Fermin Salomon corrals sheep at the Martinez lambing camp in Mabton.
Photo by: Sofia Jaramillo

Washington’s Sheepherders

Photography and Essay by Sofia Jaramillo

On a warm summer morning, dozens of miles away from civilization out in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Geronimo De La Cruz sits on a tree stump and watches over a flock of sheep. Wind wisps through pine trees, the sun gleams down.

De La Cruz spends most of the year in solitude. Following the seasonal grazing schedules of sheep, he travels across vast swaths of land, moving hundreds of the animals throughout Eastern Washington.

 

Sheep are loaded onto a truck at the Martinez lambing camp in Mabton, Wash., Friday, May 13, 2016. After spending the winter in barns, sheep are trucked out to various grazing allotments in the spring to feed. The sheep graze on private and public land in remote areas throughout eastern Washington. Herders must watch carefully over the sheep to protect them against predators and keep them fed.
Photo by: Sofia Jaramillo

He is one within a group of workers from Peru who come to Washington under the federal H-2A visa program to work as sheepherders. H-2A allows agricultural employers to hire foreign workers for seasonal jobs that would not be filled otherwise. The workers arrive with comprehensive husbandry knowledge gained from the sheepherding industry in the Peruvian city of Huancayo, a high-altitude metropolis where surrounding mountains provide steep, luscious terrain for sheep.

On call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and earning about $1,200 a month, the herders’ main duty is to watch and protect sheep from predators. They work 2.5-year periods before returning to Peru for three months at a time. Most of the sheepherders are married men in their 40s or older with families back in Peru. They work alone, living in small trailers, camping out under the stars, providing for their wives and college-bound children. They hope their children might pursue other careers. And for that they are grateful.

CasSely De La Cruz, 32, watches sheep as they are loaded into a truck near Moxee. De La Cruz is the youngest of the sheepherders working alongside his father, Heraclio, and his uncle Geronimo.
Photo by: Sofia Jaramillo
Fermin Salomon watches sheep as they are let out into pasture during the beginning of grazing season. Sheepherding is labor-intensive work and comes with long hours of solitude.
Photo by: Sofia Jaramillo
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