An American Sheep Outfit
Skyline Sheep Co. is still going strong after 70 years
By Robert Stevens
MT. PLEASANT—A Mt. Pleasant family, the Jorgensens, owners of the of Skyline Sheep Co., have seen the sheep business change dramatically over the past 50 years. Yet the traditions of sheep ranching are being handed down to their younger generations, who are helping to keep the future of the family’s operation strong.
The farm was grown from scratch by the family patriarch, Neil Jorgensen. Although his father was a dairyman, Neil made the decision to get into the sheep business as a teen and taught himself as he went along, learning from what others could teach him, as well as his own successes and failures. And he married a woman from a family who came out of a sheep ranching heritage.
Neil became very successful in the business of sheep. His son, Todd, joined him in the business, and when Todd started his own family, his sons, Drew and Carson, came on board too.
In the 1980s, things were booming and Skyline Sheep Co. rose in size and influence in the sheep industry. The operation reached 22,000 head, the largest sheep outfit in the country at that time. And at one point they were feeding 55,000 lambs between their facilities, which were spread across several western states.
As the years passed, Neil and his family made moves to keep the farm strong. In addition to raising sheep for meat and wool, Neil diversified the ways they made money by buying lambs beyond what they raised, maintaining ownership through the feeding process and selling directly to the packers. Such strategies helped during unstable times in the lamb industry.
Lamb and mutton consumption have waned in America over the years, and Americans now eat less than 1 pound of lamb per year on average. According to Neil, in 1950, more than 50 million sheep were being raised in the United States. Now that number is less than 5 million.
“People don’t know how to eat lamb anymore,” Neil says. “During the war (World War II), they fed all the soldiers a lot of mutton and they got sick of it.”
Most of the lamb and mutton eaten today is consumed by ethnic groups. Coastal areas and large eastern cities such as New York City are lamb and mutton consumption hubs due to their ethnic diversity.
Over the years, a recurring threat to the American sheep industry has been the competition from New Zealand and Australian sheep farmers. A perfect storm of conditions, regulations and geography allow the foreign sheep growers to run big herds with very little hired labor and overhead.
“Over there, they have great big fenced pastures, and one man can take care of thousands of sheep,” Neil says.
The foreign lamb has driven down the price of the meat in an already struggling market.
The problem eventually got so bad in 1983 that Neil and a group of associates with common interest in the health of the American sheep industry went to the international court to take on the government of New Zealand for unfair trade practices.
Neil and his partners won their lawsuit, and for a while the American sheep industry saw some relief from tariffs imposed on lamb exports from New Zealand. But the relief from the lawsuit didn’t last.
“Right now we do need the government to put some kind of a tariff on imported lamb to make it fair again,” Neil says. “Or maybe some kind of limit on how much lamb can be imported from New Zealand and Australia. Trying to get something done like that in the sheep business nowadays is pretty hard though. The average sheep man is just not making enough money; the industry just doesn’t have the leadership to pull it off anymore. Our industry is so small now.”
Despite various shifts in the industry, and with additional business ventures, Skyline Sheep Co. carried on with Neil at the head.
A common misconception is that farming is a simple business, but nothing could be further from the truth. The operation has thousands of sheep, and with those numbers come a lot of logistical challenges.
The biggest of those challenges is feeding herds cheaply enough to keep feed costs low, but well enough to keep them healthy. During the warmer months, the Jorgensens’ animals range on forest lands close to the ranch in Mt. Pleasant. When the cold winter months approach, the family transports their herds to the desert and leave them over the winter. In the spring, they return the sheep to Mt. Pleasant for shearing and lambing before taking them back up to the forest.
The process of moving sheep from one spot to another has changed a lot over the years. For the move from summer ranges to winter ranges, sheep farmers once trailed the herd on horseback, which could take weeks at a time. Now ranchers use semi-trucks and trailers to haul them out in a single day.
Upon arriving with the herd in the desert, the Jorgensens hire sheepherders to watch, feed and water them.
A sheep operation always benefits from hiring the best workers possible with many years of experience herding sheep. Many of the sheepherders hired by Skyline Sheep Co. are from countries like Chile and Peru where sheep herding is a time-honored tradition. The workers bring a lot of experience, Neil says, and typically a strong work ethic.
Many ranchers have learned the hard way with untested workers, some of whom have bailed out on their duties.
“It’s too big of a gamble to risk on just anyone,” Drew says. “They take care of our livelihood, you know? These guys we bring out cost more, but they really know their stuff and they’re good guys.”
In the current sheep industry, a lot of things can end up as a gamble considering the slim profit margins. The Jorgensens plan their moves using a combination of traditional know-how, range science and intuition.
Before moving their herds to the deserts, they make sure the sheep are in good health and treat any injuries. Medical science has helped to increase the health of the herd. The animals are also fed well before the trip.
“Some people like to be really careful with how much they feed their herds,” Drew said. “My grandpa is more generous than most. He really wants to keep them well fed, and we do.”
Generosity is a common thing from Neil and his family. As they go about their day with ranch duties, a cooler full of food and drinks is brought around at regular intervals for them, their workers and anyone who might be visiting at the time.
During trips to haul the herds over long distances, the caravan of semi-trucks stops, and the Jorgensens and their workers sit and eat meals together on the company tab.
While spending time with the family documenting their hard work, a reporter from the Messenger was repeatedly offered an extra coat from Neil to stave off the cold weather.
It’s almost impossible not to admire the Jorgensen family as they work. They are up early in the morning and their work ethic is strong.
“Sometimes we’ll work 14 hours or more, but sometimes you can get away with 10,” Neil says. “Some days we wish there were 30 hours in a day.”
Good natured jokes and laughter can be heard around the sheep pens and other facilities as the family and their workers interact throughout the day.
During a day of prepping their herds to spread out on the desert range, Neil joked with his workers, pointing to a 30-year sheepherding veteran from Chile and saying, “This guy works so hard because he drinks so much whiskey. Keeps his blood pressure low.”
Growing up on as sheep ranch has been a great experience, Drew says. As a kid, he remembers his grandpa taking him out on the job, something he says he always loved.
“It’s a way of life, and they’ve been raised that way,” Neil says. “I’ve been doing it for 70 years. My wife’s family has been in it for much longer than that even. I think we might have eight generations in it now.”
The younger generation of Jorgensens have big shoes to fill. Neil remains a major presence in the operation he built from scratch. He still helps to guide what he started as a teen, but with his son and grandsons behind the wheel, they steer the ship together as a family unit.
“When I was in high school, I had lots of ideas of what I wanted, but I always knew I wanted to have something to do with the family farm,” Drew says. “After some time in college I realized maybe not everything I wanted to do was as glamorous as I thought it might be. I knew I loved the trucks and running the sheep, and something about this lifestyle just appeals to me.
When asked about the future of Skyline Sheep Co., Drew says he has high hopes for the industry. Although lamb consumption is down in the U.S., studies show millennials are more likely to try foods they are not accustomed to, which Drew hopes will lead to more people eating lamb.
“A lot of people have just never had it,” Drew says. “We just need to get the word out to people to try it more. If Americans would just eat 2 pounds a year, business would be so good the industry might have trouble keeping up.”
Drew says in this day and age, when “organic” and “free-range” are important labels, it’s almost as if people forgot that it doesn’t get any more free-range than lamb.
With high hopes for the future, Skyline Sheep Co. is going full steam ahead.
“It seems like more than ever right now we are making sure we are doing things right and keeping things organized,” Drew says. “I hope the future is good, because it’s my future; it’s our future.”
Other growers across the West have quit the business, but the staying power of the Jorgensens comes from a combination of their strategy of diversification and their old-school knowhow.
Between Neil’s self-made experience and the many generations of experience on his wife’s side, the men and women of Skyline Sheep Co. received a real-world education that left have them all capable of tackling just about any challenge they have to deal with.