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Shepherding their flock

Agriculture.com Staff 05/20/2008 @ 1:00pm

You can't pull the wool over Ben and Stella Elgorriaga's eyes. They've seen it all from hard times to good times.

Married for more than 35 years, the Madera, California, sheep farmers know firsthand how difficult some situations can really be. In the early 1980s, they went through a rough stretch financially.

"It was tough. We needed help and didn't know where it was going to come from," Ben says.

After some soul-searching, the couple decided to partner with another farmer in order to get back on their feet. Four years later, they closed the partnership, split the assets, and returned to farming on their own. But Ben knew changes had to be made in their operation.

"We were at a point where we almost lost our business. I knew I would have to do something different to secure our future so it didn't happen again," says Ben.

That lead Ben and Stella to take seven steps to make their business and family stronger.

The Elgorriagas believe their operation is a collaborative effort, and each family member plays a key role. But during their darker days, Ben and Stella admit they struggled as a family.

"It was our hardest time but our best time. We struggled as a family, but it ultimately brought us closer together," Ben says.

The couple says each of their children has talent he or she brings to the operation along with awareness of their limitations. "They also understand and respect one another's strong points," Stella says.

For example, Peter finds the grazing land for sheep and locates trees to shake for the pistachio business. Paul is gifted mechanically.

The family members don't stake their success on one part of the operation. Over the years, they've added different ventures.

Today, they not only have 5,500 ewes, but also graze 400 English Hereford cross and Angus cattle.

Five years ago, sheep prices were high. But Ben knew input costs would catch up, and they needed to look at other options. The couple and their three sons invested $1 million to purchase eight pistachio harvesting machines. Today, they custom-harvest 4,000 acres.

Trees are harvested in September, before 70% of the lambs are born in October and November, allowing the two enterprises to fit well together.

"If you put any one entity of the business by itself, it wouldn't work. And we wouldn't be where we are today," Ben says.

The Elgorriagas raise Booroola Merino and Polipay sheep and average about 6,600 births per year. "The key to these breeds is multiple births. We ship 1.2 lambs per ewe. The more lamb production we have, the better our defense for staying in this business," Ben notes.

You can't pull the wool over Ben and Stella Elgorriaga's eyes. They've seen it all from hard times to good times.

Instead of selling their lambs, the family sells the meat. They began researching ways to do this and found the Mountain States Lamb Cooperative, a farmer co-op in Douglas, Wyoming.

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