Come Christmas, more than a few households will trim their dinner tables with a leg of lamb—and here in Idaho, those cooks probably have a Peruvian or Mexican shepherd to thank for their feasts.
It's a shift away from the long tradition of Basque shepherds in Idaho. Rupert-based rancher Henry Etcheverry comes from that tradition. His father immigrated to the Gem State from the Basque country in 1929 to drive sheep, but in the last few decades, European shepherds have been replaced by South Americans.
"All my guys are Peruvians, with the exception of my foreman. That fellow is a Mexican; he's been with me since 1981," said Etcheverry, who employs up to 18 sheepherders at a time to tend his 8,000-head flock.
Monica Youree, the executive director of the Western Range Association, said improved economic conditions in the Basque country spurred the shift.
"The workers just weren't available from the Basque country, so we started looking for other opportunities," she said.
Today, most of Idaho's sheepherders hail from Peru and Mexico, with a few traveling from more far-flung spots like Chile and Mongolia. The WRA helps bring them to the U.S. legally, acting as the middleman between the workers and the government departments that handle the H-2A program, which offers short-term visas for agricultural workers. Those H-2A jobs are advertised to Americans first, but if they aren't snapped up within six to nine months, workers from outside the U.S. are given a chance to take them. In the case of sheepherding, that's almost always what happens.
"A lot of these guys are trying to put their kids through college," Youree said. "... There's one rancher I was talking to the other day that, his worker, his goal was to raise enough money so he could go back to college. So we get a few of those. Most of them are trying to provide for their families back home, [to give them] a better lifestyle."
- Flaviu Grumazescu Photography
The H-2A is a one-year contract that can be renewed up to three times, essentially giving sheepherders three years to work in the U.S. before they have to return home and reapply. For many, the process has led to decades-long careers. Etcheverry said one of his employees is finally getting ready to retire after 27 years working with his sheep.
"My men have been very loyal to me coming here, and I take pride in taking good care of them," Etcheverry said. "It's like a big family in a way. I don't want to get too romantic ... [but] I hope we are. I do everything I can for them, put it that way. Everything I can."
"Everything" includes paying sheepherders the federally mandated H-2A minimum wage of $1,584.22 per month, as well as providing funds for travel, food, lodging and clothing.
For the sheepherders themselves, life on the range slips by in much the same pattern that it has for centuries.
"You know when you get a Christmas card and you see the shepherds around the stables at Bethlehem?" Etcheverry asked. "It's about the same."
Sheepherders spend most of their time alone in the mountains, with just their horses, dogs and sheep for company. Etcheverry, who corralled sheep with his father as a boy, described days that start before daylight and end around 8 p.m. when the sheep bed down for the night.
Daily tasks include "catching" the sheep and bringing them down from the mountains each morning to feed and drink from a nearby stream, then letting them rest mid-day before driving them back up into the ridges for the night.
The sheepherders have time for lunch and a siesta while the sheep are resting in the afternoon, and at night they spend time cooking supper, reading or listening to the radio in their tents, which often aren't equipped with running water or refrigeration. Still, Etcheverry's men get regular human contact when he drives his pickup from camp to camp, dropping off supplies like fresh food and reading material.
"These sheepherders are an extension of me, because I can't be taking care of all these sheep. In the summer, seven, eight herds of sheep, you know, I can't be there. I can't watch every one of them. I've got to have these men taking care of them for me, and they do an excellent job," Etcheverry said.
Brandy Kay, the executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, which lobbies on behalf of Idaho's sheep industry, said she sees a strong bond between ranchers and sheepherders when she checks in on their operations.
"I know that [the ranchers] really appreciate being able to have that help. They love those guys. Some of their guys return so often ... They've been here for 20-plus years, and it's a great relationship they have with them," she said.
It's also a partnership that, like the industry it feeds, is out of sight for most people—even those who eat lamb or wear wool socks on a regular basis.
"Most ag industries aren't as big as they used to be, but there are still a lot of sheep out there. We just don't see them," Kay said.