Saturday, February 07, 2009

BBC : Basque Shepherding in California

This magnificent photo essay is part of a BBC feature about the Basque shepherds in California:

Basque tradition

For more than a century in the western US, shepherding has been the domain of Basques and their descendants.

They originally came from the mountain slopes of the Pyrenees of Spain and France.

Today, immigrants from Chile, Peru and Mongolia are taking their place, and mobile phones and other modern devices are part of the herders' kit.

Third generation

Phil Esnos, 42, (right) is a third generation Basque shepherd in California's Kern County.

His family traces its roots of herding in this region to 1910, when Phil’s grandfather emigrated to the US from Spain.

Phil, who bought his first sheep from his father for $65 at age 18, now has a flock of more than 2,500.

Lonely fields

Not far from the interstate that runs through California, down a dirt road past the small town of Lost Hills, you find a modest shepherd's dwelling.

It is here that a shepherd can pass many days, tending his sheep or watching his flock graze on the dusty green brush of the desert.

It is a way of life that dates back more than 150 years.

Social interaction

But if you drive 100km (60 miles) though fertile farmland to Bakersfield, you find a place where the herders, past and present, go for food and company.

This is Woolgrowers restaurant, which has been catering to shepherds and their families since 1954.

Spanish-born Basque Luis Rementegui has worked here for more than 32 years.

Steady migration

Tending the bar at the Woolgrowers is JC Coscarat.

About a dozen restaurants once catered for the stream of Basque immigrants who headed west after World War Two.

But the immigrants' numbers slowed in the 1980s, when the economy picked up back in Europe.

Until then, almost every herder in California was Basque.

New faces

These days, traditional Basque shepherds mostly own the herds, while the workers come from Chile or Peru.

Today, Phil employs three immigrant herders from Peru.

"Since 9/11, it has been difficult for workers to come to the US, so when I get a hard worker, I want to do everything possible for the relationship to work for a long time," he says.

Vast terrain

Together, they move the entire flock over vast areas throughout the year, covering some 1,125km and crossing into other western states like Nevada.

"We've only been in Nevada for two years, but there is so much room to run our sheep, it feels like California used to be," says Phil.

Better wages

In 2001, California passed state legislation requiring that immigrant herders on the H-2A agriculture visa be paid $1,200 (£825) per month.

It also requires employers to provide suitable room and board.

It marks a sharp break from the past, when the herding industry was largely unregulated and living conditions were poor.

Precious water

These days, water is becoming a sought-after commodity in the western states, as farmers and herders compete with the sprawling housing market for the precious resource.

Herders like Phil must sometimes travel large distances just to fetch water for his flock.

"Because of so little rainfall, I can spend more than half my day picking up water and taking it to my sheep," he says.

Uncertain future

This century-old way of life may soon disappear as California's sheep industry has been hit by grazing restrictions and tough competition globally.

Young generations of Basques are also losing interest in the traditional family business.

"I will just have to see what my 15-year-old boy wants to do," says Phil. "This type of hard work just doesn't seem to appeal to that generation."

Photos and words: Micah Albert

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