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Counting sheep

Jan./Feb. 2011 California Country magazine

California ranchers hopeful about future.


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Sheep ranching is migratory in nature. Here, sheep belonging to Cubiburu Livestock are placed on pasture with adequate feed for grazing.

San Joaquin County rancher John Cubiburu couldn't be more thrilled about Americans' growing appetite for lamb.

Traditionally a signature of the Easter holiday meal and a domain of white-tablecloth restaurants, lamb is increasingly turning up on the summer grill and menus of midlevel and casual dining chains.

It's a trend that has infused life back into a segment of California livestock agriculture that has been in a slump for years.

These days, sheep ranchers say they're finally beginning to see positive signs on the horizon. Cubiburu says he is looking to continue and expand a way of life that has been a family tradition for generations, a prospect that seemed rather dim in 1997 when he was graduating from college and trying to figure out his future.

As someone who has been tending sheep his entire life, Cubiburu said there was no question what he wanted to do.

But the sheep business was in terrible shape in the 1980s and 1990s, said Florence Cubiburu, John's mother. The domestic market was flooded with imported lamb from New Zealand and Australia, and American ranchers were selling their lambs for way under the cost of raising them. Many sheep ranches did not survive the economic fallout and eventually went out of business.


Florence Cubiburu watches as a sheep scurries out of a transportation truck and onto pasture.

"Growing up as a kid, I never had the option of not working on the ranch. And I loved it. Ranching is just in my blood," he said.

"I just didn't want that for him," Florence said of her son.

Even though she knew John wanted nothing more than to take on the family business, she discouraged him and told him to pursue another line of work that would get him ahead.

"Quite frankly, I was in tears about the situation," John recalled. "It was hard because when your heart is into something and you can't do it...

"But she was right," he acknowledged. "At the time, it wasn't right to come home. It just encouraged me to work harder and save money. Maybe it was because I was told there wasn't a future in it. I think I was determined to make one."


John Cubiburu with his wife Quinci and son Luke.

He took a job in sales and ended up building a successful business in communications technology, which he's still involved in today. All the while, he kept his sights on returning to his first passion, which he did in 2000 when he bought his first load of ewes and joined the family business.

Raising sheep is deeply rooted in the Cubiburus' family heritage, which traces to the sheepherding traditions of the Basque people of Western Europe. John's father, Jean, who died when John was 8, immigrated to California from the French Basque Country in the 1950s and later started Cubiburu Livestock, which became one of the largest commercial sheep businesses in the state.

Florence is a third-generation sheep producer whose grandparents were from the French and Spanish Basque countries. They moved to the Stockton area in the late 1800s and early 1900s, bringing with them an extensive background in livestock ranching.

California is well known for its concentration of Basques, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley between Stockton and Bakersfield. Florence said immigrants such as her grandparents were attracted to the wide open spaces and vast acres of unfarmed land in the Golden State.

"There was just a lot of opportunity," she said. "And in the Basque Country, 90 percent of the people had experience with livestock, whether it was sheep or cattle, so it was an easy thing to fall into. They knew about it and they didn't have to go to college to learn it."

By the time her grandparents had laid down their roots in the Central Valley, the state's sheep business was already well established. In fact, California sheep producers were the first to organize their own trade association in the state: the California Wool Growers Association, which turned 150 years old in 2010, making it California's oldest agricultural organization.

The group's name is somewhat of a misnomer these days because even though California sheep producers still call themselves "wool growers," their main product is lamb, not the byproduct that sweaters are made of.


John Cubiburu says he loved ranching as a boy and wants to continue that tradition with his son Luke.

Florence said even when her grandparents were in the business, income from wool was becoming less important and ranchers were putting more emphasis on breeding and producing lamb for meat. The advent of refrigeration and its widespread commercial adoption in the early 1900s gave rise to the meatpacking business, boosting the value of lamb.

At its height in 1931, California's sheep and lamb population totaled nearly 3.4 million head, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those numbers have declined through the years—down to 610,000 head in 2010, matching a low set in 2007.

Producers have been up against a host of challenges, Florence said. She saw her parents struggling with market lulls starting in the 1960s. By the 1970s, when she and her husband were caring for about 22,000 sheep, competing imports were creating a glut in the market, leading to depressed lamb prices. But there were other issues threatening the viability of the sheep business.

"Lots of land were being taken up by subdivisions," she said, and finding ground to graze Cubiburu Livestock's growing flocks was becoming increasingly difficult: "We were running sheep clear down in L.A."

"I can remember as a young boy, it was nothing for us to walk sheep 10 miles," John added. "Today, we need a livestock transportation truck and I'm constantly looking for places to go."

In addition to problems of urban encroachment, losses from coyotes, mountain lions and dogs have sharply reduced sheep numbers in north coastal regions such as Humboldt and Mendocino counties, where sheep ranching once thrived.

But today, with the nation's changing ethnic makeup as well as current trends for locally produced foods and international cuisine, demand for American lamb is steadily rising. Even with the current economic downturn, which has hurt other livestock sectors, Florence noted that lamb prices have held strong.

John said not much has changed over the years in how his family raises sheep, which are still pasture-based. What has changed is how their product is marketed. With their proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area, he said Cubiburu Livestock is capitalizing on the "foodie" movement there.

Whereas in the past his family was marketing mainly to the state's largest lamb-processing facility, two-thirds of its stock now goes to Niman Ranch and Sonoma County-based Field to Family Natural Foods, both of which focus on the natural-foods market.

Other California sheep producers are starting to do more niche marketing as well, catering to eco-conscious consumers and selling at farmers markets. Sheep ranchers are also being sought by municipalities and private landowners to provide grazing services to manage vegetation and control fire fuel without the use of herbicides. John said the concept is still relatively new but is becoming popular in California.

With these new developments and market opportunities, John said he sees a much brighter future for the sheep sector and the family business, a tradition he intends to pass on to his son Luke.

"Once I had that little guy on the ground, it's changed everything," he said. "Now I think about all the good times I had on the ranch when I was a little kid, and I want to be able to provide that opportunity to my child. I love what we do, and I want to be able to keep doing it and continue the traditions we've all grown up around."

Ching Lee is a reporter for California Bountiful. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or clee@californiabountiful.com.

Sheep products: diverse and abundant

From lamb chops to wool sweaters, sheep yield a wide range of products that show up in everyday use.

  • Meat: Whether it's lamb roast, rack of lamb, lamb shank or lamb stew, any lamb meat comes from sheep that are less than 1 year old. Mutton is from more mature sheep, usually older than 1 year. Mutton is stronger in flavor and popular in Middle Eastern and British cooking.
  • Wool: In addition to clothing, wool is used to make items including upholstery, blankets, carpets, insulation, tennis ball covers and bedding materials for futons and mattresses. Wool was among the natural materials used to clean up the Gulf oil spill last year. The U.S. military uses up to 20 percent of American wool annually to clothe and protect our troops.
  • Lanolin: This substance extracted from wool has a variety of commercial uses, the most common of which is in cosmetics to make lotion, lipstick and hair conditioner. It also has industrial uses, such as to make motor oils, lubricants, rust-preventive coatings, adhesive tape and printing inks.
  • Dairy: Like cattle, sheep produce milk, which is then used to make dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, butter and ice cream. Although production is small, dairy is an important niche segment of California's sheep business. Sonoma County's Bellwether Farms has been making sheep milk cheeses since 1992.
  • Pelts: Skin from sheep is made into soft leather and is commonly used for making the chamois cloth for car washing. The pelt market is valued at $16 million.

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