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Me adapto a cualquier situacion / I adapt to any situation


“Me adapto a cualquier situacion”

A Project Protect Survey of Range Workers on the Western Slope

Report by Project Protect Food Systems Workers

Kassandra Neiss, Data Lead & Hunter Knapp, Esq., Development Director

May 24, 2024

Project Background & Methods

During March and April of 2024, Project Protect Food Systems Workers (“Project Protect”) administered a simple, three-question survey to assess the conditions of sheepherders working on the open range of Colorado’s Western Slope. Sr. Ignacio Alvarado, a promotor of the Project Protect Promotora Network, and Sra. Angeles Mendez, the Regional Director of the Western Slope Promotora Team, spoke directly with sheepherders while conducting in-person outreach in remote areas. Sr. Alvarado relied on his decades of past experience as a sheepherder and the trust he built with workers during the past several years of outreach to obtain valuable information about these marginalized workers. Sra. Mendez is a public health professional who is a trusted advocate among agricultural worker communities across the Western Slope. The research was made possible by High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (HICAHS).


The survey data was collected using paper forms that were completed by Sr. Alvarado while posing the questions to sheepherders in Spanish. The responses were transcribed and translated into English to prepare this report. The survey included the following questions: 


  1. What are your most important concerns in your current situation?; 

  2. What are your urgent needs in your current situation? (What would you most like to have in your current situation)?;  and

  3. What makes you feel good about yourself or your work?


In total, Project Protect collected 24 survey responses that were analyzed by the Project Protect Data Team and used to prepare this report. The survey responses include important information about how sheepherders on the open range of the Western Slope face challenges and maintain resilience.


Sheepherders in Colorado are requesting help with basic needs. 

Meeting basic needs remains a significant concern for some sheepherders. Out of the 24 workers surveyed, eight said their biggest current need was food, ideally getting more access to fresh food since so much of what they can store is canned or packaged foods. Often, these workers are requesting food and water for the flock as well as for themselves. Some workers specifically say that this should be the responsibility of the ranch owner and that “the boss should be concerned about his workers” (El patrón debería preocuparse por sus trabajadores). Further, these workers point out that the boss may be slow with providing food or not providing enough of it.  In addition, three workers requested coats (abrigos), highlighting the impact of providing clothing to help workers endure the challenging climate. One worker mentioned needing medical care and another said he was concerned about sickness. These responses demonstrate the importance of efforts to provide resources and facilitate access to service providers for marginalized sheepherders on the open range of the Western Slope.

Mental health and the reality of open-range work are tightly connected.

Despite the challenges that impact the sheepherders who live and work on the open range of Colorado’s Western Slope, the survey captured both positive and negative aspects of the profession. For example, 17 of the 24 range workers surveyed said they feel good about themselves when they think about their achievements and the skills it takes to succeed as a sheepherder. Range workers discussed the importance of having a good mentality (mentalidad) and their ability to support themselves and adapt to whatever situation they face (me adapto a cualquier situacion). Moreover, they take pride in their responsibility for their tasks and the livelihood of their flock. They want others to know about the sheep they care for, the high numbers in their flock, and the excitement for the births that will come in the spring. Protecting these animals from predators and the climate are priorities in their lives, not only because it is their job to do so, but also because it makes them feel good about themselves. This can harm mental health as well, for a few workers explained that although they do the work that is asked of them, the boss does not provide them with the basics they need to do their job well. 


However, being secluded on the range can cause some mental strain, especially if what makes you feel good is celebrating the good work you do. One worker said that what he needs the most is “sometimes [to have] someone to talk to because I feel lonely at times” (a veces con quien poder conversar porque me siento a veces solo). Another lamented about the lack of personal time, saying that he needed time to leave his routine and explore (salir de la rutina y explorar).  A third worker requested entertainment (distracción). The geographic isolation of sheepherders while on the open range is an inherent component of the industry, but technological progress may be able to provide solutions to enable sheepherders to connect with family and friends from remote locations.

Water, Weather, & Wild Animals

Environmental conditions are an ever-present reality that affects life on the Western Slope, and this is particularly true for sheepherders working on the open range. Four range workers mentioned the importance of precipitation and water access. In April, many were hoping for more rain in their region so that the sheep could get the water they needed and the plants to graze on. Similarly, five workers shared concerns about the uncertainty of the weather because late-season freezes could slow or halt work altogether. The uncertainty from weather changes affects not only their financial stability from a continuing paycheck but also their positive mentality of being able to accomplish tasks and do the job well. 


A worker opens a box of bear spray in his living area.

The climate isn’t the only unpredictable factor on the range. Two workers brought up their concerns about protecting their flock from animals that want to eat them (los otros animales que quieren comer las borregas). These concerns may be connected to the introduction of wolves, although workers did not specifically mention the type of predators. Sr. Alvarado and Sra. Mendez were able to provide bear spray to sheepherders who were concerned about safety from other animals, but workers have to stay vigilant about the welfare of their flocks.



Finances and Families are an ever-present concern.

In 2022, Colorado increased the minimum pay for agricultural workers on the open range to $515 per week and connected it to inflation. Due to significant inflation over the past two years, the 2024 minimum wage amounted to $590.61 per week. Nevertheless, more than half of the range workers expressed the importance of their wages, both as something they are concerned about and as a current need. A few added that the most pressing need in their life and work was pay raises and higher wages. Seven range workers shared that they send money back to their families. Sending money home makes them feel good about their current situation, but they are very focused on making sure their families always have a little money to spend on food. One worker explained, “Everything is expensive, higher expenses with the family” (todo esta caro, mas alta economica con la familia). The economic motivation for the hundreds of sheepherders working on Colorado’s Western Slope can compel them to endure numerous challenges in order to support their families. But it is not just the money for families that is a current concern, some workers wish to have their families here with them. While many are happy they can support their family from afar and know that they have money for food and other things, the distance is hard and is compounded by the seclusion and loneliness that come with range work.  


Conclusion

The short survey assessed important concerns, urgent needs, and points of pride for sheepherders working on the open range of the Western Slope during the spring of 2024. The survey includes perspectives from 24 sheepherders who were interviewed in Spanish by a trusted community navigator. Survey respondents shared information about their basic needs, mental health, the environmental conditions, and economic pressures. The results should be used to inform future efforts to support vulnerable sheepherders and other workers on the open range in Colorado.


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