Though he worries about his family, Juan is making more money as a shepherd than he could back home. From what a couple of shepherds told me, their salaries are about three times what they can make in Peru for the same work. But by American standards, H2-A sheep herder wages are quite low and stagnant. In the 1980s, most shepherds made about $650 a month, according to the New York Times, and until recently most made $750. In 2015, President Obama’s administration raised the minimum shepherds’ salaries to $1200 a month, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. But even with the salary increase, shepherds are required to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This prompts some, like Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit legal rights group, to say shepherds are closer to volunteering than they are to earning a minimum wage. Juan told me he works about 12 hours a day. Without accounting for any extra time he must work, that adds up to a little over three dollars an hour. In addition, Juan has no healthcare, so when he got sick a few years back, the cost of going to a doctor was deducted from his monthly pay. Shepherds do get about 2 weeks of vacation a year, but many, like Juan, don’t know anyone in the U.S. and so have nowhere to go, so they stay with their sheep to earn overtime pay.

Many legal experts and immigrant rights advocates argue that this system is archaic, and some even say it is close to indentured servitude.

But the economic circumstances are such that American ranchers may not be able to sustain their businesses without these low wages. Sheep ranching in the U.S. has plummeted in recent decades, from over 11 million sheep in 1990 to closer to 5 million today. Sheep ranchers often operate on slim margins, and raising production costs could affect competition for sheep meat and wool from Australia and New Zealand. As one ranching commenter put it, increasing wages would force employers to “send the sheepherds home and sell the sheep.”

Despite the slim margins for ranchers and the relatively high wages compared to Peruvian standards, one environmentalist I talked to said that that doesn’t matter. This is the United States, he told me, not an adjunct of Peru. He doesn’t think farmers should pay workers less than what Americans see as a fair minimum wage just because they’re from a different country.

In part because of the low wages, H2-A sheep herders often abandon their jobs to look for other work, often in construction. Though breaking their visa puts them at risk of deportation, the prospect of better pay and shorter hours is often incentive enough.

A few days after I talked with Juan, his sheep were moved north to a narrow valley just outside of Ketchum, or about 15 miles from where we had been. The sheep will spend the rest of the summer in the mountains there. In September, they will return to a corral in Croy Canyon to be sheared, and the lambs will be separated, sent to feedlots and eventually slaughterhouses. In October or November, the remaining sheep will be moved further south into the prairie, and then in December they will be sent to California for the winter. The following spring, they will return to Idaho with new lambs, when the cycle begins anew.

Juan will follow the sheep to California this winter, and then back to Idaho next spring. As he works, he continues to think about his life here, and about what it might be like one day, back home in Peru.

J: When the weather is bad, and I am walking back to my trailer, and it is cold, and I have to make dinner, sometimes I regret coming here. I think about how I am very far from my home and my family.

In the future, I want to have my own place–my own business, back home where I live. Maybe a clothing store, or a restaurant. Something to supplement my income, so that my wife and I will have something for when we grow old.

He will work through next year’s summer, fall, and then winter. In the spring of 2020–over two years from now–he will return to Peru to see his family. Then he will have to decide whether he wants to come back.