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Despite challenges, sheep industry thrives in Yuma area
Few men and even fewer women flock to the sheep industry nowadays.
However, the Yuma vicinity — because of its winter climate — has proven to be a great place to prepare sheep for the market. The success of the industry, both here and elsewhere, is largely because of the people of Basque ethnic origin, who have struggled to keep the industry alive.
Hundreds of sheep are imported to the Yuma and surrounding areas in late September and early October from northern states to graze the fields, bear their lambs and put on weight. The industry has been fraught with challenges since the 1950s, leading many of the producers to abandon their raising the woolly grazers. In the fall and winter, travelers in the Yuma vicinity might expect to see from 500 to 2,000 sheep in Yuma flocks and up to 1,300 to 2,300 in the El Centro and Brawley areas, where grazing fields are larger and more plentiful.
It is the Basques, whose ethnic origin is northern Spain and southern France, who have persisted the most in the sheep-producing tradition throughout the Western states, especially in California, Idaho and surrounding states.
In the Yuma and Imperial Valley areas, the Martin “Tine” Auza family — also of Basque descent and owner of Martin Auza Sheep Co. — has struggled to overcome obstacles that made him consider getting out of the business, too.
“It costs just as much to run a band of 500 head as it does to run 1,800,” says Auza, who resides in Yuma with his wife, Shirley, but who moved his sheep business to the Brawley area about 22 years ago. “It has about the same labor, the same everything. The only thing different is the weather over there compared to Yuma.
“When it rains (in Imperial Valley) we have to do different things. It takes longer to dry over there. It has heavier soil. But that's part of business. You have to learn it and do what you've got to do. For me it was a good move.”
Adequate pastureland and good employees to watch the flocks are concerns not only of Auza, but also of Alma Sarratea, who recently inherited her Basque husband Tony's sheep business after Tony suffered a fatal heart attack in June. In Yuma specifically, the available land for grazing has diminished because the land here is cultivated more and more with vegetables and citrus than in pasture.
Land is only one of their concerns, though.
“You move the sheep into a different field, and it's too green and the sheep get sick or bloat,” Auza says. “Or the field has been sprayed with some chemical; or chemicals drift from another field — even if they don't get sick, they lose weight.”
Ironically, both Auza and Sarratea agree that dogs, even more than coyotes, threaten their sheep, yet dogs are also used to corral them. The Sarrateas raise their own border collies to help them. It is other people's dogs that both she and Auza say have caused losses to their businesses.
“It can be the nicest dog in the world,” says Auza, “but if it gets out there at night with the neighbor's dog or with your own dog, you would be surprised what they do.
“I had about a 130 head that I lost in one night in Somerton to two German shepherds. They say coyotes kill just to eat? That's a bunch of baloney. Those who say that never left city hall. Some coyotes get used to killing and they will kill four or five, and they do not stop.”
Besides dogs, Auza relates other struggles that he has had to overcome.
“When I went to the Imperial Valley, there were 13 lamb feeders. Today there are four. In the last of the '90s, I was thinking about getting out of the business myself.”
If it weren't for a cooperative he joined, he says he would be out of business. That co-op — based in Greeley, Colo., and in the Bronx — grades, purchases and processes the lambs that he raises. Auza still talks about the lean times during the 1990s when although the demand for sheep existed, imports took their financial toll in the business in which he has spent all his life.
“You can't learn it overnight,” Auza says of the sheep business. “In order to really know it, you have to live it. You have to spend the time — I mean three, four or five years, whatever. We had our opportunities and a dad and other people that knew us that taught us everything.”
For the sheep business, wintertime in the Yuma area is a nice place, Auza maintains. “To see things growing in the wintertime — most places don't have that. So that's why it fit our program.”
Despite his business' move to Imperial Valley in 1988, Auza says he still faces additional challenges: the soil and more rain. When Imperial Valley's rain continues, Auza says he has to take the sheep to a feedlot because they cannot graze in muddy fields. Imperial County's soil is more alkaline — unlike in Yuma, where sandy soil on the mesa drains well, allowing the fields to dry faster after a rain
“When it rains a lot in the winter time, the lambs don't do anything. They don't gain. They don't do well anywhere in rain — they're not ducks,” Auza says with a chuckle. “Nowadays if it keeps raining, I just load up the sheep and go to the feedlots in Colorado. Today I have lambs year-round either here or in Colorado.”
Other factors challenge him, too.
“You think you know everything,” Auza says after being in the business for so long, “but then Mother Nature shows up with disease, or the prices change. We can't control any of that. We can't sell lambs on the futures market like you do cattle or hogs. So when we buy lambs, it's just like going to Las Vegas — we just hope it works.”
While success has not come easily in this industry, the market currently shows signs of greener pastures ahead. Auza estimates that between Yuma and the Imperial Valley, the commercial sheep industry is currently worth about $36.25 million at $250 per head.
“If we had these prices back in the '70s, we would still have a lot more lambs out here, but that didn't happen.”
Manpower — or lack of it — is yet another challenge to the sheep industry. Because the sheep must be tended 24 hours a day, seven days a week, few people will endure a nomadic lifestyle to tend them. Some of these workers may not even see a town for a whole year. Auza says he hires men mostly from Peru, Chile and sometimes Mexico.
“Those people from other countries are used to doing work, and they stick to it. They don't just work a few hours and then want to do something else.”
They come from real poverty, he says, “where zero is high. They have to work. The government doesn't give them anything. They work or they die. This is how my dad and everyone else came here. They didn't ask how much you are going to pay them. They just wanted a job.”
Perhaps the single most effective tool that Auza has found to enhance his success in the sheep business is the electric fence, which he was one of the first in Arizona to use in 1983.
“If it weren't for the electric fence, I wouldn't be in the Imperial Valley today. Regular wire takes too much time, too much expense and the lambs still jump out of them. But with an electric fence, one jumps out, but the rest don't follow.”
Auza attributes much of his success to his father, Frank Auza Sr., who came from the Basque area of Spain — the district of Navarre not too far from Pamplona. When his father was about 10 years old in 1917, during a Flagstaff epidemic, all the schools were closed. So his father went to work with the sheep and never returned to school.
“That's how we learned the business,” said Auza, whose family grew up in Flagstaff. “At one time, everybody in the family was in the sheep business.”
Not only has the current lack of strong imports led to a shortage of lambs in the United States, Auza says that ethnic groups like the Muslims, who he says consume more than a million lambs annually, buy directly from producers, so those never enter the market.
Auza says the biggest markets have been in New York, the Midwest and the East Coast, where different ethnic groups consume lamb.
“People who eat lamb have to be on the high end moneywise,” Auza says. “Probably 90 percent of those (who say they don't like it) have never eaten it in the first place because the price is what scares them off, and they won't admit it.”
Auza explains that the co-op to which he belongs makes lamb more affordable by removing the bones and packing it smaller to make it “case ready” and more affordable at the co-op level. “The day of the (local) butcher is limited. Everything is becoming ‘case ready.'”
In contrast to Auza's large sheep operation, Sarratea says she plans to start her business on a smaller scale than her late husband's. She is contracting with local farmers to graze her sheep — 10,000 to 12,000 of them from Colorado and Idaho. Her husband's sheep were often seen grazing in winter near Yuma's Marine Corps Air Station.
Auza has seen many changes in the sheep industry during his lifetime. He will tell you that things that worked in the 1970s don't work today, and things you thought would never work do work. He cites the moving of sheep as an example.
“It used to be that if you didn't move the sheep before 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning, you didn't move them at all. Now in the wintertime, I don't care if it is 5 o'clock in the afternoon, if they are out of food, we move them if it's not a long way — two to three miles, we move them.”
If you spot a band of them being herded across a road or pasture, take another look. Better yet, take a picture. Auza says that this practice, too, is coming to an end.
“We try not to be there certain times of the day, but sometimes we just can't help it. We have to (move the sheep).”
Then again, moving sheep across roads can also be hazardous.
“The worst time physically was when we were crossing a band of sheep in the Imperial Valley, and a car ran right into the band and killed about 36 head. The car ran right over the lambs and never even stopped. Thank God it didn't kill anybody.”
Other changes Auza has seen over the years are in the cross-breeding to produce a better quality and size of lamb and in their marketing. Through selective breeding, lambs that 40 years ago might weigh 215 pounds and have a lot of fat have been bred to weigh a lean 160 to 170 pounds. The industry's high-end promotions are aimed at chefs and culinary schools to encourage them to buy locally.
So where do residents purchase local American lamb? Auza admits it is hard to find in Yuma. That is changing to some degree in the Imperial Valley, where American lamb is sold under the Superior Farms brand at Walmart in Brawley, for example.
Of course, you may also visit the Basque Etchea, his sister's restaurant in Tacna, Auza says, where his lamb is on the menu. His brother-in-law, Fidel Jorajuria, also of Basque descent and who helps operate that business, raised sheep for many years himself — and it wasn't easy.
“The rule in the sheep industry,” Auza says, is “if you go the easy way, it's usually the wrong way.” While it may be the best thing for the sheep herder, it may not be best for the sheep. Auza says that his father used to have a saying: “All these new experiments are very expensive.” In fact, when asked about his most frightening experience in the sheep business, he quickly responded with a laugh, “when you lose about a half a million dollars!”
That being said, what have the sheep taught Auza?
“To be patient. Whatever shows up, don't get excited. Just deal with it and make it happen. No matter how bad it is, just work yourself out of it.
“A lot of things can change overnight. You can't just give up and go home. It doesn't work. With experience, you always have a Plan B.”If it were easy, everyone else would be there. If you don't have a work ethic, you don't belong there. The hours are awful.”