The Barinaga family has been sheep-ranching in America for more than a century. My grandfather, Valentin Barinagarrementeria, travelled from the Basque village of Markina to Mountain Home, Idaho, in the early 1900s to make his life as a sheep-herder on a ranch in southern Idaho. He was a diligent worker and soon became a partner in the ranch, and eventually owner, with my grandmother Eulalia. Theirs was a typical American sheep ranch, and their products were lamb and wool. Their 5,000 ewes lambed on the high, snowy desert of southern Idaho in February, and the ewes with their lambs, accompanied by sheepherders, grazed in spring and summer pastures in the mountains and valleys of what is now the Jarbidge Wilderness Area in northern Nevada. My grandparents never dreamed of milking their ewes, as there was no tradition of sheep dairying in this country, and range-sheep operations like theirs did not lend themselves to dairying.
My father John grew up herding sheep and tending sheep camp, but he left the ranch for a career in engineering, and moved to Schenectady, New York, where he met and married my mother, Stephanie. I was raised in upstate New York.
As a steel-mill engineer for General Electric who also spoke fluent Basque, my father had a unique opportunity. Throughout his professional career, he worked on GE’s contracts with the steel mills in Bilbao, Spain, and made many trips to the Basque country, where he was able to become close to his extended family who live in the provinces of Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia. On trips to the Basque country with my father I also had the opportunity to get to know my Basque cousins.
I have always felt proud of my Basque heritage and yearned for a way to connect to it more deeply. After an education as a biologist and a career in science journalism, I had the opportunity to return to my shepherd roots, on the ranch my husband Corey and I purchased in California.
The Basques like my grandparents who came to the United States brought with them many aspects of their culture: their food, their language, their music and dancing, their long tradition as shepherds. But because this country had no opportunities to milk sheep, they left their cheese-making tradition behind. As a cheese-maker of Basque heritage making a Basque style cheese in America, I feel like I am closing a circle, and this is deeply meaningful to me.
I have had plenty of help from family members. My Basque cousins of my generation, some of whom live in traditional baserris where they milk their sheep and make cheese, have generously shared their knowledge and taken me to visit other Basque shepherds and cheese-makers. My father John, who lives just an hour from me in Sonoma, has shared with me all of his stories and experience from growing up with sheep, and even kept my first ewes in his orchard for a summer while we were preparing things for them at the ranch. And my American cousin Linda, who grew up in Idaho on the family sheep ranch, comes every spring to help us with lambing.
I also have help and support from my biologist husband, Corey, who has kept his career in biotech, but spends his spare time consulting with me on sheep genetics and husbandry.