POWELL — Many businesses are struggling to fill positions with unemployment so low, but for sheep farmers, it’s nothing new. Domestic workers willing to do the hard work out in the elements for the wages the farmers can afford to pay are extremely scarce.
To fill his positions, Smith Sheep and Stuff owner Regan Smith has to recruit employees from Peru through the federal H2A visa program.
This is similar to the H2B visa program, which many hotels and restaurants in Cody utilize to fill positions during the summer. Unlike the seasonal H2B visa workers, though, the H2A visa workers can stay for as long as three years.
Though the workers have to spend long periods separated from their families, they can also make a lot more money than they can back in their home countries. Most of them send their earnings back home.
“It’s the best foreign aid we can provide,” Smith said.
While the visa workers are a valuable source of labor, Smith has to apply to the federal government for employees. He navigates a hefty bureaucracy of paperwork and regulations, some of which he says make sense. But a lot of them are enormously inconvenient and ultimately irrational.
“You wonder sometimes how much common sense the government has anymore,” he said.
For example, Smith is required to provide adequate housing for his workers, and sometimes the housing gets inspected. It’s a reasonable requirement to ensure employers in the United States aren’t packing visa workers into unhealthy conditions.
But while the law is based on good intentions, the specific requirements don’t always make sense. For example, Smith is limited in how long his employees can stay in permanent housing. So, the workers staying with the sheep in campers in the mountains sometimes have to be rotated with those staying in worker housing Smith built down on his Powell farm. Whether or not it’s practical for whatever work is needed at the time, the rotations are needed just to avoid running foul of federal law. When Smith built the housing, he had to make sure the windows met government regulations for their width.
All those regulatory requirements, and the paperwork associated with them, adds to the cost of Smith’s labor. He uses an association based in Casper, which manages his compliance, letting him know what forms have to be submitted when.
In addition to regulatory compliance costs, fees, room, board and wages, Smith has to pay for travel costs of his visa workers. Two of them are returning to their families in Peru in a couple months, and that’s $1,200 to $1,500 Smith must pay for their travel home.
Smith is also required to pay a minimum wage, which is about $1,600 per month, on top of room and board.
“They’re away from their families for three years. That’s not easy; don’t get me wrong,” he said.
Today’s shepherds have it a bit easier when they’re spending months up on the mountain. With cellphones and email, they can stay in touch with their families back home a lot more easily.
One of Smith’s visa workers, Ivan Jimenez Munive, watches DVDs of his kids playing soccer. The camper is hooked up to a solar panel. The panel charges a battery, which Munive can also use to keep a cellphone charged. It helps ease the isolation a lot more than was possible before all this technology.
With commodity prices so low, Smith can’t afford to pay the workers more, and since federal law doesn’t permit him to pay less, he can’t offer a training wage.
As with any business, shepherding requires a set of skills. Any new employee has to be trained in how to do it. Smith said decisions made today can impact the process a year later, and it’s not always obvious to the inexperienced shepherd.
“Until they’re there to see the complete cycle, the lights don’t come on,” he said.
The way federal law is laid out, he can’t incentivize visa workers with the promise of higher wages when training is complete. The worker with no experience makes mostly the same as one with a decade in sheep farming.
It’s also difficult to replace a worker who decides sheep farming is not for him.
“You don’t just go to town and pick up another one,” he said.
The domestic market for sheep products, the wool and meat, is pretty limited, especially when competing against herders from countries like New Zealand, which has a more accommodating climate for sheep farming and can produce the products at lower costs. About the only area Smith’s operation is competitive with foreign producers is on the overseas shipping costs.
“There’s not a lot of gravy in this deal right now. There’s not a lot of gravy in agriculture anywhere right now,” Smith remarked.
Even with that advantage in shipping, most of his produce goes to the export market.
“We’re at the mercy of the foreign market,” he said. Asked why he continues farming sheep, he ponders the question a moment.
“You’re your own boss. It’s a good way to raise a family and teach them a work ethic,” Smith said.
At the end of it all, Smith stays in agriculture for the same reasons other farmers do: It’s what they know and love.
“If you get into agriculture for the money, you made a poor decision,” he said. “You got to treat it as a business. It’s a way of life, and you’re building equity. Hopefully you get some enjoyment out of it. There are days that are a lot more enjoyable than others.”