The biggest challenge that the sheep industry in the state of Utah has to face is that it's aging. The young people, they're going and getting high-tech jobs and engineering jobs. —Clark Caras

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a lean year following hits from drought and fire, the biggest challenge facing Utah's sheep industry isn't economic.

An aging team of lifelong ranchers leads the sheep trade. But with few heirs stepping in to inherit the business, as they did for their fathers, the industry is being carried on the backs of foreign workers participating in temporary programs.

Clark Caras' family has been in the sheep business for nearly 100 years. While the Caras Ranch in Spanish Fork has never been large enough to require additional labor, the majority of ranchers in Utah are looking for help, Caras said.

"The biggest challenge that the sheep industry in the state of Utah has to face is that it's aging," Caras said. "The young people, they're going and getting high-tech jobs and engineering jobs."

In light of generation tech's disinterest in agriculture, Caras said temporary migrant workers such as those participating in the Department of Labor's H-2A temporary agricultural visa programs have become vital to the sheep industry's survival.

"The foreign worker program is having success because we can't find herders," he said. "It's hard to find young men who want to go into the mountains and live solitary lives."

Latino workers looking to send money to their families back home, however, are willing to make the sacrifice.

Caras is a former director of the Utah State Fair, having stepped down recently in order to help with his family's business and pursue other career interests.

The Utah Wool Growers Association reports that while Utah remains a national leader in lamb and wool production, the number of animals in the state has dropped to about 6 million head, down from a 1940s high of about 56 million.

Through the decline, the need for foreign-born herders in Utah has remained fairly constant, said Curt Stewart, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Department of Labor requirements stipulate all H-2A eligible jobs must be opened to American citizens before bringing in foreign workers. But Stewart said U.S. workers rarely show any interest. 

In Utah, there are currently 60 sheepherder positions being advertised to American workers, but only 10 inquiries have come in, he said.

So far, the number of jobs has remained more or less constant since the program's inception, Stewart said.

There is a bit of fine print that comes with a temporary agriculture job. If an American citizen expresses interest in the job after it has been opened to foreign workers and the hiring process has begun, the post must be surrendered to the American, he said.

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Should that happen, every attempt would be made to match the foreign worker to a different post, Stewart explained, but so far it hasn't been a concern.  

"That just never happens," he said. 

E-mail: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @McKenzieRomero