The Other Minimum Wage

When a sheepherder named Alejandro saw me approaching his tiny trailer in the mountains of western Colorado, he stepped out and greeted me warily in Spanish: “Hola. Perdon, pero…como me encontraste?” “Hi. Sorry, but…how did you find me?”

Not a typical greeting, but Alejandro rarely greets visitors—or anyone else, for that matter. His trailer sat among a thousand grazing sheep, as close to the middle of nowhere as one can get. We were a mile off a dirt road that splits off of County Road 16, which begins about 10 miles outside of Loma, CO, which is about 20 miles outside of Grand Junction, CO, all of which is pretty far away from any place most Americans have ever heard of. “Binoculars,” I replied.

Once I had convinced Alejandro (whose last name has been omitted to protect his anonymity) that I wasn’t working for the government or his boss, he welcomed me into his trailer, which he called a campito. He closed the door and said, “I would offer you a place to sit, but the only places are my bed or the stove.” So we stood, and Alejandro recounted his routine: he gets up with the sun, eats some oatmeal, and heads out to round up the sheep that have wandered off overnight. He spends the day checking the sheep for diseases, hauling water for them to drink, herding them to grazing areas, and protecting them from dangers, which he listed, raising a finger for each one: “coyotes, mountain lions, poisonous plants, foxes, and wolves.”

Alejandro is one of roughly 2,000 sheepherders working in the United States on an H-2A visa. The H-2A visa, which was created primarily for seasonal agricultural work, allows foreigners to come to the U.S. for temporary employment if there are not enough domestic workers to meet employers’ needs. Most recipients of H-2A visas are in fact seasonal farmworkers, but sheepherders usually work year-round, for three years at a time. They make somewhere from $3 to $7.25 per hour (depending on who you ask), and they spend the vast majority of each year living alone in small trailers, usually many miles from other people. They’re on call 24 hours per day, seven days per week, for almost the entire year.

I told Alejandro I was doing research on sheepherding in Colorado and he asked, “Why? It’s not a pretty job.” (That much had been clear to me from the outset.) I asked, what the ugliest part of the job is, and I expected him to mention one of the grievances other herders had raised with me: the winter weather, the low wage, the tiny living quarters, the lack of a toilet, the 80-hour workweek, mistreatment from the boss, or, as another sheepherder put it, “lots of other shit.”

But without hesitation, Alejandro said “the loneliness.” He paused and clarified, slowing his Spanish down for me, “You cannot imagine the loneliness.” Until then, no herder I had spoken with had mentioned loneliness aloud, but nearly all of them had implied that it was difficult. They do, after all, live alone almost all year. They’re rarely allowed to leave the land on which they work, and they’re often not allowed to have visitors. When a herder does have human contact, it’s almost always with his boss and, even then, rarely more than once every few days.

Alejandro did go on to describe the other difficulties of his job, echoing the claims made in a 2010 report by Colorado Legal Services (CLS), an organization that provides free legal assistance to migrant agricultural workers and their families. The report, called “Overworked and Underpaid: H-2A Herders in Colorado,” relies on a survey of 93 herders in Colorado. The survey was conducted by Thomas Acker, a Spanish professor at Colorado Mesa University, and Ignacio Alvarado, a former H-2A sheepherder.

The findings of the report are striking enough to repeat verbatim: About 73 percent of the herders reported having zero days off over the course of a year. More than 80 percent were not permitted to leave their ranch. 85 percent were not allowed to have visitors who were not ranch employees. Roughly 70 percent reported never having access to a functioning toilet. 85 percent were never permitted to engage in social activities. Almost 50 percent reported not having the opportunity or ability to read their employment contracts.

Ignacio Alvarado spent months driving around western Colorado interviewing herders for to get the results published in this report. He hoped the report could be used in the court cases about herders that have sprung up in recent years. Alvarado, who came to the U.S. from Chile about 20 years ago on an H-2A visa, worked as a sheepherder for six years himself. Since then, he’s advocated for herders through local legal aid organizations.

I met Alvarado at his house near Loma, and he recounted his career as a sheepherder: Twenty years ago, when he arrived at his job and was taken to his campito, Alvarado asked his boss, “Excuse me, I’m going to live in this thing?” His boss replied, “Yeah, and for three years, buddy.” Alvarado told me he remembers thinking, “In Chile, a dog would live in this thing.” When he asked his boss how he would shower, his boss said, “You don’t shower anymore.”

Not only were the conditions rough (and rougher than they are now), but the pay at the time was also only $650 per month, or, in Alvarado’s estimation, 29 cents per hour. But the wage was still better than it was for sheepherders in Chile, so Alvarado renewed his visa after three years. Toward the end of the second visa period, though, he caught a disease from a tick. He went to the ranch to ask his boss to take him to the hospital, but his boss had left on a trip. Over the phone, his boss said he would send his wife to take him. He waited for days, but she never came. So Alvarado used the ranch’s phone to call a friend of his, who took him to a hospital. At the time, it was written into most herders’ contracts that they could not leave the ranch or grazing lands. “So,” Alvarado said, “technically, it was a crime to save my own life.”

All this occurred not far from Loma, where Alvarado still lives, fourteen years after leaving the sheepherding industry. I asked if he had ever considered moving somewhere else, and he said he’s only stuck around in Loma this long in order help out other herders. Aside from his legal aid and advocacy work, Alvarado often drives into the hills outside Loma to find herders and bring them back to his house to give them a good meal and a shower. “Then,” he said, “I drive them back before anyone notices they were gone.” The herders in the area clearly appreciate what he does: one of them referred to him as, “el otro Santo Ignacio'“—the other Saint Ignatius.

It was with Alvarado in mind that I began to talk to the ranchers who employ H-2A sheepherders. The industry they describe bears almost no relation to the world Alejandro and Alvarado recounted. Warren Roberts, a rancher working near New Castle, CO, said that what seem at first to be rough conditions are actually part of what he called a “great exchange” between ranchers and herders. In fact, Roberts said of his herders, “We treat them probably as good, maybe even better, than family members.”

Roberts stressed that the men who come to work as sheepherders on the H-2A program are “making tremendous money for their lifestyle.” He recounted a conversation he had with Department of Labor (DOL) employees who came to audit his ranch a few years ago: “You all have no idea how good it is for these guys, how much it improves their families’ situations because of being able to work up here,” he told them. Roberts also pointed to the fact that wages have increased “like crazy” in the past decade. And wages have in fact doubled since 2010. The government-determined wage floor was $750 per month in 2010 and, after a 2015 ruling, is now at roughly $1,500 per month.

And herders are, as Roberts said, using their salaries to improve their families’ lives. One herder I spoke to said that he used his salary to provide his two daughters with an education, which they would never have had otherwise. Other herders are able to get a parent a new set of teeth or a sibling sorely needed medical care. Alejandro, for example, is slowly sending back money for, in his words, “a real house” for his family. At this rate, though, he won’t get to live in it for another decade.

Wages aside, ranchers seem to think that the working conditions are far from brutal, especially compared to how they claim the herders live in their home countries. Angelo “Butch” Theos, whose ranch is near Meeker, CO, said, “These guys come from Peru, where they lived in a hovel. They dig a hole, they have three or four pieces of tin. That’s their roof, and that’s where they stay. And they bring their families, too, and they burn cow dung for fire.” Theos went on: “A lot of them won’t even send pictures back to their wives of where they stay because it’s so nice! It’s way different than Peru, and these guys obviously wouldn’t be here if they didn’t like it.”

Although living conditions in herders’ home countries are often shocking, the herders’ own accounts complicate Theos’ view. Alvarado told me, “In Chile, I worked from Monday to Saturday, but I had Sunday off, and I was with my family on the ranch, and, well, I cleaned myself. But [the ranchers] think that because we come from over there—from whatever country they don’t know about—we must have lived in a hut under the trees, or something.”

Theos, Roberts, and other ranchers tend to highlight essential cultural (or, as they say, “natural”) differences between Peruvians and Americans to explain why a job that no Americans want is not only desirable, but also suitable for Peruvians. The point is, as Roberts put it, “They’re not Americans. They don’t think the same way.” Or, as Theos put it, “They’re well-suited to the job in a way that Americans just aren’t.” 

Claims like these imply a stereotype we ought to be wary of, but the ranchers are right that Americans don’t want these jobs: There are, according to ranchers and herders alike, zero American sheepherders working in Colorado, and very few even in the United States as a whole. Ranchers and herders also both agree that sheepherders from Latin America tend to work much harder and be more appreciative than their American counterparts. The herders I spoke to myself were sometimes exceedingly grateful for their wages, and it’s undeniable that they work hard under conditions no American would tolerate.

But whereas ranchers say these qualities are somehow inherent in the herders, herders themselves point out that they don’t work 80-hour weeks because it suits them. They do it because they need to. One herder, who requested anonymity because he feared repercussions from his boss, said that herders “come out of desperation.” Alejandro said, “There is no culture, no personality, that is fitting for this job.” He paused, then gestured around his trailer: “Nobody prefers to live alone, without their family, in a box like this.”

Butch Theos was one of the few ranchers who let me speak to one of his herders (most refused, saying their employees couldn’t be interrupted). We drove down a county road “trailing” sheep to protect them from oncoming traffic as they moved to new grazing land, and when we arrived, Theos pointed out a herder named Orlando and whistled him over. Orlando didn’t hear, so Theos shouted “Veni!” Orlando, who isn’t much more than five feet tall, jumped off his horse and waded through the sheep. Theos put a thick hand on Orlando’s shoulder and said, “This guy wants to ask some questions. You understand?” Orlando nodded. While we talked, Theos stood about ten feet behind me on the road, just close enough that he might be within earshot. After every question I asked, Orlando looked over my shoulder at his boss.

“How are the working conditions?” I asked.

“Good,” he said, and looked at his feet.

“It’s better than Peru?” Orlando said nothing, and shuffled his work belt around.

“The salary is much higher?”


“Is it hard?”

“…sometimes. But I’m very grateful.”

“The boss is good?”

“The boss is good.”

After a few more curt answers, I asked whether or not he felt it was safe for us to be talking here. Orlando looked directly at me for the first time and said, “No.” To clarify, I asked again, “Do you feel like you can talk about the job without being punished for what you say?” He shook his head and said that he should go tend to the sheep. I had nearly identical interactions with three other herders, each under a rancher’s wary gaze.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since ranchers have an unusually high degree of control over their herders. Under the rules of the H-2A program, a rancher can fire a herder (which amounts to deportation) whenever a herder “has not performed his job in a satisfactory manner.” So in addition to controlling the herder’s food, water, and housing, the rancher also controls his status in the U.S.

If Roberts and Theos make it sound like the herders are hardworking, well-suited to the work, and grateful for every penny, it’s because in front of their bosses, they are. And they’re especially grateful in comparison to the few Americans who have tried sheepherding. But whereas ranchers pin it on cultural differences, herders uphold these stereotypes because they know they’ll face dire consequences if they don’t.

Although it’s an oversimplification, people in the know tend to have one of two general views on the herding industry: One group sees it as “a great exchange,” the other as an industry rife with exploitation. In the past decade, these two views have become so polarized that they’ve sparked a number of legal cases, some of which have risen fairly in high in the federal court system.

Hispanic Affairs Project v. Acosta (Alexander Acosta is the Secretary of the Department of Labor) is a case brought on behalf of herders against the federal government. The plaintiffs in the case contend that the DOL, which sets the herders’ minimum wage, underestimated the average number of hours herders work per week. In 2015, the DOL proposed that sheepherders should be paid based on a 44-hour workweek, which was an average of estimates from a few different sources.

One side of the average was based on an estimate the Western Range Association (WRA) and Mountain Plains Agricultural Service (MPAS)—two ranchers’ associations that act as middlemen between herders, ranchers, and the government. They both proposed a 40-hour workweek, which is what herders had already been paid for. 

The other side of the average was a 48-hour week calculation, submitted by Edward Tuddenham, an attorney representing workers in a court case that set the herders’ hours previously. Tuddenham relied on data from a form that ranchers fill out. Ranchers, however, usually fill out those forms in accordance with the hours that MPAS and WRA tell them to write. So the supposed average used two similar numbers that can both be traced back to the ranchers’ associations. The voices that were left out of this “average” are, of course, those of the herders.

In order to find what they considered a genuine compromise, the herders’ attorneys pointed the DOL to the Colorado Legal Services report on which Ignacio Alvarado worked. The study finds that 62 percent of herders “actively worked” at least 81 hours per week and that 35 percent worked at least 91 hours per week, so if herders were to be employed according to these numbers, their salary would double. Unfortunately for the herders, according to the court’s opinion from July 2017, the DOL “recognized the results of the Colorado Study but also that ‘two individual employers expressly disputed the methodology in the Colorado Study, stating that it was not a reliable source and was based on biased [interview] questions.’”

The DOL said the study was “informative, but very limited,” because it pertained only to Colorado and was therefore “not representative of the industry as a whole.” But as Dermot Lynch, an attorney for the plaintiffs, pointed out to me, herders cross state borders into Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah all the time, and the hours that herders work in Colorado don’t differ significantly in other states. According to Lynch, the CLS report also abided by all the necessary standards. It surveyed enough herders to be statistically significant, and it recorded and explained its questions.

Nevertheless, the DOL ultimately trusted Tuddenham’s assessment that “the 48-hour based on the most comprehensive and detailed data...” That data was from the forms that ranchers fill out, and those forms might have been comprehensive and detailed—but they also might have been entirely wrong.

The herders’ baseline salary (and that of other migrant workers) is determined by a tool that the DOL uses called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). The rate is based on the average hourly wage for similarly employed workers in a particular region. Although it seems like one more innocuous government acronym, the AEWR is ultimately what determines how much money the herders are able to send home to their families. Strangely, the AEWR purports to determine a salary that would make the job “competitive” in America. In other words, it’s supposed to determine a salary high enough that, if there weren’t a labor shortage, American workers would want the job.

Herders I’ve spoken to have actually laughed when I suggested that, in the eyes of the government, their wage was competitive for American workers. To its credit, the DOL is aware that the AEWR is laughably dysfunctional. The DOL recognized, for example, that in any survey of current wages, “The presence of undocumented workers in a given industry depresses wages for the industry.” The agricultural industry is comprised of somewhere between 46 and 70 percent undocumented workers, so the wage depression is significant: On average, undocumented agricultural workers make roughly $7 per hour and work about 40 hours per week. Because herders are working 80-hour workweeks but only getting paid for half of it, they’re making legally roughly the same amount that undocumented workers are making illegally—and doing more work for the money.

Nominally, the H-2A program is supposed to end the illegal exploitation of migrant worker. But if the program is leaving workers with conditions equivalent to those of undocumented workers and paying them less per hour, then it’s just legalizing an illegal workforce and leaving the exploitation in place. On a cynical reading, that’s the point of the H-2A program.

Ranchers’ defense here is that shortage of American sheepherders is simply inevitable in the herding industry, given how brutal the job is. But in the natural gas industry (among others) American workers have recently flocked to dangerous but relatively high-paying jobs. Perhaps U.S. workers, then, could become “suited” to the job of an H-2A worker. Employers would simply have to offer higher wages. But because they all want to stay competitive in the market, ranchers won’t raise wages unless the baseline for the entire industry is raised. Raising the baseline would be the job of the DOL, which, unfortunately for herders, doesn’t seem to trust herders’ own accounts of their jobs.

Jennifer Lee, a professor of law at Temple University, describes all this in a paper published in the Stanford Law & Policy Review. Lee writes that the legal framework of programs like the H-2A, “delegates substantial power to employers to essentially price-fix depressed wages and transform jobs into ones that require backbreaking productivity. By degrading the wages and working conditions of these low wage jobs, employers ensure that they can only be filled by highly compliant and productive guest workers.” So, according to Lee, what seem on the surface to be genuine domestic labor shortages are actually manufactured by the government and ranchers associations, which work together to keep wages so low and conditions so poor that Americans won’t take the jobs.

Employers getting together and fixing wages is hardly a new story. But wage-fixing usually happens in the absence of government regulation, and leads to calls for more regulation. In the case of H-2A herders, however, rancher associations are deciding on a fixed wage with the government. This leaves workers and legal advocates in a situation which, as Alvarado said, is “very not good. At all.”

Guest worker programs like the H-2A began in 1917, when thousands of American farm workers went to fight in World War I and left the DOL flooded with ranchers’ complaints about labor shortages. To solve the problem, the government could have granted legal immigration status to thousands of Mexicans who were willing to work in the U.S. for a low wage, but widespread racism made it impossible to garner congressional support. So instead, the government devised a guest worker program as a way to provide cheap labor to the U.S. without allowing immigrants to claim government benefits or civil rights granted to citizens. The U.S. gained the benefit of cheap immigrant labor without the alleged problems of integrating immigrants into American society.

Although parts of the program were shut down after World War I, the agricultural portion continued to operate until the onset of the Great Depression. The 1930s ushered in a labor surplus, a wave of xenophobia, and the consequent mass deportation of predominantly Mexican guest workers.

When World War II rolled around, American laborers were again leaving farms for the armed forces (or the defense industry), creating another genuine worker shortage in agriculture. In response, President Roosevelt authorized the Bracero Program in 1942. Much like the earlier guest worker program, the Bracero Program allowed the government to import temporary workers from Mexico, extract their labor, and send them back home.

When the war ended, there was again a labor surplus and corresponding public pressure to deport not only the guest workers, but also a new undocumented workforce (ranchers and farmers often hired undocumented workers because they found the Bracero paperwork tedious). In 1954, the U.S. Attorney General announced a crackdown on illegal immigration, called “Operation Wetback,” which was to be implemented through the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). (“Wetback” is a derogatory term for Mexican laborers who were alleged to have swum across the Rio Grande river.) The INS, which was responsible for overseeing the Bracero Program, now found itself in a bind: farmers and ranchers were demanding cheap labor, and they were glad to get it from illegal immigrants. Much of the public, meanwhile, wanted illegal immigrants (and most immigrants) out of the U.S. 

The INS’ solution was not to demand that ranchers pay higher salaries, but instead to push for the Bracero Program to be expanded and made into federal law. That way, the farmers could have their cheap labor legally. The agency then proceeded to track down thousands of undocumented workers, drive them just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, “recruit” them as Braceros, and drive them back to the farms on which they had already been working without changing their wages or working conditions. That way, the government could legalize the workers, keep them separate from the lives and privileges of the American public, and provide farmers with cheap labor. In the first three years of the newly enlarged Bracero Program, the number of Braceros more than doubled, from 201,380 to 445,197.

Even aside from the low wages and poor conditions, there was a flaw in this system from the beginning. Although ranchers and farmers had to prove that there were no Americans willing to do the work they needed done, they only had to prove that no Americans were willing to do the work at the wages they were offering and in the conditions they were offering. In a free market, farmers would have had to improve wages and conditions until people signed up. Instead, farmers were able to deflate wages and conditions, complain that no Americans wanted the jobs, and then, with the help of the government, import foreign workers so desperate that they would work for less than half of the minimum wage. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the H-2A program replicates this structure under a more bureaucratic name.

The Bracero Program continued for another decade, until mounting pressure from farmworker advocates like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta pushed Congress to end the program in 1964. The country was left with only the H-2 program, a comparatively small guest worker program that had been created in 1952 but had never been widely used. In 1986, Congress split the H-2 program into the H-2A and H-2B programs, for agricultural and non-agricultural sectors respectively. Twenty-two years later, H-2A workers comprise 10 percent of the country’s farmworkers. 

If this history shows us anything, it’s that ranchers have long used guest worker programs to acquire cheap labor, and that the government has, for nearly as long, used the program to legalize an otherwise illegal workforce without improving conditions.

Given this history, it should come as no surprise that in 2016 the Trump Winery in Charlottesville, VA sought 29 H-2A workers to help prune its vineyards. (Over the past decade, Trump and his associated business have also hired hundreds of workers on the H-2B program.) The Washington Post, reporting on the H-2A applications, wrote, “When news of these applications first broke, the outrage expressed by those who remembered the president’s pledge to ‘hire American’ was predictable.”

But Trump’s decision to hire H-2A workers was as predictable as the outrage that followed it. While hiring H-2A workers might have seemed like a broken promise, it was actually in line with his anti-immigrant sentiments. Although the H-2A program appears to contradict the language of “the wall,” it actually isolates workers from society so thoroughly that it serves as a sort of wall itself—not between Mexico and America, but between Mexicans and Americans.

All this is apparently clear to the people running and enforcing the H-2A program, and they make no effort to hide it. The Washington Post cites Kerry Scott, program manager for Mid Atlantic Solutions, the nation’s largest private provider of H2 workers. Scott says, “In our minds, the best [border] wall is a functional guest worker program...We’re certain our program will be one of those that survives and thrives.’”

Although H-2 workers are the ones being directly exploited, American workers are also being deprived of potential jobs: in a competitive market, sheepherding jobs would be paying much more than the minimum wage. So Americans are, at least indirectly, also being harmed by guest worker programs. That, coupled with the fact that wages and conditions for guest workers are inhumane, would seem to indicate that the guest worker programs should be shut down. And there are plenty of legal scholars, most of them politically liberal, who argue against guest worker programs. Lee herself argues as much toward the end of her paper.

But guest workers themselves don’t want the program shut down—they want it improved. Every sheepherder I spoke to really way grateful to have a job at all. So there’s a discrepancy between what herders want and what their supposed advocates often argue for. It’s easy for outsiders to ignore a somewhat nauseating truth: other parts of the world are so destitute that their citizens hope to work in conditions most Americans find inhumane.

Still, as Alvarado said to me more than a few times, “I’m working in America, not in Chile or Peru.” That is, workers in America deserve to be held to America’s standards. The minimum wage is called the minimum wage for a reason. That’s part of why organizations like Hispanic Affairs Project and Towards Justice are trying to better conditions and wages without shutting down the whole program. But, as you might expect, this strategy too sparks outcry from ranchers.

The question ranchers ask in response to demands for better conditions and wages is, “What would happen if we raise wages any more?” The answer, they claim, is clear: the industry would collapse. “The government,” Theos told me, “raised [herders’] salary enormously overnight…But we need them, so we bit the bullet. A lot of my friends… couldn’t afford to keep all their men.”

The 2017 court opinion in the DOL case paints a similar picture. The court cites a sheepherder employer called FIM Corporation, which explains, “For the period 2006 to 2013, our gross income from sales of wool, lambs, sheep, and hay averaged about $1,100,000 per year. After our operative expenses our net income averaged about...$35,000 per year. This proposed tripling of sheepherder wages will require approximately $250,000 per year in additional wage payments, [and] that much money is simply not available.”

It remains unclear whether a budget this tight is the exception or the rule: are most ranchers (and the government) fighting to keep wages low because they don’t care enough to pay the men any more, or because they’re barely scraping by in a failing industry, unable to pay their men anymore? Then again, as Jennifer Lee told me, “Either way, why is the answer to that question, ‘Well, let’s just continue to exploit foreign workers?’”

That answer persists because what looks like exploitation to a worker or a liberal-minded outsider often looks like a long, thriving tradition to a rancher. The old history of the H-2A program—and the even older myth of the “well-suited” farmworker—begin to explain how herders like Ignacio Alvarado and ranchers like Warren Roberts end up on opposite sides of a long, entrenched battle.

If Roberts and Alvarado weren’t in the positions they’re in, you could imagine them being friendly with each other. Both, to begin with, are weathered old guys who seem to have an endless collection of remarkable western stories. Both of them also tend to assert what’s right and wrong with all the charm and conviction of a seasoned salesman.

Roberts, just after singing the praises of free enterprise, explained his approach to doing business: “What I’ve always tried to do is, if I’m dealing with you, I want it to be good for both of us, I don’t just want it to be just good for me. And if everybody operated that way, we wouldn’t need all these rules and regulations. We could all be free.” 

Alvarado practically mirrored his sentiment: “What I’ve always wanted is for it to be fair. Just as fair for the ranchers as it is for the herders. Nothing more. And if everyone could just be fair, we wouldn’t need all these government rules. Those aren’t the real solution.”

Still, in case there was any danger of slipping in to the old “everyone’s the same on the inside” adage, Roberts and Alvarado are not without their differences: Roberts believes that, “If you do something wrong, you’ll pay the price, guaranteed, every time.” Alvarado, responding to my question about how conditions might improve in the future, said, “I don’t see any solution. Good people get wronged over and over again. That’s just how it is.” Roberts is looking at the industry from a position in which it’s possible to believe that those who are good get what’s good, but Alvarado has evidently seen too many good people mistreated to believe that.

If there’s a fundamental difference between herders and ranchers, it’s not that one is “culturally suited” to physical labor and the other isn’t. It’s that ranchers have faith in the moral order of things. They’re just angry that the government is getting in the way of it. Herders, on the other hand, have been trying to work toward a moral order for a long time, and now they’re beginning to lose faith.

At the end of it all, one herder’s exasperation might have captured the industry better than any analysis could. Toward the end of our interview, I asked him if I could use his name in the story. He said, “No, man, this industry is intense… the whole thing is fucked.” 

“The whole thing?” I asked. 

“The whole thing.”