MERCED COUNTY — Bernard Urrutia is looking over the fence, watching the shearers clip his sheep. The sheep, theyre like raising kids, he said. Theyre always finding a hole in the fence. Theres always something wrong.
Its a warm Sunday afternoon in February and were standing in a field at the corner of Highway 140 and Gurr Road, between Merced and Atwater. Urrutias three sons, all teenagers, are helping their mother run the sheep through a temporary chute, made of fence panels, and into a pen for the shearers. Two border collies keep the sheep from turning back.
Inside the pen, Juan Cornejo and his family his father, brothers, uncles and a cousin are wrestling sheep to the ground, flipping them over, and buzzing off their wool in strips that are collected by Tony Mendez, who feeds the raw wool into a baler. Cornejos family has been shearing sheep for a long time.
But Cornejo has trained to be a diesel mechanic, a job that has to be easier than shearing, and I get the feeling that hed like this to be his last shearing. I watch as the Cornejos flip the sheep and then straddle them, guiding the clippers neatly until the sheep are bare. Each one takes no more than 10 minutes. Today, they will shear between 400 and 500 sheep.
Mendez is a forklift driver who tells me he bales wool on the side because its fast money. It might be fast, I think, but it sure doesnt look easy. He feeds heavy armloads of wool into the baler, over and over.
Urrutia has been in the sheep business all of his life. He grew up in a family of sheep ranchers, and he started his own flock in 1977, after graduating from high school. He remembers a lot about how things used to be.
Before, our market used to be Easter, he tells me. Before, theyd give you a nickel more for quality, but now its all different. It used to be, wed raise the lambs and theyd end up on tables right here, in California. Now, they ship em to New York. And we get our lamb from New Zealand.
Urrutia shakes his head and laughs at the absurdity. And theyre getting $3 dollars a pound for almonds, while lamb is going for a dollar. And what uses more water? Ive got nothing against almond ranchers, but it just doesnt make sense.
Urrutia doesnt know how long hell be able to stay in the sheep business. He used to run 7,000 lambs, but now hes down to 1,700. He worries hell have to continue to cut his flock a little bit every year until, eventually, no sheep will be left.
The profit margin is dwindling. The drought hasnt helped. Urrutia tells me that farmers are letting their fields go fallow, so they dont need sheep to eat down the grass and weeds. That means Bernard will buy more alfalfa at a time when prices are soaring because fewer acres of the crop are being planted because it is so water-intensive.
Then there are the losses he cant plan for. I got a fine for my sheep getting out, he complained. They got out because someone stole the battery to power the fence. So someone steals my battery, the electric fence goes out, and Ive got to pay the fine and buy a new battery. Then theres the coyotes and the dogs.
Urrutias eldest son, Nathan, is in his senior year of high school. He hopes to go to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, next year to study mechanical engineering. I asked Bernard if he wants his sons to continue the family legacy of sheep ranching.
No, he said. The only way would be to run about 800 sheep on your own land. He looks out at the pasture, where the shorn ewes are milling around. This valley might be a desert soon anyway. The water table dont look very good and the chemicals are ruining whats left. Somethings wrong with the system.
I say that it seems like a lot to lose, this tradition of sheep ranching.
Urrutia shrugs and looks down. No, they shouldnt go into sheep, he said again. Everythings against it.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.