May 24, 2004 / Updated Aug. 20, 2006
Associated Press

Despite struggle, sheep ranchers sustaining ancient calling
By Amyjo Brown

Skye Krebs parks his truck next to a gray box trailer, set among bunch grass and sagebrush. Other than the trailer and the power lines running across the desert between Arlington and the Blue Mountain Scenic Highway, not another sign of civilization is in sight.

CECIL, Ore. - Skye Krebs parks his truck next to a gray box trailer, set among bunch grass and sagebrush. Other than the trailer and the power lines running across the desert between Arlington and the Blue Mountain Scenic Highway, not another sign of civilization is in sight.

Krebs grabs two grocery bags from the cab of his truck. They are full of tomatoes, eggs, bread, lots of potatoes and other basic staples for survival.

Inside, the small trailer contains a tiny wood stove, two gas burners, a bed and a table. A portable stereo takes up most of the table space. There is no shower. No toilet.

The man who calls the trailer home arrives on horseback, with several dogs for company. Jeronimo Quispe-Valario is from Peru. In a slow exchange of Spanish, he and Krebs discuss the more than 1,000 head of sheep Quispe-Valario watches over day and night, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Right now, the herd is several miles away, just white speckles in a green valley.

"He said some got a little sick, but he said everything is fine now," says Krebs, a partner in Krebs Ranch in Cecil, one of the last large range sheep operations left in the country.

Operated much as it was back in biblical times, the sheep industry is a tough one to make a career out of, both for the rancher and the shepherd.

The industry nationwide is down 35 percent from 10 years ago, according to Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association based in Centennial, Colo.

In Oregon, sheep numbers have declined from 2.2 million in 1900 to just 157,000 head statewide as of January.

Umatilla County, and Eastern Oregon in general, used to be packed with sheep. There were more than a quarter million head in the county alone at the turn of the century, according to Randy Mills, area livestock agent for Oregon State University.

Now, there are fewer than 8,000.

In Morrow County, Krebs has about 30,000 acres and owns about 4,000 head total - almost all the sheep left in the county.

In addition to Jeronimo he employs four other men, all from Peru, who take care of his bands of sheep. Each day the shepherds move the herds around the land, searching for new grassy areas to feed on. As evening falls, they bring the animals to their camps while guard dogs watch over the herd as the shepherds eat and sleep.

At the beginning of May Krebs began moving everyone to the mountains where the summer months will be cooler and the grass a bit greener.

It's been done that way since 1917, when the Krebs family first bought the ranch. The routines were probably done long before that, too, Krebs says. Today, though, large range operations are harder to operate than they used to be, and they have dwindled over the years, adding to the decrease of the nation's sheep herds. Among the many issues sheep producers face, not least of which are the increasing number of coyotes and cougars attacking herds, land and labor are the hardest obstacles to overcome.

Ranchers serious about sheep producing need several thousand head of sheep to stay profitable. But irrigated crop circles and subdivisions are whittling away the wide-open spaces needed for grazing. What's left is vulnerable to drought.

"Running sheep takes a lot of land, and very little of it is privately-owned," explains Karen Watson, a small-flock sheep producer in Hermiston, with only about 250 sheep. "We do it, but it's not our livelihood. You can't have it be on 250 ewes. Sheep ranching is a way of life that works when there's wide-open country."

And even when land is available, the shepherd's position is no longer easily filled. The job requires that he live in isolation, away from most of the technologies of the 21st century, with only his dogs, the sheep, a horse and a twice-weekly visit from the rancher to keep him company.

Americans don't want the job, Krebs says. Instead almost all of the herders in the domestic lamb industry come from far-off places, mostly South American countries. For the foreign herders, it means a better quality of life.

Even though he just arrived in January, Quispe-Valario, the 47-year-old shepherd from Peru, said he already knows he wants to sign up for another three-year contract with Krebs Ranch when his current one expires - even though it means long absences from his wife and two kids.

The money is good, he told Krebs, three times the $300 a month he would make in his native country doing the same job.

Krebs says each herder has a cell phone. Most have radios. Some have TVs. Krebs visits often with supplies based on lists they give him.

After stopping at Quispe-Valario's camp, Krebs went to Edgar Alaria's trailer, on the other side of the canyon. The 41-year-old herder is Quispe-Valario's brother-in-law. He is in the midst of his second contract with the Krebs' Ranch, and says he is hoping to save enough money to send his three kids to school in Peru.

In addition to a bag of concentrated milk, oranges, yogurt and potatoes, Krebs hands Alaria a cardboard box with a pair of brand-new shoes. In Spanish, they joke about the price of the shoes and what Alaria owes Krebs. On a recent list of things Alaria said he needed, he wrote down, "a woman."

"I tried to ask the woman at the grocery store what aisle they were in," Krebs says. "But it didn't work."

Krebs says he believes the industry isn't completely out of hope. He says he thinks there are niches where the industry can expand. Sheep, for instance, are becoming coveted for weed and fire control in areas such as Los Angeles, and locally in Hermiston and Stanfield.

On a national level, as well, there is optimism about sustaining the industry. Recently the United States Department of Agriculture announced the one-year extension of a program meant to help even out the fluctuating, unpredictable prices of wool and lamb meat.

The ewe lamb replacement/retention program will provide $18.85 million in payments to sheep producers; $18 a head for every ewe lamb they keep through this year's breeding cycle (versus selling the lambs to a feedlot or slaughterhouse). The program is meant to increase herd numbers and has been in place for about three years.

Last year it helped stabilize market prices, said Orwick, the executive director of ASI. Its extension into this year may be a boost for the industry.

"This new one-year program will give these producers a final opportunity to enhance the genetics of their ewe lamb breeding stock," said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman a few months ago, when the program was announced.

As a result, Orwick said that this year for the first time in at least a decade the industry expects to grow its numbers.