Feature: The Resolute Shepherd

Published January 2010 Vol. 14 Issue 1

In the rugged hinterlands of Colorado, a Sheepherder has gone off the beaten path in a fight against one of Colorado’s lowest paying industries.

text and images by Jacob Ripple-Carpenter

Note: Employee names in this article were changed or omitted at their request for fear of reprisal.

Mentions of Western American culture conjure up images of corrals and Stetson hat-wearing cowboys with belt buckles the size of dinner plates riding broncos and bulls for eight seconds to the wild cheers of fans. You think of wide-open vistas, desert canyons, or mountains stretching as far as the eye can see.

You rarely think of workers from countries like Peru, Chile, Bolivia or even Nepal traveling through vacant, arid wilderness, following vagabond herds of sheep through winter storms or sweltering summer heat. Gaunt, malnourished faces tanned and creased from a life spent outdoors tending animals and fixing fences, hands crisscrossed with scars and swollen knuckles, slight limps and clothing so ragged and torn that in the winter toes peek out from boots and duct tape holds together gloves.  

There they are, the modern cowboys, a growing part of our doddering Western economy. They roam the countryside in single occupancy tin shacks on wheels. Men who live and work in near solitude, with only sheepdogs and horses to keep one company, workers brought to the U.S. through the H-2A agricultural visa program to slave away, hidden in the deserts and mountains of the West.

To find this real, contemporary vision of the West, you have to leave the interstates and cities behind, digress from highways to dusty, rarely used roads that cut through the frozen winter sage brush flats where average winter temperatures easily hit below zero and the wind eternally blows, stripping hillsides of dirt and painting the snow-banks brown.

Juan anted up and went off the beaten path as a herder. And now, years later, he’s gone all in with an attempt to expose the underbelly of one of Colorado’s most rugged and abusive industries.

A former sheepherder in Northwest Colorado, Juan tended his own herds for years before he worked his way up to a supply driver position. His knees are blown from his time on the range and a surgery to repair the damage years after the fact, and his face is forever tanned from years exposed to the blistering summer sun and fierce winter winds, yet his infectious smile and good nature has never been stolen.  

Juan’s one and only boss during his years on the range, Steve Raftopoulos, of Raftopoulos Ranches, treated Juan so poorly that he unintentionally fed the fire that turned hopeless apathy into a burning desire to fight and change the lives of his fellow ‘borregueros’ Since becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008, Juan has worked as a self-described labor organizer and advocate for other herders. He travels the countryside bringing care packages and winter clothing to distant herders.

“Because of the injustice I saw and experienced, the bad treatment of workers, the low pay and horrible living conditions is why I got involved and continue to work so hard to help,” Juan said.

Juan was recruited from Chile to be a U.S. sheepherder through the Salt Lake City-based Western Range Association, a company that specializes in the recruitment of foreign workers and the lobbying of Congress on behalf of the American sheep industry. His employer, Steve Raftopoulos, was a former board member of Western Range. Like 75,000 other foreign workers in the United States, Juan signed up for the H-2A visa program in the hope that a 1 to 3 year work contract in the United States would help him and his family get ahead back home. The H-2A visa program is a guest worker program designed to bring agricultural workers into the U.S. for a contractual period of time and then return them to their country of origin. The majority of H-2A workers pick peaches, cotton, grapes or just about any agricultural commodity on the market. Unfortunately for Juan, he joined the ranks of the 2,100 borregueros in the United States, workers who essentially occupy the bottom rung of the pay scales in the H-2A program.


Thomas Acker, a professor of Spanish at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo., and a long-standing social justice activist, has been working with Juan to improve conditions for herders. Together, they say they have observed firsthand some of the countless allegations of abuse from herders, and in response they have started the Promethean battle to improve an industry that flies under most everyone’s radar.

“The way the H-2A visa system works for sheepherders puts too much power in the hands of people who have been proven to abuse the workers,” Acker said.

A recent example they reported on involved meeting a particular sheepherder near Craig, Colo., on the weekend of November 28th and 29th, 2009.

This herder stated that his employer had allowed his H-2A visa to expire, then told the worker that he, as the employer, could do whatever he wants now because the worker was now in the country illegally. The rancher allegedly went further to point out that the worker would be safer staying in the job if he didn’t want to face deportation. Currently Dr. Acker and Juan have turned to legal authorities on his case, with the hope that his visa can be renewed while having him transferred to a new industry within the agricultural community.  

Other examples they’ve observed in the field include the confiscation of passports and other important documents by a large majority of ranchers and even the complete control of employee bank accounts, where in some instances workers receive only a handwritten note stating their pay and deductions for the month, instead of being given an actual paycheck or access to a bank. In several cases employers were allowed to not only make deposits, but withdrawals as well. It is expected that full numbers about the abuse of paperwork and paychecks will be released with the final report on the surveys conducted by Colorado Legal Services.

Another aspect of control is the basic right of communication that people in the developed world take for granted in this age of smart phones and social networking. Sheepherders are stuck in their trailer, miles upon miles out into the harsh backcountry, well out of the range of most cell phone towers, making it nearly impossible to call home and check on their families. This isolation makes workers more vulnerable to control and manipulation by employers due to the total reliance on the ranch for every basic necessity. Even the ability to ride a horse to the next sheep camp and converse with a friend is “not permitted” as Carlos, a 62-year-old sheepherder, father and grandfather stated.

Two court cases in the state of Colorado lend credibility to allegations like these. In the first, civil action case 00-M-1873 filed in 2000, the United States Department of Labor found John Peroulis & Sons Sheep Inc. to be guilty of violations ranging from physical and verbal abuse, to failure to provide adequate food and clean water, to illegal deductions from paychecks.  Peroulis & Sons were also found to have confiscated workers’ passports and immigration documents, destroyed personal mail, and retaliated against employees for cooperating with the initial investigation.

The second case No. 06-cv-1043-WYD-MJW was brought against the Vermillion Ranch Limited Partnership in 2006 by six former herders and was settled out of court. The ranch was found guilty of all the above-mentioned abuses as well as making workers perform labor that was not a part of the original contract.

In August 2009, Colorado State Senator Pat Steadman (D) and Colorado Representative Daniel Kagan (D) visited the herders at their camps in the late summer grazing grounds. After witnessing herders without access to adequate food, water, housing, and even their own visas and paychecks, Rep. Kagan expressed his disappointment. “Sheepherders are completely at the mercy of their employers, depending on them utterly for food, shelter, medical care, clothing, and, even, for human contact,” Kagan said. “That state of total dependency is wrong, and almost invites abuse of the employee.  Already, they are woefully underpaid and, during lambing season, a herder can be required to work as many as twenty hours in a day.  A day off is something a sheepherder can only dream about,” he concluded.

Rep. Kagan’s disappointment notwithstanding, Dr. Acker thinks that changing life for Colorado herders and others scattered around the west would require systemic shifts in the H-2A program itself, not just in rancher behavior and attitude.

“It [H-2A Visa Program] makes the workers vulnerable to predatory men who see only the bottom line and not the lives of the workers that the entire system revolves around. To correct the injustice, we have to change the system.

Those changes will have to come from the legal system that has allowed this situation to occur. But even now, Colorado legislators who support herders are on the defensive. When asked about his ability to introduce legislation to reform the sheepherding industry in Colorado, Rep. Kagan said it was an uphill battle. “Reform might be a possibility if we can keep the bill out of the Agricultural committee chaired by Rep. Kathleen Curry,” Kagan said, referring to a currently unnamed bill that is being crafted to give more power to employees,“but keeping it out of that committee will be difficult at best.”  Curry’s reputation is that of a notorious ally to the ranching industry, leaving little hope for improvement in working conditions for Colorado’s sheepherders any time soon.

Many assume that because these men leave their homes in countries that are a stage or two behind in development, that they must be making absurd amounts of money in comparison to their home countries. But as Jose, a 35-year-old Peruvian who left behind a wife and two children 3 years ago to work for the Vermillion Ranch in Colorado’s back country stated, “It seemed like a lot of money when I signed the contract, but in reality, the money I am making here doesn’t enable us to take much back to Peru with us.”  

According to the laws, each state in the region has different pay scales that are linked to their local wages. Arizona and Wyoming lead the pack with the lowest wages of a paltry $650 a month in compensation. Colorado and Utah are tied at number two with $750 a month, then Nevada at $850, and finally California, who pays their borregueros $1,200 a month.

This $750 a month for the average Colorado herder compensates them for being on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, averaging out to a $1.12 an hour in the state of Colorado; in Wyoming and Arizona that drops to $0.90 an hour. Ranchers have managed to pay this rate through the assertion that herders are merely ‘on call,’ therefore they are exempt from hourly wages on a larger scale. However, with over 70 herders interviewed in Wyoming and Colorado, I have yet to meet a herder who considers himself to merely be ‘on call.’

With doctors, mechanics, nurses and even plumbers as an on call comparison, they get to relax at home or on the golf course while they are waiting for a call from their employer. Sheepherders never leave their worksite, never socialize, watch a football game, or eat dinner with their family, let alone play golf. In fact, a survey from the state of California (2000) found that 90 percent of sheepherders never had a day off, and the preliminary results of a survey conducted by Colorado Legal Services between late 2007 and early 2009 found that almost three quarters of borregueros had never had a day off since their planes touched down on American soil. If a worker had signed on for a three year contract, that would be 1,095 days of straight labor for a grand total of $27,000 in compensation. In reality, you would be hard pressed to find a herder who takes home that much money at the end of their stint as a worker in the U.S. sheep industry.

“These H-2A sheepherders are part of a program of government-sanctioned exploitation, given that it is entirely legal to pay sheepherders an abysmally low salary without giving them any days off,” said Jennifer Lee, a managing attorney for the Migrant Farm Worker Division of Colorado Legal Services. Colorado Legal Services represents herders in disputes against ranchers and performs outreach and education to herders on their rights.

In accordance to the law (20 C.F.R.§ 655.93(c)), “All H-2A sheepherder (goat herder) employers must offer their U.S. and foreign workers free food.  Board arrangements may involve the provision of three prepared meals a day when workers are in camp or free and convenient cooking facilities and provision of food for the workers to prepare themselves while in camp or on the range.” Instead, each herder interviewed stated that they were charged for food, with the expenses taken automatically out of their checks. Jennifer Lee confirmed that ranchers must provide food, but said that they often decide certain food items, like bread and cookies, are ‘luxury items’ that employees must pay for.

When you consider the reported paycheck deductions for clothing and luxuries such as soap, Tylenol or even reading material, that $27,000 for three years of labor drops substantially. According to Juan, “The typical rancher would only spend  $100 to $130 a month on food for a herder.” That involves literally just the basics: beans, rice, canned vegetables, maybe some chicken, but usually hunks of mutton sat in card board boxes or hung from the sides of trailers. Animals from the herd that had died from accidents or were simply culled from the herd and then given over to the workers. Fresh vegetables or fruit were simply beyond the realm of luxury for herders and nearly beyond comprehension after a few months working the range.

This is in sharp contrast to the experience of one 23-year-old herder named Miguel I interviewed recently, who had been a shepherd in his home of Bolivia. “I was shocked when I came here. In Bolivia I had a garden, electricity, and running water. Here I only have canned food and barrels of old water which I share with the horses and dogs.” We were unable to confirm conditions in Bolivia, but the conditions in Colorado are aptly described.

Rep. Kagan says he has met resistance to any proposed improvements for herders. “The ranching interests and their allies in the agricultural sector are fiercely resistant to any improvements in sheepherders’ wages or working conditions, because any change would both cost them money and reduce the extent of their control over their workers.  Not only that, the ranchers (quite understandably) also resent any suggestion that they are other than enlightened employers, and some of them believe that reform efforts represent a challenge to their decency as human beings.  So some ranchers see sheepherders’ rights legislation as striking them not only in the pocket, but also in the heart.”

“The ranchers…resent any suggestion that they are other than enlightened employers, and some of them believe that reform efforts represent a challenge to their decency as human beings.”
— Rep. Daniel Kagan

Kagan’s comments had an almost clairvoyant insight. Bonnie Brown of the Colorado Wool Growers Association said she thinks ranchers are misunderstood. “Advocates for herders should perhaps familiarize themselves with the entire situation that surrounds the job of sheep herding,” she said “instead of immediately assuming that ranchers are deliberately being mean and unfair to their workers.”

Brown said herders should be paid based on experience, and she thinks both Western Range and Mountain Plains groups have processes for solving problems among herders.  “Their pay scale should reflect their skill level as well and incorporate other benefits they receive such as payment for airfare, food, and housing that is appropriate for range conditions,” she said. But she added that Colorado herders were reasonably compensated in her opinion, and that increases in wages in other parts of the country were mistakes.

“Did you know the last wage increase in California was actually based on a reporting error from the sheep industry?” she queried, “The secretary of one California ranch accidently reported the wrong number for their herder wages and the subsequent wage increase was based on that clerical error?”

The divide between the industry perspective and advocate perspective continues to deepen. As Bonnie says, she believes that Colorado Legal Services, which advocates for herders, has it out for the industry “often times, turning a minor grievance into an orchestrated calamity that only Colorado Legal Services perceives that they can fix,” she said.

But on the other side, at least a few court cases have demonstrated the examples of the industry’s excesses when it comes to poor pay and poor treatment. Additionally, employees have shown pay stubs with deductions for airfare. One employee pay stub provided for this article showed an income of (-$94.18) after deductions.

‘If it’s not your heart, it’s not important.’
While Bonnie Brown says herders are important members of the ranch, and that the Colorado Wool Growers Association doesn’t condone “abusive behavior” toward herders, Colorado Legal Services and herders say H-2A sheepherders not only don’t get paid adequately, but lack basic healthcare and any form of safety net to help in the event of an injury on the open range. According to the California survey in 2000 (these numbers have not yet been released for the newer survey conducted by Colorado Legal Services), 46 percent of workers had been injured or became ill on the job, and 61 percent of these men had never received medical attention of any kind.

Even if the injury isn’t life threatening, many employers do all they can to keep their premiums low. Recently in the Meeker area of Colorado, one herder, Marlon Cerron-Martinez, blew his knee out when he stepped into a hole as he was tending his herd. According to Marlon, while the insurance paperwork was going through, his employers from the Old Land Brothers Incorporated ranch suggested that he head back to Peru to see his family while the claim was being processed. When he got home, the company dropped his claim and fired Marlon. Marlon is out his job and his health, with an injury that requires surgery and no money to repair it.

Juan and Dr. Acker have said that on every trip they make, they have found workers living with chronic pain or with injuries due to the brutally hard, repetitive nature of the work, yet fear of unemployment keeps them from complaining or asking for help. As 50-year-old Renee said on one trip, “If you go to the boss and say something hurts or that you’ve injured yourself, he says, ‘If it’s not your heart, it’s not important.’”

The Lonely “Campito”
On investigative trips, Juan guides interested parties and advocates out into the empty countryside that herders call home. His years on the range show through his almost supernatural sense of direction that never fails, even when the GPS unit does. In dusty shimmering deserts or pine filled foggy valleys he can always point unerringly towards the next campito, or one-man trailer unit used by herders.

Sheep herding has always been a lonely profession, and the “campito” is testament to that. Living quarters are often the inadequate leftovers from an era that has already passed into antiquity. “Campito” is a term that refers to the small trailers in which the sheepherders live. These 7x13 foot metal trailers house the borregueros as they travel from the winter deserts to the summer mountains and back again in the endless cycle of animal husbandry that is their lives. The majority of campitos are derelict ancient things, held together by spot welds, with tiny wood burning stoves that would be collectible antiques by most standards.

For the length of their visa this is home, where the workers spend every night with only the bray of sheep, the bark of dogs and the howl of the wind to keep them company. In the summer, most trailers have no way of regulating heat and since they are essentially a giant tin can, they absorb and magnify the sun’s rays. When you add in the wood stove that may be the only place to cook meals, temperatures inside the campitos can easily reach 100 degrees. On one summer trip, a worker was documented who actually stored his meat on top of the trailer in an attempt to keep it from rotting in the heat of his trailer before he could eat it. This was the only way to keep it from the ants and sheep dogs dotting the plains, while keeping it relatively fresher than it would be in the trailer.

In the winter they contend with the opposite extreme, where temperatures can get so low that canned goods freeze solid and any meat must be stored in cardboard boxes right next to the stove where it is constantly thawed out and frozen as the stove is stoked with fresh wood. Many trailers are so dilapidated that workers stuff cardboard between themselves and the walls in the winter to keep warm. Not a single trailer provides facilities to use a restroom or shower and over three quarters of herders in the preliminary findings of the Colorado Legal Services survey had never had access to a functioning restroom during their employment.

Although the industry seems to avoid it, there is a solution to the campito problem. A one-man factory in Glade Park, Colo. produces modernized campito trailers from top to bottom.  Owner Gary Kroft stated that his trailers are of such high quality at such a good price that hunters often purchase them instead of RVs. His campitos are larger and are equipped with such modern necessities as electricity, water, and gas stoves in addition to modern and efficient wood stoves. When asked how much it would cost to retrofit an older trailer with a solar panel system to provide electricity he quipped, “It would only cost around $700 and I could even make room for a mini fridge at that price.” The Utah-based Wilson Camps Company builds trailers with all the above mentioned amenities in addition to a pull out shower. The top of the line models at both locations average around $12,000 and are Cadillacs of quality in comparison to the Model-T’s currently roaming the range.

As things stand, the region’s sheepherding industry looks like a curious system of aristocracy in a region of the U.S. that is so proud of its independence, and whose history brings to mind freedom. This is even reflected in the language of workers when they refer to their employers as ‘patron’ instead of boss. Those who own the land or have contracts to graze their livestock on public lands have an unfettered ability to control nearly every aspect of the lives of their employees. Under the terms of H-2A contracts, employees are bound to their employer for the life of the agreement. Only 3 percent of workers in the preliminary findings of the survey released by Colorado Legal Services said there was nothing they would change about their jobs. That leaves 97 percent of borregueros unhappy with their experience in the industry and as Manuel, a former herder who went with me on my first trip said, “Who would have guessed that the world’s greatest power would have these types of conditions and these types of treatments for people.”