Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
ACOMA - Abel H. Miller, 69, begins his days at the crack of dawn on the open range at Acoma Pueblo, where he's been herding sheep since 1948.
Miller spends most nights in a broken down, rusty school bus parked near the wooden pens that house his 400 head of sheep. He makes coffee and stew on a small kerosene stove. He packs a .22 magnum revolver in his belt to protect the herd from coyotes and rattlesnakes.
"I'm out here everyday, 365 days a year -– no vacations, no holidays," Miller said. "I've got to take care of the sheep, whether it's winter or summer."
Every June, Miller herds his sheep to the pueblo's community shearing pen to cut and pack fleeces for sale. But despite his efforts, Miller generally makes little profit because he lacks resources to ship wool to high-paying, out-of-state warehouses. Instead, he sells wool at below-market rates to nearby trading posts and earns his living from sporadic lamb sales during the year.
"It's tough, but this is my life," said Miller, who retired from Santa Fe Railway in 1991 after 33 years. "Between the sheep and my retirement, I get by."
Like Miller, thousands of Native Americans depend on wool and sheep sales despite sharp declines in New Mexico herds since the 1990s. But with most tribes located far from markets, producers generally sell wool at rock bottom prices and rely on lamb and mutton to feed families and supplement income.
To improve conditions, New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service has launched a new program to help tribal producers find alternative markets.
"People at Acoma and other pueblos rely on local trading posts, but they could significantly increase profits by marketing wool directly to warehouses," said Pat Melendrez, an Extension natural resources specialist directing the program.
By improving income, Extension hopes to slow the decline in sheep production, which plummeted after the federal government eliminated wool incentives in the 1990s. The government previously made direct payments to producers to offset foreign imports.
"Most sheep producers lost up to 20 percent of their annual income when that program ended," said Pete Gnatkowski, Extension agricultural agent in Lincoln County. "This is a hard, labor-intensive industry. For small-scale operators, the elimination of federal incentives was the straw that broke the camel's back."
Between 1997 and 2002, New Mexico herds fell from 297,000 head to 155,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wool production dropped from 2.3 million pounds to just 1.2 million.
Nevertheless, sheep still provide an economic boost to tribal producers, said Gerald Moore, Extension agricultural agent at the Navajo Nation.
"At least 25 percent of Navajo families still raise sheep, whether it's five head or 200," Moore said. "It's a cultural and economic thing that people won't give up."
At the Ramah Navajo Chapter, range management specialist Wayne Franklin said nearly every family raises sheep. "We have about 2,000 families and most of them earn about two-thirds of their income from sheep," Franklin said.
Under the new Extension program, Melendrez negotiated with Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative to send trucks directly to Acoma and other pueblos to collect wool. Mid-States has warehouses in Kansas, Ohio and South Dakota. It pools wool from producers nationwide for bulk sales to wool mills, allowing herders to earn top market prices once sales are complete.
But to sell wool through Mid-States, tribal producers need to grade their fleeces to improve quality, Melendrez said.
"For generations, tribal producers have indiscriminately bundled up their wool in sacks for sale to trading posts," Melendrez said. "By grading wool, they can sell uniform, quality fleece that is much more competitive on the market."
To teach proper shearing and grading, Melendrez holds workshops at pueblos. He demonstrates how to cut away or "skirt" lower-quality leg and belly wool and then shear and bag higher-grade fleece from the rest of the animal.
"If leg and belly wool is mixed with quality fleece, the mills have to sort it out by hand, which means producers get paid less," Melendrez said. "Producers can earn more by going that extra mile themselves."
Miller and others at Acoma say the program has brought huge dividends.
"Most years we only got about 10 cents a pound for our wool," said Rex Salvador, another Acoma producer. "We were just giving our wool away."
But last year, Salvador and others got 62 cents a pound. And this year, Acoma producers shipped nearly 15,000 pounds through Mid-States, up from 7,000 pounds in 2004. They expect to earn 75 cents a pound after Mid-States sells the wool to mills.
Mid-States collected wool at the Ramah Navajo Chapter for the first time this year, hauling about 11,000 pounds from producers there, Melendrez said. Ramah producers will also earn about 75 cents a pound for their wool, compared to 15 cents a pound in recent years.
Melendrez expects more producers to participate as they learn about the benefits of alternative markets. Meanwhile, he's looking for new markets for tribal lamb meat, such as sales to pueblo casinos and restaurants and to Sysco Corp. –- the nation's largest food service distributor –- which recently launched a program to buy goods locally.
Miller says he appreciates the program.
"It's improving wool sales," he said. "We're getting a better price and I'm getting more money. It helps a lot."
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