SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
The lifestyle of Hugo Rojas is not for the faint of heart.
For months on end, he goes without running water and other comforts. He braves inclement weather, confronts predatory wildlife and endures spells of loneliness. But most of the time, he doesn’t mind too much.
“I like this job,” Rojas said in Spanish. “The best part is the peace and quiet.”
Rojas, 32, is one of many foreign herders – or borregueros – who tend sheep across the American West each year. He’s from Huancayo, a medium-sized city in Peru’s central highlands, and learned the craft of shepherding from his poor but industrious grandparents.
The men who stare at sheep
Federal law permits farm and ranch operations to hire foreign nationals for grueling seasonal jobs most U.S. citizens lack the expertise or willpower to do. For most of the 20th century, herding was the domain of the Basque people, whose skills transferred seamlessly from the Pyrenees mountains straddling France and Spain. But now the Basques have been supplanted by workers from South America – mostly Peru, Chile, Bolivia – and Mexico.
The H-2A visa lasts for one year initially but can be extended twice for a total of three years. The worker then must return home for at least three months before reapplying. The Department of Labor granted 55,384 such visas in fiscal year 2011.
Rojas has worked for Ignacio rancher and Colorado state Rep. J. Paul Brown for the last five years, helping care for Brown’s 4,000 head of sheep.
This week, Rojas is returning to civilization after spending three months on the grassy slopes northeast of Lemon Reservoir, as far out as the Weminuche Wilderness.
Leasing grazing allotments from the federal government, either on Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management holdings, is common practice among ranchers. Typically, the sheep are trailed up to the high country in June and return in late September or early October. To keep the flocks healthy and well-fed, herders move them to a new basin on a weekly basis.
$750 a month
Borregueros are exempt from federal minimum-wage standards because of difficulty tabulating their hours. Instead, they are paid a monthly stipend established by the states. Colorado’s prevailing rate is $750 per month.
To most outside observers, this appears a paltry sum for such strenuous, around-the-clock work. Advocacy groups such as the Denver-based Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and Colorado Legal Services publicly have denounced the wage loophole as unjust exploitation of cheap labor. The lamb and wool lobbies disagree, citing slim profit margins and the need to keep the industry viable. The borregueros are paid better than they would be at home, they say.
“I am here for the money,” Rojas says. “Of course, for the money, but also I enjoy the work because I grew up around animals in the countryside.”
Rojas mails most of his earnings back to Peru to support his wife, Magali, and 3-year-old daughter, Esmerelda. Long term, he hopes to stockpile enough money to build a house.
“I have a piece of land already,” he says cheerfully.
Soon, though, a tinge of melancholy creeps into his voice.
“It’s very difficult to be separated,” he said. “I want to see them always, but I need to work to sustain my family.”
Because the herder positions are in high demand among Peruvians, Rojas says, the application process is competitive and involves much paperwork, interviews and bureaucratic red tape.
Sometimes a family connection can help. Rojas discovered this job opportunity from his elder cousin, Aldo, who tended Brown’s flocks until a severe pulmonary condition landed him in a Grand Junction hospital. Now back in Peru, Aldo operates his own taxi service, Brown says proudly.
A day in the life
Rojas’ daily routine begins at sunrise, when the sheep stir from their slumber. He makes the rounds, counting the handful of black sheep that serve as markers in a sea of white Rambouillet-Finn hybrids; recessive genes give a select few the dark coloring. A single missing black sheep could indicate that a larger coterie have ambled away from the herd overnight – “it’s all about percentages,” Brown said.
Rojas remembers the learning curve that came with working in a new country.
“The first year was difficult because I didn’t know this place and the ewes wandered everywhere,” he said. “Now, I have almost no problems because I know the area.”
He must keep constantly vigilant to spot wayward lambs and predators keen to make a kill. Coyotes and bears are his biggest headaches, although the use of Akbash or Great Pyrenees guard dogs has cut losses significantly.
Sometimes the solitary nature of his profession is a struggle.
“Living alone can be sad, thinking about things you’ve done in the past and the memories,” Rojas said. “I try to cheer up my heart by remembering my family and the good times. But sometimes you need to talk to someone.”
At least he has a horse and his dogs for company, he jokes. He also reads books, listens to a solar-powered radio and serenades himself with flute music.
Rojas does receive weekly visits from Brown and his son, Levi. Depending on how remote Rojas’ location is, they ride on truck or horseback to his campsite to give him a respite and deliver supplies.
The senior Brown lamented that politics – he was elected to the Colorado Legislature in 2010 – impinges on his ranching roots.
“From 1976 to 2010, I spent at least two nights each week in the summers up in the high country sleeping in a bedroll. Now, I have less time,” he said.
It’s late September, and the sheep are getting restless. Brown says they have a strong internal body clock and can sense when the time to migrate is approaching.
The 33-mile journey will begin today: descending from Middle Mountain, past Lemon Dam, down a series of winding county roads and into Bayfield on Saturday morning for Heritage Days. The final stretch takes them down Buck Highway to Brown’s Ignacio ranch.
As much as Rojas enjoys the scenic views and fresh air of the high country, he’s excited about rediscovering the joys of cellphone reception; he can’t wait to hear the voice of his young daughter. He has a lot of pent-up words to share.