Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Rural California and herding



Until recently I had no idea that migrant sheep herders existed in California. Most people are aware that there are ranches, that there are cattle drives moving animals from grazing land to slaughterhouses, but I don't think anyone considered that a state known for its cities and strong economy would have migrating herds. Further, that those herds are slowly dying out, with a combination of drought, aging work force, and undercutting imports. Amazingly, significant numbers of these herds come from my own home county of Kern, and neighboring counties that are part of the Central Valley in California.

As this Vice article discusses, the work force was originally largely based on the backs of immigrants from the Basque region of Europe. Immigrants would, on the recommendation of friends and family, migrate to California and begin herding sheep in exceedingly crude conditions. Those immigrants are now aging and not being replaced with younger workers. It is likely that the U.S. government will have to resume a practice from the late 90's and issue herding visas so that employers can bring in foreign workers and exploit the desperation and hopes of outsiders for personal profit.

The U.S. has a visa system that allows employers to file for extra help when none can be found in the local community. UC Davis actually has a relevant article on the subject. The author notes that in the mid-1990s:
"Prevailing wages for H-2A shepherds were $600 to $700 monthly in the
mid-1990s. Shepherds are provided with a trailer, and either cooking
facilities or food. Sheep operators paying $700 monthly to shepherds have
total labor costs of about $880--the additional $180 is the amortized cost of
transportation, workers compensation and WRA costs."

The WRA is the Sacramento based Western Range Association, which maintains the job orders that need to be filled. When the article was written they were based in Sacramento, but since then it appears the association has left the state. All that exists online is a poorly done blog with a singular post in 2014. Of note in the post is bemoaning the issues of paying for

To complicate the matter, U.S. trade policies have harmed the rural areas. Already impoverished and having issues with fair wages, full time employment, and access to education, rural areas are being undercut by overseas markets. As an example, referencing the above Vice article: lamb from Australia and New Zealand makes up roughly half of the U.S.'s annual lamb consumption. It can be produced, packaged, and shipped to the U.S. for less than what it costs to produce and package in the U.S. by the farm workers.

Part of this cost may come from the equipment used. As noted in this NPR article on rural livelihoods, herders use trucks and trailers to herd animals from the ranches into the mountains, where grazing ranges allow for large groups of animals to forage. Obviously the cost of vehicle maintenance, fuel, and sticking the trailers will sap the limited wages of the workers.

In the late 1990's the monthly rate for herders was less than $1,000. Roughly one third of H-2A visas filed by employers seeking foreign employees who would work a job described as a, "man, dog, and a rifle."This is surprising given rural areas are notorious for high unemployment and minimal wages, that employers need to look abroad for labor.

In that search abroad employers went to the aforementioned Basque region in Spain for the initial group of shepherds. This article discusses the history of that search. At that point in time Spain was in an economic crisis and bringing immigrants over was relatively easy. As Spain's economy strengthened ranchers turned to South American nations and began bringing Peruvians in. Unfortunately for the herders life was worse in the U.S. than back in Peru. As one worker said, "Even in Peru we don't live like this." California workers made $1,200 per month as of 2002. Consider however that the job requires being with the herd 24/7, in the field, constantly working and in conditions described as 'squalid'.

Things that would help: better studies, more interviews with the shepherds, and trying to get more data out of the ranchers who have the advantage of relative anonymity. People never ask where their food comes from or how it was raised. Exposing the fact that the shepherds suffer greatly from the free trade deals and live in conditions worse than a third world country would be a good start.

There does not appear to be much discussion of herding visas in the blog at large, but some discussion on agribusiness abusing workers can be found here and here.


2 comments:

Taylor Call said...

I thought it was interesting that these herders made $1200/month in 2002. That is what I made for my first summer job after college, living out of my truck for three months in the desert. Although, that is not much money, if you keep your living expenses down, it can be a good way to save some money. These herders don't have rent, utilities, or any other significant bills. That being said, paying salaries like this equates to an hourly wage of about nothing. Additionally, the isolation is difficult to deal with and is not for everyone. For those that want to come to the US, it might be worth it, however.

I understand why not many people want to do this type of work. For the amount of money, it is an awfully big sacrifice. If someone has a family, they would not able to be with them, unless the family comes too. I wonder if this industry will disappear in the near future if overseas markets make it less profitable to herd here.

Daniel Quinley said...

I had no idea California had a population of migrant herders in the modern era, so that in and of itself was surprising. Unfortunately, what wasn't surprising was the economics of herding in California. The wages are low, the conditions bleak, and other countries do it better (in part because of subsidies, and in part because those countries put an emphasis on being competitive in that particular agricultural endeavor). At the recent California State Bar Environmental Conference, I attended several panels relating to agriculture and environmental regulation. The mood from farmers--livestock, nut, and other crops--was that California is consistently making itself more uncompetitive in the international marketplace with its regulations. And while these regulations are great for forcing sustainable practices, they also force farmers out of traditional commodities (one farmer simply cannot compete with overseas peaches now, so he planted a bunch of almond trees).

I have no idea what the solution is, but I feel like there has to be a balance between providing for continued, sustainable, and profitable agricultural practices in California and successfully regulating environmental and labor concerns. Unfortunately, in California, it seems like that isn't going to happen. So I guess instead of getting local raised sheep, I'll be buying Australian in the near future.