Sunday, March 01, 2015

The once and future

I got into the sheep ranching story somewhere in the middle of the book. Both of my encounters with El Cubano Victor Hernandez happened at the end of the grazing chapter and now after trailing the sheep for a dozen or so miles and being part of the shearing festivities last weekend I'm hooked in a big way.

The story began to tell itself during the two day trek to the Abeyta ranch in Mogote, Colorado a couple of weeks ago. The shearing of the sheep, an event that is deeply communal, has given cultural context to the tale. If I treasured meeting Victor and trailing the sheep to Mogote, being part of the shearing has only deepened my appreciation for the rich history and uncertain future of sheep ranching and the proud culture of family, faith and the land in the San Luis Valley.

In the corral

In the chute

Aaron Abeyta gives a push

Inside the shearing trailer


Tom Barr's shearing rig

Branson Barr feeding the EZ Baler

400 pound bales of wool

Not so long ago the Abeyta family’s neighbors in Mogote would pitch in to gather the sheep and to prod them through a long chute where each would be shorn with hand shears. It was hard, time consuming work that produced forearms like Popeye’s.

Today a handful of friends and neighbors, all volunteers, arrive at the ranch to help Los Abeytas with the shearing but as much, it seems to me, to be part of an age old ritual and to be part of the clan. The clan is united by a shared history of lean times and the hard work of wresting a living from the earth. It is united in a separateness born of its history, ethnicity, income and loss.

If in the old times the shearing was done by the family and the clan, today the shearing itself is done by Tom Barr’s hired hands who shear a sheep with an electric razor in three minutes or less. Tom and his four assistants hail from the Mormon farming community of Sanford which lies about thirty miles from Mogote just past La Jara. I asked him how long he had owned his roving rig and he told me, “My dad built the thing in 1965 so it’s fifty years old. I remodeled it ten years ago. Put new siding on it. That guy (pointing at the number three shearer) did the work.” To my knowledge Bob has the only family owned shearing operation in southern Colorado and he and his vagabond crew drive as far as Montrose to shear sheep. What happens if Bob folds his tent is a question that looms as large as what happens when the 76 year old Cubano can’t herd the sheep anymore. The forecast is partly cloudy in this part of the San Luis Valley where the future of the Abeyta sheep operation mirrors the uncertainty of the Hispano ranching culture in southern Colorado.

One dead ewe and another just hanging on
Running sheep is not for the meek. There are nicks and cuts from the shearing and not every animal survives the march from the Taos Plateau. "We lose a few each year. Just like human beings, some are not strong enough to make it." Andrew Abeyta tells me. It's a poignant truth in a life rooted as strongly as faith to the land.


John Farnsworth said...

Bravo, Steve.

Steve Immel said...

Thanks John. The book is seeming more possible with every post about the sheep culture in the Valley.

Blacks Crossing said...

You "before" shot is magnificent! Timing is always a tough call when it comes to sheep shearing because you have to get it done but in weather like this, they no longer have insulation from the cold.

There is indeed a book in the making here and you definitely need to talk with Connie Taylor, Navajo churro sheep register for the United States. Her massive collection of information on the breed would be helpful on your journey. Also, Antonio and Molly Manzanares from Tierra Amarilla run churro sheep on the corridor from El Rito to just south and slightly north of us along 285. Lots of information there as well.

Steve Immel said...

I look forward to those introductions and to get out and shoot.

Jim Rogers Photography said...

Thanks to your superb photography and informative narrative, I feel like I'm going to learn something every time I open one of your posts. And you certainly didn't disappoint or come up short on this one. Fascinating.

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