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.
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.
Heraculo De La Cruz moves sheep along U.S. Highway 97 near Blewett Pass. At its peak during the 1970s, the Martinez operation’s grazing lands spanned from Richland to Twisp. The family had about 12,000 sheep, but now they have about 4,000. | Sheep jump out of a truck as they are let out to graze. To prevent the destruction of grazing land, sheep herders move the sheep about every two days. | Geronimo De La Cruz reads a magazine while taking his lunch break in his trailer. All food and materials are supplied by the owner of S. Martinez Livestock. Since they must keep a close eye on the sheep, herders rarely have the opportunity to go into cities and shop. In his downtime De La Cruz reads or listens to the radio on his phone.