|From Sheepherder to Sheepman; Paco Iturriria Leaves Mark on U.S. Sheep Industry
By BECKY TALLEY
Sheep Industry News Associate Editor
(September 1, 2011) Every sheep producer in the industry has a unique background in sheep production…but there are few that are quite as unique as Paco Iturriria. Iturriria has been in the sheep industry for more than 50 years and has worn many hats: camp tender, herder, owner, champion for the industry’s rights, respected leader and overall an example of a true sheepman.
Becoming an American Sheep Producer
For someone who knows sheep like the back of his hand, it’s interesting to know he didn’t start out that way.
“When I first came to this country, I didn’t know much about sheep,” he says, adding when he was younger, Iturriria actually studied to be a priest for two years in his home country of Spain.
But as there weren’t many jobs in his home country, he and his brothers, Andres and Miguel, were some of the first Basque to come to the United States in 1952. While he once studied to lead a flock as a priest, he now found himself working as a different kind of shepherd at the M&R Sheep Company owned by the Mendiburu family, a large outfit that, at the time, was running 25,000 head of sheep in a wide area of California.
“It was a little hard in the beginning, but then you get used to it,” he says of his six years working as a sheepherder and camp tender for the outfit, but there was always a bigger goal for Paco and his brothers.
“We always thought when we came over that we would build a little business,” he relates, and in 1958, Paco and his brothers started I&M Sheep Company based out of Wasco, Calif., with 3,200 head of breeding ewes from Joe Mendiburu and some permits in Lost Hills, Wasco and the Mojave Desert.
From there, the brothers continued to work in partnership with Mendiburu and bought sheep out from several other outfits to, at one point, run about 18,000 ewes across many areas in California as well as Nevada. The partnership with Mendiburu lasted until the 1980s when the brothers bought out his part of the business.
Today, I&M Sheep Company is run by Paco and Miguel, and they run about 6,000 ewes, grazing sheep on leased land in the San Joaquin Valley and Mojave Desert as well as in the high country of the Sierra Nevadas, to name a few of their grazing grounds.
Watching an Industry Change and Standing up for its Future
Having been in the sheep business for more than 50 years, Paco has seen more than his share of market fluctuations and says recent prices are some of the best he’s seen, and it comes at a time when he says transportation costs are at their highest.
“We are happy with the prices,” says Paco of the current market for lamb and wool. “It’s unbelievable. They are saying that at least a few more years it will stay like this, and I hope so because we have had some rough years.”
According to Paco, one of the biggest challenges he has faced is the loss of traditional grazing land that he and other sheep outfits historically grazed on. The San Joaquin Valley around Bakersfield used to be primarily sheep grazing country, now it is all under farms and oil rigs.
“This all used to be sheep country,” Paco relates as he looks out over a row of fruit trees and farms as far as the eye can see. “But since they brought in the California Aqueduct, it’s all farming. I used to have this land two miles this way. Now it’s all farming.”
He says that he also used to lease about 30,000 acres from Southern Pacific Railroad, but now most of that land is owned by companies like Chevron, Mobil Oil and Texaco. Paco still leases some land from those companies, but more and more has to deal with environmental issues and “conservancies” on the land.
“I have had areas lost to conservancies,” he says, adding that many companies realize grazing is a benefit and have allowed him to graze these areas. “Now sometimes they will let you feed it off, but by the end of April, you have to be off because they want to save the flowers.”
Paco’s son Frankie, who runs 1,800 ewes in the San Joaquin Valley and California Valley, says the encroaching farming is also a challenge for his operation.
“Our biggest challenge,” he says “is that our grazing areas seem to be shrinking. The traditional desert, traditional Sierra permits are going away due to environmental concerns and urban sprawl. Farming has been very profitable, and more and more, because of rising ground water tables and increase in the availability of state irrigation water, you will see more open grounds being farmed.”
However, he sees the recognition of the value of prescribed grazing projects and says he has seen many people start looking toward sheep to manage their land. In fact, he is currently trying to work out grazing different solar farm projects throughout the state.
“There are some solar farms in the future out there, and they are showing some interest in grazing,” he says.
In addition, both Paco and Frankie point to the loss of permits because of environmental concerns over species, such as the bighorn and turtles in the Mojave Desert, have taken its toll.
“I used to have big permits in the desert, but in the 1990s they took two-thirds of it away, mostly because of the turtles. Environmentalists were complaining that sheep were harming the turtles,” he says.
This was an issue that Paco did not take lying down. He went toe to toe with the
environmentalists to defend sheep grazing in the desert and did so for several years.
As a result, he was awarded the California Wool Growers Association (CWGA) Sheepman of the Year Award for his hard work on the Mojave issue and dedication to the industry.
That dedication also included serving on the board of directors, as treasurer/ secretary, vice president and president for the CWGA, serving as president of the Kern County Wool Growers Association for 25 years, and many active years in the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI).
In addition to serving the industry, Iturriria passed that love for the sheep industry to the second generation of his family, as well.
“I was raised pretty much with the sheep. Since we were little, we would go out and help my dad out. We were never forced. We just really loved going out and running with the sheep, and everything that comes with ranch life. And, you got time to hang out with your dad, that’s just neat,” says Frankie.
In addition to running sheep, Frankie works as ranch manager at Grimmway Farms, a produce farm that specializes in raising baby carrots and is expanding into organic and specialty vegetables. He also serves as vice president of the Kern County Wool Growers Association, second vice president of the CWGA and has served as chair on the ASI Public Lands Committee.
He says his father had a large influence on his passion for the sheep industry.
“After I graduated, I worked for my dad for about six months. Right after we shipped the lambs, he told me ‘you need to get a job,’” Frankie says with a laugh, adding that he thought his dad was firing him.
“He told me no, I am not firing you, but you have never done anything but this, and you need to get some experience. Those were some pretty tough years in the industry, and I had never had a job outside of working for my dad.
“Now I look back and I appreciate that he told me that. I think it made me go out and helped me learn something new, and it only fueled my passion for sheep even more. I realize that is one thing I love doing is raising sheep,” he says. “I just had twins and I want to raise them in the same environment I was raised. It’s a special way of life, and there is just no way to match it.”
“It was our goal (Paco and wife Maria Luisa) to give the kids an education, and then after that they can do whatever they want. It’s hard to become a sheepman, but he (Frankie) always told me, my dream is to become a sheepman like you,” Paco relates.
As Frankie looks to his future in the changing sheep business, Paco says that he plans to keep running sheep and is pretty content to stay with what he has and how he runs the sheep now.
“For us, it’s going to be too hard to change now, if we do that, it’s going to be too different,” he says of I&M Sheep Company.
And as he looks back over his life in the sheep business, an industry he started in without knowledge but is now a leader, he gives thanks.
“I really have to thank my wife and family. I have to thank my brothers, I was lucky that my brothers were here.”