Where have all the Basque sheepherders gone?
BY HERB BENHAM, Californian staff writer
They taste good, you can wear them and, if sleep eludes you, count them as they jump over low fences.
Maybe that’s why sheep and sheepherders have always occupied a romantic niche in our imaginations. They are as much a part of the Kern County landscape as is the bone-dry river bed, Merle Haggard’s twang or the foot of the Grapevine covered with lupines in the spring.
The only thing missing from this reverie are Basque sheepherders. There are no more in Kern County, from what I’ve been told. Sad? I was. It shook me out of my reverie like a 4.5 earthquake.
Of the 2,000 estimated sheepherders in the Western states, most of them are Peruvians, Chileans, Bolivians, Mexicans and Mongolians.
Don’t ask about the Mongolians. I had no idea they were so big in the sheepherder scene.
The point is, the Basques don’t herd sheep anymore (they stopped 15-20 years ago). They own the sheep. They’ve moved up the food chain and, as it happens, someone has filled in behind them.
The only reason we’re even talking about sheepherders, Mongolian or otherwise, was last month’s 71st annual Sheepmen's Picnic at the Basque Club which I missed completely but which 400 people did not.
It reminded me once again of where we live. That there’s plenty to like here. Much to be interested in. We have strands of all these cultures. Okies, Mexicans, the people who go to the fair and the Basques.
“We’re seeing a renewed interest in all things Basque,” said Dominique Minaberrigarai, president of the Kern County Woolgrowers Association.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, there didn’t seem to be a lot of interest in the Basque culture,” Minaberrigarai said. “But now that’s changing. I think the younger people are learning from the older generation and there is more emphasis on speaking Basque.”
The Basque sheepherders aren’t what they used to be but neither is the sheep business. Not long ago, there were 300,000 sheep in Kern County. Now, there are close to 70,000, but who’s counting.
The changes can be measured through the shifting landscape. When there wasn’t much west of Oak Street, or east of Mount Vernon, the great herds owned by families such as Iturriria, Ansolabehere, Bidart and Etcheverry, it was easy for the families to graze their herds there in the fall and winter before moving them to Mojave in the spring and then the high country around Bridgeport, Lee Vining and Mono Lake in the summer.
Maybe that’s another reason we feel affinity for sheep. We admire their schedule. Live here when it’s cool, in the desert when it’s in bloom and in the high country when it’s hot.
Grazing land has shrunk. The land has houses and buildings on it, the west side has farms and two-thirds of the desert is closed to grazing because of stricter environmental regulations.
Couple that with the price of lamb and wool being the same as it was 10 years ago, and it’s taken the starch right out these wool pants.
In 1981, the Kern County Woolgrowers had 45 to 50 members; now it has 20.
The old Basque sheepherders would hardly recognize the business. Not only are the sheep moved in trucks, but the herders no longer drink red wine on the job because of liability issues. The Basque sheepherders drank wine breakfast and lunch and dinner without missing a beat or a sheep.
The de-facto museums for sheep and sheepherders can be found on the walls at Wool Growers and the Noriega Hotel, and in some of the other Basque restaurants. It’s a pleasant way to relive some colorful history.
The cold red wine isn’t bad either.
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