Immigrant workers needed by many sheep producers |

Immigrant workers needed by many sheep producers

Loretta Sorensen
for Tri-State Livestock News
American sheep producers rely on foreign labor year-round to maintain their sheep herds. Producers invest a great deal of trust, training and money into ensuring they have a good hand for their operation and livestock like these two Peruvian sheepherders. Photo by Sheridan Little

America’s sheep industry isn’t among the segments of the country’s agricultural sector lobbying for new immigration laws as much as codifying its existing program in the proposed new legislation.

American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) Executive Director, Peter Orwick, says that over the past 50 years, America’s sheep producers have found ways to adapt to existing immigration laws. As the potential for immigration legislation reform hovers on the horizon, Orwick and his colleagues are making sure their legislators know that their industry needs to hang onto some of the directives now governing employment of foreign workers.

“Under the H-2A program, sheep producers have been able to maintain a legal work force,” Orwick says. “We had to find a way to make H-2A work for us when it was put in place in the 1950s. At that time, we found that Americans had no interest in working as sheepherders and foreign labor was our only resolution for that situation. Because sheepherders are needed year-round and the current law allows them to work on a three-year contract, the provisions of H-2A fit this industry’s immigration labor needs.”

Early in 2013, in consideration of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744), Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) spoke on the Senate floor in support of the special sheepherder provisions allowed to the sheep industry for more than 50 years.

“The special procedures play an important role in protecting the future of American agriculture,” Enzi said. “I am pleased the [proposed] immigration bill allows occupations such as sheepherding to operate under the new program as it has operated for the past 50 years. In addition, I am pleased that the legislation recognizes a specific need to address the unique wage, housing and operational components of the special procedure programs. Finally, it is vital that rulemaking requires agency consultation with stakeholders when drafting policies for the special procedure program.”

Special provisions in current immigration laws make it possible for sheep producers to abide by laws related to mobile housing, length of stay outside the U.S. and wage surveys.

“These special procedures are the reason why the H-2A program has worked so well for our industry for many years,” Orwick says. “The ASI strongly supports legislation to codify these provisions to insure the H-2A program continues successfully for the nation’s lamb and wool producing farm and ranch families.”

Orwick notes that sheepherders often move sheep across rangelands encompassing 200,000 to 300,000 acres of rugged terrain.

“Experience and continuity are keys to successful sheep herding because of the large expanse of grazing lands that comprise most sheep operations and the necessity to care for the animals themselves,” Orwick says. “A herder learns the grazing boundaries, which are typically not fenced on federal grazing permits. They also learn the location of livestock water, areas of poisonous plants to avoid, and behavior of the sheep during different seasons of the year. Sheepherders are also responsible for care of sheep dogs, guard dogs and the skills required for sheep production during breeding, lambing, summer grazing and shipping.”

Most immigrant workers who come to the U.S. to herd sheep learned the occupation in their home country. In contrast to pulling a tin roof over a rock hut in Peru, American sheepherders have solar power for appliances and live in a small mobile home they move from place to place. They also have cell phones and work alongside sheep producers during lambing, shearing, etc.

Over 500 sheep operations, representing one-third of the nation’s sheep production, depend on foreign sheepherders for their operation. Over 2,500 herders, mostly coming from Peru, Chile and Mexico, work in the United States continuously.

“Mobile housing unit provisions for herding livestock on the open range are very necessary, given the rugged terrain used for grazing sheep in the western United States,” Orwick says. “Related work procedures are also key for specific times of the year when sheep are lambing or require supplemental feeding or shearing.”

The U.S. sheep industry has a $1.7 billion annual impact on the nation’s economy. Any negative impact on the industry would flow through to slaughter plants, wool warehouses and textile mills.

“Our industry doesn’t represent a large share of this country’s foreign work force,” Orwick says. “But we’ve probably been one of the most stable segments of foreign labor for many years. Recently, with all the publicity about illegal workers having a chance to get legal work papers after immigration reform, we’ve seen some foreign workers who have broken their contract and gone illegal thinking the penalties won’t be that severe. The drawn-out media coverage about immigration reform has had a negative impact on us.”

Orwick says sheep producers often make a significant financial investment to identify workers and bring them to the U.S. If those workers don’t abide by immigration laws, producers lose both their monetary investment and all the training of the herder.

“It is understandable why agriculture believes bringing foreign labor administration to the US Department of Agriculture would be a positive thing for all segments of the ag industry,” Orwick says. “One thing that concerns us is the proposed cap on the number of workers who can come to the United States in one year. If that cap is reached in any year and sheep producers lose a foreign worker for some reason, there is no recourse, whereas today we do not operate under a cap.”

Orwick believes sheep industry leaders and sheep producers are mindful of the need to reform current immigration laws, however, they are actively working with legislators to ensure that their industry doesn’t lose the positive aspects of current immigration laws that are working well for them.

“We don’t want the provisions we have to be lost in the rush for making immigration laws work for other parts of the ag industry,” Orwick says. “The proposed multi-year contracts for year-round workers that are of interest to dairy and livestock are similar to what sheep producers use today. One-third of the sheep industry is totally reliant on foreign labor resources. Losing the ability to bring them here in a timely and effective manner would devastate the lamb and wool business.”

The entirety of Enzi’s comments are available at under the H-2A heading.


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