It's been kind of busy these last few days and I ain't been up to doing any new writing. I started to do something about the NCAA basketball tourney, but don't have much to say after Carolina's loss on Sunday. Only consulation is that Michigan State got beat first, so I don't have to take much ribbing from folks around here. However, I can't complain too much. Carolina won the tournment last year and the Steelers won the Superbowl. Now maybe the stars will align themselves in the right order this fall, whatever order that may be, and the Pirates will go on to win the World Series, but I ain't holding my breath.
For the last couple of years I was out West, I had a monthly newspaper column. And since I'm not into writing anything much new right now, thought I'd post one of these columns. This ran back in the summer of 2002. I don't remember the title the newspaper gave it (they always changed my titles so I stopped giving 'em one). Enjoy and maybe one of these days I'll share with you how to fix lamb chops up right...
I recently spent time chatting with Eddie, a semi-retired sheepherder in our community. In his living room hangs a photograph of the trunk of an aspen tree. Carving names on aspens has been a pastime of sheepherders who spend long hours on the mountain and a friend found this particular tree in which Eddie, years ago, had carved the name of his wife and young daughter. His wife died a decade ago and his daughter is now middle aged, but the tree grew and the carving became more prominent and reminds him of his time spent on the mountain.
It has been a tough few years for those in the sheep business. Last year, the price of wool didn’t pay the cost of shearing and lambs were sold at historic lows. Although the price of lamb and wool is up this summer, the drought has dimmed the prospect of any profit. Without enough feed, some herders are selling their lambs early. To make matters worse, the fire on Cedar Mountain last month burned many fences in addition to charring acres of feed.
The sheep business is difficult. "When I was in my 20s and starting out," Eddie said, "a retired herder told me shepherding was a young man’s job. I now believe him." Raising sheep requires constant attention. Compounding troubles include the difficultly hiring reliable help, a problem that goes back to the Second World War when there were few available young men to stay with the herds. At that time, many of the herds were sold and other livestock operations were converted to cattle. And then, there were those above ground nuclear explosions creating fallout on the winter ranges of Eastern Nevada.
Southern Utah was once a leading sheep producing area. The Gould’s Sheep Shearing Corral alone, on the Hurricane Mesa, sheared over 130,000 sheep every spring. Photographs of Cedar City, early in the twentieth century, show long trains of wagons hauling wool from Gould’s to the railroad north of town. But those days are gone. In addition to low prices and the problem of finding herders, the development of rural lands and addressing the problem of overgrazing has led to smaller herds. Today, only about 20,000 sheep remain in Iron County.
Around election time, we always start to hear elected officials advocate supporting "traditional agriculture." These buzz words are sure to rally those involved in farming and herding, but are they just a hollow cliché? After all, I know of no restaurant in Iron Country that regularly serves lamb. And finding 100% wool clothes takes some effort. Even our grocery stores don’t help, as one recently advertised a sale on imported New Zealand lamb. If we’re really interested in supporting our "traditional agriculture," we should support the men and women who herd sheep by at least occasionally enjoying a good lamb chop. Although I don’t want us to go back to the day when sheep overgrazed the mountains, it would be a shame for all the herds to disappear and for the only reminder of their importance in our local economy be aged carvings on old aspens trees.