man shearing sheep

By Mike McCoy,
Kern County Museum

While Hollywood has traditionally celebrated the cowboy in motion pictures and television, there is a strong argument to be made that the shepherd was the hero who really tamed the West. In the mid to late 19th century, millions of sheep moved back and forth through mountain pastures between California’s central valley to the deserts following forage. Their meat and wool were then sent via railroad to a waiting global market. Young men were recruited as shepherds, most famously from the Basque region, to manage sheep flocks that outnumbered the human population of California five to one. Many historians credit the 19th century sheep industry for creating the economics for the development of many Western towns and cities. 

Over the last fifty years, though dining tastes have changed, international trade has shifted to a market focused on poultry, pork and beef, and the meat packing industry has consolidated. What was once one of the most important foundations of the western agriculture economy in California, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Texas is just a shell of its former self. Kern County, traditionally the second largest sheep producing region in California, has seen a decline of more than 30% since the 1990s, according to the Kern County Crop Report. 2018 showed market sales of 86,000 sheep for a total revenue of $16 million for a continued annual decline since the 1990s.  In 1990 for example there were 182,000 sheep and lambs sent to market in Kern County. The same trends show nationally with 60 million sheep going to market in the United States in 1920, and in 2017 that number was down to 7 million. 

In addition to shifting international markets and diminished national demand for mutton and lamb, production costs have increased. If a rancher needs 85 cents a pound to break even and lamb is selling for 40 cents a pound, the math does not support the industry. Other factors such as cheaper lamb from South America and the fluctuation in corn prices also negatively impact the industry according to the American Sheep Industry Association. The result are ranchers moving to cattle and other more profitable agriculture products. 

There is new light in the economic tunnel. Sheep have been a mainstay of the British agriculture economy for hundreds of years and that market has stabilized from the same decline seen in the United States. According to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board of Britain, the difference is a shift to higher quality standards for the eight million sheep and lambs a year sent to market in the United Kingdom. There is also strong interest in organic sheep and lamb production with growth enhancing hormones and antibiotics prohibited and feed is 100% organically produced. To be organic, lambs must have access to pasture and organic stock are physically separated from conventionally raised counterparts. The British consumer wants lean and tender fresh meat from a trusted source. The producers have responded and for the time being the lamb and mutton markets have stabilized. Producers in the United States have taken note and are now actively marketing lamb as a healthier alternative to beef and pork. 

For the time being, the sheep industry is alive in California and Kern County. The young shepherds who came to the Central Valley over the last 100 years have put down roots, their children have prospered, and many are still engaged in agriculture. While the flocks of sheep might have diminished in size from their heyday in the 19th century, the cultural imprint of the shepherds left their mark on Kern County. There will still be a hearty lunch and dinner served in the dining room in the Noriega Hotel, and lamb is usually on the menu. And if you sit in the corner of the historic bar, sipping on a Picon Punch, you can still hear the murmurs of Basque sheepmen complaining about the vagaries of the market and how to stay in business. And a good bet is that they will still be around in 100 years keeping the tradition of the sheep industry alive. 

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