Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Shearing Day at Homestead Farm

Saturday morning I woke up on the early side and made my way to Tivoli Bread & Baking Co. (which will have its own non-chronological post mainly because I thought I had uploaded the photos, but clearly I didn't). After enjoying the company and baked goods of M. the baker, I drove on over to Hudson Valley Sheep and Wool aka Homestead Farm/The Yarn Shop. As I have mentioned at other times, I spent about two years working at the farm. My main responsibilities were centered around processing wool more than working the sheep, though during my time there I baled hay, helped with drilling new fence post holes, cleaned wool, dyed yarn, cleaned garlic, put up and took down storm windows (a truly laborious task), helped herd sheep, gathered up new baby lambs and enticed their mothers back to the barn (an extremely tedious task), milk fed sickly lambs, chased down lost work dogs, painted walls, organized shelving, took responsibility for a composting toilet and, I'm sure, a few other things. I arrived around 8:45 and went down to the barn where all the action was going down. At this point it was still in the planning stage. Gates were arranged to corral and separate sheep, plastic bags and index cards were unearthed (each fleece goes into its own bag with a tag that identifies what kind of sheep it was and the year), Ranger the dog (I think it was Ranger?) checked out the scene as well. I hadn't been back to the farm for a proper visit since 2008, so I was sad to see that two dogs and one cat from my era on the farm had died. RIP Jake, Morelli and Cheerios.
The barn space was divided into three sections: the shearing area with the two shearing platforms, the sheep waiting room for the shearing space, and the larger area where the ladies could hang out and munch on food and generally be their sheepy selves. When I arrived I imagined that, like on past shearing days, I would be more of a third tier helper, mainly carting wool from the sheep barn to the wool room (where the sinks and machines that help wool become yarn live). But I was quickly enlisted to be a member of the second string. If the two shearers were the quarterbacks, then I was one of their waterboys. I'm not sure sports analogies are really the way to go here. I was responsible for trying to keep the shearing platform clean and clear of rambling sheep, to bag the wool that was sheared - separating the belly wool and skirting (dirty, dirty, not long enough wool to spin) - and to haul a new sheep up to the platform thus saving the shearer some time and effort. I had never been a sheep hauler on my shearing days and, sadly, there was quite a learning curve there for me. I'm not as strong as I'd like to be and lifting/dragging a sheep even four feet is not a task one can complete without a modicum of strength, confidence and effort. I think I improved over time, and without me it would have taken longer, so even if I feel like I could have been of more use, I also feel like I wasn't just in the way. Or I'd like to hope that's true. These shearers, whom I had met so many years past, have been in the biz for 25 years so they definitely knew what they were doing. The ladies, still with their winter coats, in the shearing area.
And so starts the shearing.

It's funny, when they're lambs some of them have the cutest 'freckles,' sometimes resembling the patterns of cows. But as their fleece grows in, those spots are blurred and you wouldn't really know exactly what a mix of fiber colors they're growing until they get their hair cut and lo! spots.
So in the foreground is the shearing area, then a fence, then the waiting area, and to the right the main lounging area where the freshly coiffed ladies went once the process was complete.
Once the first lot was all sheared, they were turned out back to the lounging area...but one at a time, as we needed to count how many had been sheared. This was a three person job. I wasn't one of the three. Basically two people have to control the flow of sheep through the one gate or else the sheep would just run in one big group and counting would be near impossible. Sheep are really incredibly dumb, so if one starts moving then they all have a pressing need to do the same, no matter what the obstacles. So one person has the gate and is blocking it, a second person helps stem the flow of pressing sheep flesh, and the third is a backup counter in case sheep slip through the lines of defense. You might notice the purple chalk marks on some of their backs - the shearing day also is a day where all the sheep get a dose of medicine. I'll have to ask M. what it is exactly, as I don't know on my own. Update: "CD/T vaccine to guard against overeating disease and tetanus." We took a quick break after the first 50 sheep were done and I took a brief stroll around the main barn area.
Ranger. His brother died of some kind of tumorous mass, and I was sad to learn that Ranger, too, was stricken by the same thing. M. seemed to think he wouldn't make it too many more months. That said, he was still in fine spirits on this day coming up for pats on the head and bites of bagel, if with a severe limp. I remember when M. brought him and his brother to the farm, they were such little fluff balls. As they grew they went through a very troublesome adolescence. The point of the dogs is to scare off coyotes/to protect the flock. But the brothers at first weren't sure that they were all that interested in coexisting with sheep. At times they were put in a separate fenced in area, which they escaped no less than six times - at least twice getting so far off the farm as to require a 20 minute drive to Tivoli to pick them up.
Handsome son of a gun.
And then it was back to shearing. It's literally backbreaking work. Sheep who have been through the process a few times can learn that once they've been positioned for ultimate shearing accessibility it's really much easier to stay still...but sheep, as I may have mentioned, are really dumb animals, so sometimes they squirm and kick and throw their heads. This means that the shearer not only has to be controlling the blades of the clippers, but also has to have complete control of the animal and its various legs and horns. The alternative is a fleece that is poorly cut, which would result in less fiber actually making it to the yarn stage. The other, more pressing alternative, is the likelihood of a kick to the head, knees, arms or any other body part you can think of.
This sheep got the drill and was moderately still during the process.
Me, looking a bit more like Mickey Rooney than I usually do.

All newly nude. It's amazing how much smaller they look once their fleece has been removed. They take up less space, that's for sure.
One day this fleece will be washed, picked and turned into wonderful wool. M.'s flock consists of Icelandic and Shetland sheep.

I think the whole thing was completed by around 1 or 2. A total of 99 sheep were sheared. M. always makes a lunch after shearing for those who have participated, and while I wanted to stay, there were fried pickles and a trip to Hudson in my future and, frankly, I needed a shower. It was great to see M. and P. and the rest of the crew. And the actual work. The physicality of it, was a refreshing change of pace from my regular work-life. A great thanks goes to M. for welcoming me back onto the farm after such a long time had passed; it was really great to see her and spend some time there.


nc catherine said...

Wow. Just wow. And I assume the regal if badly named Ranger is a Great Pyrenees? I had a friend here who had one, and one day when they were making a rarely made lamb stew, the dog went into the kitchen and had his own version of a doggy meltdown looking for all the world like he had failed in an epic way in his job to protect those fluffy critters. And this was a dog rescued from some idiots when he was a puppy and had never ever been on a working sheep farm. Ever. Bred in the genes I guess. So they the humans did not cook lamb in the house ever again.

I am guessing your hands were soft from all the lanolin but muscles tired from all the ewe wranglin'? What a great day tho.

David said...

What a wonderous touching informative piece. Please
don't take this a wrong way,
but does the picture of your
smiling face seem a bit