Imagine going to see the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in main street Ketchum, and there’s no sheep. It’s frequently been voted as one of the Top 10 fall festivals in the United States with about 25,000 attendees.
Sheep ranchers John and Diane Peavey started the festival from scratch in the mid-1990s so new residents in the tourist town of Sun Valley could understand why the sheep were trailed through Ketchum before being shipped to market, the value of the sheep industry to the state and the local area, the benefits to the land, and the products that come from sheep – protein-rich lamb and wool.
This year, two of Idaho’s large sheep ranchers question whether they can survive much longer. Low prices for lamb in 2022 were way below the cost of production, while about 70 percent of the lamb sold in the United States from domestic meatpackers came from Australia.
“They’ve been importing 2,700 metric tons per week,” says Henry Etcheverry, a French-Basque sheep rancher from Rupert. “That’s insane. We can’t sustain it. The imports are killing us.”
Etcheverry and Wilder sheep rancher Frank Shirts, who trails his sheep across Idaho State Highway 55 each spring before hundreds of onlookers, are supporting a national petition by R-CALF sent to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai on Aug. 3 to secure tariffs and quotas on sheep imports via national legislation.
They are doing so as they ship their lambs to market in August, wondering how many more years they can survive. Lamb prices are beginning to edge up after a disastrous year in 2022. The R-CALF petition, titled Protect American Lamb: Petition for Relief by America’s Sheep Producers, asserts that the nation’s large range sheep operations “are facing the prospect of near total extinction due to the unrestrained and ever-increasing importation of foreign lamb and mutton … Only with immediate intervention by the Biden Administration and Congress can the impending, catastrophic outcome be averted,” the R-CALF press release said.
Idaho sheep ranchers hope to retire, but selling operation at a profit may be difficult
Etcheverry, 74, and Shirts, 70, are hoping to retire someday, and they aren’t sure if they will have anything to sell.
“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” Etcheverry says. “We love the sheep. We love raising the sheep. It’s in my heart. It’s in my blood. But right now, it seems like we’re circling the drain. We have got to do something to fix this situation.”
“The Australians are dumping product in the U.S., and no one is doing anything about it,” adds Shirts. “It just makes me sick. I’m not sure how long we can take this before we give up. And if we are forced to quit business, we’ll be gone forever.”
The Trailing of the Sheep Festival pays tribute to the fact that Central Idaho used to be the epicenter of sheep ranching in Idaho and the United States. Thousands of sheep were shipped to market out of Ketchum by rail car each year. In 1918, Idaho’s sheep population reached 6.5 million, six times the human population. It was the second-largest population of sheep worldwide. Sydney, Australia, had the most.
“The sheep were here before the skiing in Sun Valley,” notes Etcheverry. “A lot of these newcomers will see the sheep in the hills and they feel like, they shouldn’t be here. But after they understand what they do, their contribution they make to the environment – they cut down the fuel for fire, they leave their droppings for fertilizer, they invigorate the plants with the pruning effect, and they contribute to the economy. People like them after they understand what it’s all about.”
Indeed, imagine how hundreds of Boise and Eagle residents might feel if they couldn’t come watch approximately 2,500 sheep cross Idaho State Highway 55 in April. The sheep crossing on the state’s only north-south highway is growing in popularity every year. People love to see the sheep following the green in the foothills of Boise and following the green-up into the mountains of the Boise National Forest. Video from the crossing has been picked up nationally by the NBC-TV “Today” show and USA Today newspaper.
A 25-minute documentary film for the Life on the Range educational video series on Frank Shirts’ sheep operation titled, “A year in the life of raising sheep,” has been watched by 950,000 people on YouTube – the single most popular story produced in the award-winning series so far.
But most consumers have no idea how tough the declining sheep market has been on producers. The R-CALF petition details how the domestic lamb industry has been in severe decline over the last 20 years, while market share by Australia and New Zealand has increased.
“Since the time the U.S. entered its first major free trade agreement – the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement – lamb and mutton imports have increased over 543 percent in quantity and 2,363 percent in value,” the petition cover letter says. “These imports have displaced domestic lamb and mutton production, which has declined 60% during this period.
“And despite America’s marked increase in lamb and mutton consumption that began in earnest a decade ago, all the increase has been captured by foreign supply chains while domestic production continually declines. These foreign supply chains have now captured 74% of the domestic market – away from full-time U.S. sheep producers.”
Sheep producers push industry to take action on foreign imports, lamb pricing
Other large Idaho sheep producers are pushing the American Sheep Industry Association board to take action on foreign imports and lamb pricing. John Noh, owner of Noh Sheep Company in Kimberly, is on its board of directors. The American Sheep Industry Association is working with a law firm in Washington, D.C., to work toward long-term trade solutions through the Department of Commerce and the World Trade Organization. They also are seeking solutions through the new farm bill and Farm Service Agency.
“From our perspective, we could get a longer-term fix if we can convince the World Trade Organization (WTO) to implement quotas and protect our industry,” Noh says. “Even in the last 2-3 years, the imports have gone from 45-50 percent of the U.S. market, to now, close to 70 percent. We can’t compete with that.”
Liz Wilder, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, said it’s a positive thing for Idaho’s large sheep ranchers to push for solutions through the World Trade Organization, the Biden administration and Congress to get tariffs and quotas to protect the American lamb industry. But she points out that the issue is “extremely complicated.”
Having only three large meat-packing companies buying lamb nationwide gives them undue power in the marketplace over wholesale pricing, which is another problem, she noted. The number one meat packer, JBS, owns JBS Foods Australia, the largest meat and food-processing company in Australia. The company is not loyal to American sheep producers, Etcheverry and Shirts say. It’s about business and profits.
The weak Australian dollar also gives them an advantage, with 1 U.S. dollar equal to $1.50 Australian. That gives the Aussies a leg up on price with the exchange rate, allowing meat-packers to purchase Australian lamb at a deep discount.
“We recognize that there’s a problem, and we’ve been very active in pursuing solutions,” Wilder said.
The Idaho Wool Growers Association and the Colorado Wool Growers Association pushed the American Sheep Industry Association to launch an investigation into injuries sustained by American lamb producers as a direct result of foreign imports, she said.
So far, Idaho’s congressional delegation has not been able to help, but Shirts and Etcheverry have made personal pleas to them for assistance. They also have reached out to Idaho Gov. Brad Little and the Idaho Department of Agriculture.
“Mostly this is a national issue, so our state leaders can’t do much about world trade, tariffs and quotas,” Wilder said.
Other issues that affect Idaho sheep producers include a steep rise in the cost of production, fueled by inflation in the last two years. Hay and fuel prices in particular cut into a rancher’s bottom line. Labor costs also have gone up, officials said.
Wilder also wants the Idaho Wool Growers to take a more active role in promoting and marketing Idaho lamb to consumers. She notes that American consumption of lamb is going up, which is a positive sign, largely through sales in grocery stores and restaurants. American lamb and Idaho lamb also are popular at farmers markets, where consumers pay top dollar for lamb chops and leg of lamb cuts, she says.
“One of our goals with the Idaho Wool Growers is to help market and promote Idaho lamb,” she said. “Think about how well we do in Idaho marketing potatoes, beef, milk and more. We don’t have a separate commission marketing lamb to our consumers. We need to be creative and find a way to do that.”
Wilder and her husband, Brett, own a sheep ranch in Caldwell, Boise River Lamb, where they raise smaller numbers of lambs for direct sales to consumers. They also work full-time jobs on the side.
Ultimately, Idaho sheep ranchers want consumers to ask for American lamb and Idaho lamb in grocery stores and at restaurants.
“If you buy lamb at Costco, it’s Australian lamb. If you buy lamb at Walmart, it’s American lamb. Read the fine print. Ask for American lamb, and Idaho lamb. That would help,” Wilder says.
American lambs are larger animals so the chops and meat cuts are larger and better, sheep ranchers say.
The ethnic market for lamb is growing stronger all the time, Wilder said, with Muslim, Hindu and Hispanic consumers. That niche is growing rapidly, she says.
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However, large range sheep operations like Shirts and Etcheverry don’t have the choice of selling in a niche market because they are selling thousands of lambs to large meat-packers who then sell to grocery stories, restaurants and the cruise ship industry. They can’t control where the product is sold.
Even if smaller sheep ranchers are doing well, if the larger range sheep operations go out of business, “we could lose the whole industry,” she says. “The Western range sheep industry is essential to the health of our rangelands, our soil, reducing fire danger and more.”
Going back in Idaho history, the sheep industry has deep roots. Andy Little, a blood relative of Gov. Brad Little, brought his sheep over from Scotland to set up operations in Emmett, Boise, Cascade and points in between. He was known as the “Sheep King.”
Idaho’s Basque heritage came from the sheep industry. The late Pete Cenarrusa, who served as Idaho’s secretary of state for more than 30 years and had deep roots in Basque heritage, ran a large sheep operation in Carey. In the later years of his life, he sold off his operation.
Often times, Idaho ranchers like to pass down their operations to the next generation. But neither Etcheverry or Shirts have someone in line to take over their operations. That’s why they’d like to fix the imports and the meat packer monopoly issues so they could sell their operations for a profit.
“If you’re going to do well in this business, you have to have some control over the market,” Etcheverry says. “We’ve tried to do that before when we had our own lamb co-op and meat-packing plant in Colorado. But during the COVID years, we lost that plant.
“Somehow, we’ve got to get control of this situation or we’re gone.”
Steve Stuebner is an outdoor, conservation and natural resources writer and author based in Boise.