Kelli Griffith’s favorite part of the sheep industry is the people.
“They’re hardworking, genuine people.”
From her position as executive director of Mountain Plains Agricultural Service, based in Casper, Wyo., to filling her free hours helping her parents with their club lamb operation, it is clear that Kelli’s commitment to agriculture and the sheep industry run deep and are rooted in love for not only the people but the lifestyle they represent.
“I feel so blessed to have been raised the way I was — to have learned the value of working hard and seeing the value and payoff of investing in ourselves and our natural resources, and then of course learning the dedication and determination necessary to accomplish the goals you’ve set for yourself,” she explained.
Those lessons were learned on a small purebred farm flock operation near Pavillion, Wyo., that has transitioned into a club lamb flock with the purpose of providing 4-H and FFA youth quality projects.
“I learned and gained so much from the 4-H and FFA programs: A crazy work ethic, the true value of being a good competitor and how to judge and care for livestock. The sheep we raise today are our way of staying involved and hopefully helping a few more kids have that same experience. My entire family is passionate about helping the sheep industry, and this is how we do it,” said Kelli.
Following her 4-H and FFA years, Kelli attended Clarendon College on a livestock judging scholarship. She went on to judge livestock for Texas A&M where she received her bachelor degree in agriculture business, then continued her education with the completion of a master’s degree in agriculture with an emphasis on education and marketing at Colorado State University.
“Following college I was a feed salesman, taught agriculture science courses at Laramie County Community College, and then took my current job as executive director of Mountains Plains Ag Service,” said Kelli.
What her current title doesn’t state is the vast degree of responsibilities Kelli acquired on behalf of the entire sheep industry when she accepted her job, or the challenges she would face.
“MPAS is an association of livestock producers who employ H-2A workers, which are temporary foreign workers, for the purpose of livestock herding purposes. My staff and I specialize in bringing in herders to work and care for sheep, cattle or goats in open range situations, in addition to working with a few sheep shearing crews,” explained Kelli, adding MPAS is not involved with workers wishing to permanently immigrate to the U.S.
At the basic level, this involves helping U.S. employers and their prospective foreign employees navigate the government requirements of getting the employee into the U.S. This process includes working with a minimum of four government agencies: Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the Department of Workforce Services in each state, in addition to helping arrange travel plans to and from the U.S.
“MPAS was incorporated on May 10, 1988, by Colorado and Wyoming ranchers. At that time they could see the ability to procure foreign workers getting more and more complicated, and the need for assistance in keeping up with the changes.
“How many livestock producers can sit in front of a computer and read the Federal Register daily to see what new regulations have passed and check the numerous other websites involved in the process? The bottom line is none of them have that kind of time. Furthermore, I can’t think of anybody I know in this country that wants to grow up to be a sheepherder. It’s not a priority in our society, yet having people in that occupation is essential to the sheep industry,” said Kelli.
Today, Kelli and her staff of four work on behalf of 270 members in 17 states, helping secure approximately 1,000 foreign workers annually.
“Our association also provides an entity that can serve as an advocate for its employers. We work with the combined resources of our members to go to bat and be a larger voice than those people could be as individuals. We speak to the livestock industry’s labor needs on a lot of levels — I deal with a lot of Congressional staff, make trips to D.C. regularly, and am always trying to set up meetings with the Department of Labor or Department of Homeland Security to voice the concerns and issues of the producer,” Kelli said.
While MPAS works hard to avoid problems, they are not exempt from the challenges that surround foreign workers and immigration rules and regulations in today’s political environment.
“Government regulations are increasing exponentially, and it’s a daily challenge to just stay informed and try to be in compliance. It’s very complicated, and the bottom line is that despite all the efforts of our employers and staff, workers most likely will not be here on time. If we do everything right and ahead of schedule, and that producer is relying on a single foreign employee to be there for lambing, he may not make it to the U.S. until the middle or end of lambing. That’s a huge burden on the employer with serious repercussions, and a big point of frustration for everyone involved,” she said of the largest challenge she currently faces in her position.
However, that isn’t to say Kelli isn’t up for the fight, and committed to turning it into a long-term positive.
“Government is not going to go away, and it’s not likely to shrink. It’s a tangible part of agriculture today. It’s our job to find a way for employers to stay in business by navigating the system and having a dependable legal labor force to produce our food. It’s essential that we do this while advocating for the right changes and direction taken with new government regulations,” she said of her ongoing goals.
While Kelli will readily admit that she did not fully understand the scope of what she was getting herself into when she accepted the MPAS executive director position, she also said it has been a rewarding career choice.
“When I took this position I was ready for a new direction and I really wanted a challenge. I knew nothing about immigration, but have always been passionate about agriculture and believed strongly in the lifestyle, tradition and importance of producing a secure food supply for our nation. The fact that I’m able to be a very small part of continuing that tradition is fulfilling.
“I plan to always be active in agriculture and hopefully contributing to the industry in whatever way I can. Right now that is through this job and pitching in and making it work with my parents and our sheep. Those two things keep me busy,” she said. ❖