Why would anyone choose
the life of a sheepherder?
By Suzanne Dean
BAKER, Nev.—Every year in the depths of January, sheep ranchers, herders, shearers, and people with family backgrounds in the sheep business, including many from Juab and Sanpete counties, gather at the Border Inn on U.S. 50., located right at the Utah-Nevada border.
This year, the 17th Old Sheepherder’s Gathering was held Jan. 17 and 18. The gathering gave sheep people a chance to see old friends and gave the Sanpete Messenger a chance talk to some of them.
Owning, managing and herding sheep involves driving long distances in semi trucks, spending time in the winter in the frigid desert, filling out immigration paperwork to hire Peruvian sheepherders and then herding sheep into semi trailers again to take them to lambing locations or up mountain trails.
It’s hard work, dirty work. Yes, many of their great-grandparents, grandparents and parents did it. But why do they still do it?
Darren Garrett of Mona is the grandson of Dee Garrett, a legendary sheep shearer. Dee Garrett lived in Nephi and worked at the Nephi rubber plant. But every spring, he took a leave of absence to shear sheep.
He traveled as far as Oregon shearing, his grandson said. Some sheep ranchers hired a crew from New Zealand to shear their sheep. According to Darren Garrett, his grandfather could shear as many sheep in a day as the five-man crew.
Darren Garrett grew up in Nephi. His family always had horses, which they kept on 8-10 acres northwest of town.
Today, he’s the manager of a crew that installs cable towers throughout Utah. He also has five sheep and four horses. He plans to breed some of his ewes this year to expand his hobby herd.
Last summer in time after work, he built his own sheep camp. His grandfather and father always wanted sheep camps but never had them. So he built it in their memory.
Garrett, his wife and two teenage kids use the sheep camp for camping in the mountains. He and his wife also brought it to the sheepherder gathering.
Why does he still keep sheep and horses? “It’s just part of what you do,” he said. “You’re born into it, you’re raised in it; it’s second nature because you’ve done it all your life.”
Two teenagers came to the sheepherders gathering with their grandmother, Nellie Stephenson of Spring City, a descendent of legendary sheep man Andrew Aagard of Fountain Green (1844-1925). The boys are the sixth generation in their family who have worked with sheep.
Kysen Stephenson, 15, is the son of Kory and Tina Stephenson of Chester, who have 1,500 sheep.
The Stephensons move their sheep six times per year to get them to optimum lambing and grazing locations, and Kysen helps with all the moves.
He attends Juab High School, where he’s on the rodeo team. Last year as a ninth grader, he took state in calf roping. He went to a national rodeo competition in South Dakota and placed in the top 10.
Does he like working with his family’s sheep? “Oh yeah,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”
His cousin, Kayden Allred, is the son of Dusty and Hailey Allred, sheep ranchers who live in Spring City. Kayden graduated from North Sanpete High School last year.
He’s already starting his own herd. “I have 70 head,” he said proudly.
All of his sheep are ewes. “I’ve got them breeding now. I’m trying to decide if I want to sell them as pregnant ewes or wait ‘til fall and sell them as ewes with lambs.”
How does he feel about the prospect of going into the sheep business for himself? “I feel amazing,” he said. “I don’t have to work for anyone else.”
Another relatively young sheep man at the gathering was Theo Kaplan, 30, who grew up in Moroni and now lives in Sugarville, Millard County, near Delta.
At 16, he left home and became a sheep herder for the Vacher Sheep Co. of Salem, Utah County. The founder of the company, Dan Vacher, had pretty much retired and his daughter, Daneen Norman Vacher had taken over. She was Kaplan’s first boss. Today, Daneen’s teenage daughter, Brinlee, works for the sheep company.
Kaplan tried road construction, concrete work, working in the oil fields and harvesting wheat in the Midwest. He came back to sheep.
He now has his own herd of 875 sheep and also helps manage herders for Osgathorpe Sheep Co. of Park City.
“You get to watch lambs being born,” he said. “Then they start to learn to walk, then to run….They take off, and you see them playing around. They go to the mountain and they start to grow and get bigger. And the lambs that you’ve raised, you can tell which ones you’re going to keep, which ones will make good replacement ewes and the ones that are going to be fat meat lambs. It’s nice to see.”
In agriculture, Kaplan said, “you know somewhere down the road, somebody’s going to eat” because of what you raise. “I feel more grateful giving something like that than anything else.”
A perennial participant in the sheepherder’s gathering is Kris Lee, 72, of West Mountain, Utah County (west of Payson). She’s been in the sheep business 50 years.
In 2019, the Utah Woolgrower’s Association named her “Sheep Herder of the Year.” The association used to call the award “Sheep Man of the Year,” but decided they needed change the title to be politically correct, she said.
She is another descendent of Andrew Aagard. Both of her parents, Joy Aagard and Newell Johnson, grew up in Fountain Green but both went to BYU and decided to stay in Provo after college.
They started with some sheep Lee’s grandmother gave them and built it into a herd of 4,000, “big enough to make a comfortable living,” she said.
Her parents had three daughters and no sons. “I was my dad’s right-hand man,” she said.
She and her husband both graduated from BYU. Her husband became a small businessman who owned apartments and a restaurant. She went into sheep.
In 1978, her father gave her some “bummer lambs.” Ewes usually have two lambs, but once in while have triplets. A ewe can’t really milk more than two lambs, so the third lamb, the “bummer,” is typically weak and has to be bottle fed by humans to survive. Her dad also let her pick 25 ewes.
“When you get those genes from both sides of the family, you don’t have a choice of what you’re going to be,” she said.
Today, she has 500 sheep. She said her herd size is limited by the size of her Forest Service grazing permit, which is on land in the Water Hollow area between Fountain Green and Indianola.
She also owns a farm west of Moroni that has been in her father’s family for more than 100 years. That’s where she has corrals and lambing barns.
For a number of years, she raised Rambouillet rams and sold them at ram sales in Utah and Wyoming.
Her husband has sold his apartments and restaurant and retired. Lee said she isn’t ready to retire yet, but even if she did retire, she said, “I could never be without some sheep.”