Brigitte Bowers: Drought, economy take toll on family sheep farm in Merced County

03/21/2014 11:30 PM

03/21/2014 11:38 PM

Bernard Urrutia is looking over the fence, watching the shearers clip his sheep. “The sheep, they’re like raising kids,” he said. “They’re always finding a hole in the fence. There’s always something wrong.”

It’s a warm Sunday afternoon in February and we’re standing in a field at the corner of Highway 140 and Gurr Road, between Merced and Atwater. Urrutia’s 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. Cornejo‘s 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 he’d 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 it’s fast money. It might be fast, I think, but it sure doesn’t 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, they’d give you a nickel more for quality, but now it’s all different. It used to be, we’d raise the lambs and they’d 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 they’re getting $3 dollars a pound for almonds, while lamb is going for a dollar. And what uses more water? I’ve got nothing against almond ranchers, but it just doesn’t make sense.”

Urrutia doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to stay in the sheep business. He used to run 7,000 lambs, but now he’s down to 1,700. He worries he’ll 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 hasn’t helped. Urrutia tells me that farmers are letting their fields go fallow, so they don’t 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 can’t 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 I’ve got to pay the fine and buy a new battery. Then there’s the coyotes and the dogs.”

Urrutia’s 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 don’t look very good and the chemicals are ruining what’s left. Something’s 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 shouldn’t go into sheep,” he said again. “Everything’s against it.”

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