guest commentary
Immigration's place in agriculture
By Sharon O'Toole

The range sheep industry in the United States is small, but as recent reports in The Denver Post detail, it is utterly dependent on foreign labor. The sheep industry is a microcosm of American agriculture. Without foreign workers, the United States could not produce food in commercial quantities.

Consumers may look at lamb chops and wool sweaters and think they can do without or buy imports from Australia and China. However, if they eat fresh broccoli, or a lettuce and tomato salad, or drink orange juice, it is on their table because a foreign laborer helped to put it there. If a consumer enjoys chicken strips in a fast-food joint, or a fish dinner in a pricey restaurant, that chicken or fish has passed through the hands of a foreign worker. Steak or hamburger? The steer may have been herded by a foreign cowboy or processed by a foreign meat-cutter.

Without the labor provided by foreign workers, we could not economically produce food in this country, just as we could not clean motel rooms or operate restaurants. An argument has been made that American agriculture should be "exported" to countries where production is cheaper. After all, the defunct American textile industry has been exported to China and other low-cost countries.

But this argument falls apart immediately. Food production is too important - for security, economic and environmental reasons - to be left to others. Europe heavily subsidizes its agriculture because its citizens have starved within memory. With the United States living under terrorist threat, and its borders pervious to unexamined imports, the elimination of agriculture would be foolhardy.

My family raises sheep and cattle in the Little Snake River Valley along the Colorado-Wyoming border. When my husband and I turned down law school in 1976 to purchase our own band of ewes, we took up the life of sheepherding. We herded our own sheep for three years until our growing family and outside responsibilities made us decide to hire a sheepherder.

At first, we looked for herders in the time-honored way - we checked in local bars. The herders we found were, predictably, unreliable. In response to this need, some producers formed the Western Range Association, a type of grower cooperative whose business is to recruit, process legally and place workers with its members. It also spends considerable time and money lobbying for sound immigration policy for its workers and members.

Other businesses now provide a similar service, providing a reliable source of legal employees who generally work hard, do a good job and stay with us for many years. These federal H2A programs have been the target of criticism. Critics report that herders receive about $700 per month. The wage is set by each state, and varies. However, such reports fail to mention that the employees also receive room and board, workers' compensation coverage and, in the case of Western Range workers, health insurance.

The men who herd our sheep are highly valued employees. They do work under what most Americans would consider harsh conditions. They tend sheep year-round, generally living in traditional sheep wagons without plumbing. They take pride in their skills and take seriously their charge of keeping the sheep safe, fed and watered.

Why do these men travel thousands of miles from their homes in Peru, Chile and a handful of other far-flung places? They do it for the same reasons that immigrants have always sought to come to America: opportunity. These are not men who have chosen to trade law school for sheepherding. Conditions are desperate in many of their homelands. Nearly all of our sheepherders are family men. They come so they can send their children or siblings to school, so their families can have decent housing, so they can have a chance at a better life.

Cases of abuse have been documented. Present laws make this illegal and should be vigorously enforced. Likewise, H2A workers who break their contract and become illegal should be detained and deported, as the law dictates.

In the bigger picture, the sheepherder visa program should serve as a model for other "guest worker" programs. This would go a long way toward solving the problem of illegal immigration, and toward keeping food on our tables.

Sharon O'Toole and her husband are ranchers in southern Wyoming.