hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News May 2015


Shearing the flock

Spring’s arrival finds an age-old tradition thriving in Vermont


Contributing writer



Andy Rice shears a sheep in 2013 at a farm in West Pawlet, Vt. Rice is among the shearers making the rounds at area farms this spring amid signs that the demand for locally produced wool is increasing in the Northeast. George Bouret file photo

Romney sheep roamed the pasture at Merck Forest and Farmland Center as the center’s communications coordinator, Melissa Carll, and farm manager Tim Hughes-Muse pondered a micro-to-macro question about the wool industry.

Merck Forest, a nonprofit organization that focuses on teaching and practicing sustainable forestry and farming practices on its nearly 3,200 acres, hosted a well-attended weekend sheep-shearing workshop in late April. But the event’s hosts wouldn’t go so far as to predict that sheep would soon be grazing on every Vermont hillside.

“We’re both hesitant to classify wool as a thriving commodity,” Carll said. “In this region, sheep farming seems to be the pastime of farmers who may also have sources of income off the farm -- and of small-scale farmers looking to add a dynamic mix of animals to their farm.”

In addition there are organizations like Merck Forest, which Carll said keeps a flock of sheep as part of its educational mission to help demonstrate a variety of farming techniques.
Still, with this year’s sheep-shearing season under way, there are signs that the demand for locally produced wool is growing in the Northeast.

Both Carll and Hughes-Muse pointed to the emergence in recent years of several regional spinneries that have steady work. They said there is enough fiber being produced across the wider region to make these businesses necessary and sought-after.

“We do think that people are beginning to once again look to sheep wool as a more sustainable, renewable fiber product -- not synthetic, but produced and made locally,” Carll said.

And Hughes-Muse added that the age-old art of sheep shearing is a good skill for any sheep farmer to have, because it helps tie them in with the process of raising sheep for fiber.

“Perhaps a farmer that understands shearing better will be able to look at the wool -- look at the sheep’s bedding, food, overall management -- and make better decisions for how the animals are managed,” he said. “Raising animals well, in turn, creates better wool and a finer fiber product that goes to market.”

Although the advent of synthetic fibers in the past half-century probably means wool production will never return to the levels of centuries past, Jim Emenheiser, an assistant professor and livestock specialist at the University of Vermont Extension, said there are still no other fibers that compete with wool on its strongest virtues.

He noted that the U.S. military, apparently realizing this, has recently redoubled its use of wool as a high-performance fiber for combat clothing.

“In addition to superior performance, there is a romance aspect associated with wool production that is non-existent with synthetics,” Emenheiser said.

The aesthetic qualities of sheep, their value in land improvement, and the healthy and even spiritual aspects of keeping sheep “make wool something special,” he added.

Spring shearing is part of a tradition and carries an element of pride that Emenheiser said flows through the whole supply chain in producing wool.

“It’s hard work, and you know you have accomplished something when you are done,” he said. “Shearing is a process that is difficult if not impossible to automate. The pride and tradition stay alive as a result.”


Skill and instinct
Jim McRae of Green Acres Farm in Pittsford is helping to keep the sheep-shearing tradition alive in Vermont. He helped organize and teach last month’s workshop at Merck Forest on behalf of the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association.

Spring is a prime season for shearers to take to the road, moving from one farm to another in long workdays, as their skill and speed are in demand. Along with his own farm and shearing, McRae said he teaches workshops with his wife and business partner, Liz Willis.
“The most difficult part of shearing is to learn the shearing pattern and to execute it while handling a sheep that may weigh more than you do and doesn’t know to stay still,” McRae explained. “The job can be successfully done by men or women, and in fact Liz is a very skilled sheep shearer. As the old adage goes, it takes practice, practice, practice.”

It also takes some hand-on instruction to learn how to shear correctly and safely.
“It’s a job that can be very satisfying,” McRae said. “The best shearers make the job look effortless, but they didn’t start that way.”

After the fleece is shorn, it can be packed into a bag and sent to a wool pool, where it is weighed and sent to a buyer. The wool pool is a cooperative effort of local producers to take their wool to one central point of sale. There, it is unpacked and graded. The buyer pays the farmer directly, McRae explained.

“That wool, depending on its fineness and quality can be used for everything from clothing to felted blankets,” he said.

Bay Hammond, president of the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association, said the use of Vermont wool in these finished products can ultimately generate demand far beyond local sales. But she emphasized that wool producers from western states own a larger share of the American market. That makes collaboration, such as her organization’s wool pool, an important way to develop new income opportunities for local producers, she said.


Springtime event
Hammond, whose family runs Doolittle Farm in Shoreham, described shearing as an event with a special place on the farm calendar.

“When my shearer is on the farm, it’s like being with family,” Hammond said. “There is hard work, but there’s also great storytelling around a well-earned meal, and I remain amazed at the instinctive knowledge the shearer possesses. He senses things by just observing my animals that I would never pick up.”

McRae said that along with hard work, it seems nearly every shearing job brings its own odd happening. For one thing, it’s common to find foreign matter in sheep’s wool; McRae said he’s found everything from barbed wire to baling twine – and, once, a used syringe needle.

“We’ve had blowouts while shearing, which occur when the hand piece hits foreign matter that it can’t cut and flies out of your hand through the room,” McRae said. “I’ve been stitched up or stapled twice by my assistants on the job.

“But mostly it is a pleasant, physical work that is very rewarding. It is done when you are done, and you don’t have to bring it home.”

The issue of foreign matter in the wool is resolved through skirting, a process in which the newly shorn fleece is sorted through on a table to remove any debris along with the less desirable wool.
“Most of the wool we shear in this area will be skirted thoroughly by the producer,” McRae said. “Then it will be sent out to be scoured, or washed, and made into roving, which then can be spun into yarn.”

He explained that there are many types of wool – from course rug wool to ultra-fine merino and cormo wool – “and they all have a purpose.”


Spinners in high demand
Since the U.S. textile industry faded in the 1980s, the road to market for locally produced wool now passes through small-scale spinneries such as Battenkill Fibers, a carding and spinning mill in Greenwich, N.Y. These fiber-processing mills use small-scale equipment to make roving, finished yarn for knitting and batts for felting.

As Carll and Hughes-Muse pointed out, the demand for these services appears to be growing.
Michael Hampton opened his Hampton Fiber Mill & Spinnery in the northern Vermont town of Richmond in 2010 and said his one-man operation has been busy ever since and currently has a six-month backlog of work.

“More and more shepherds are realizing the intrinsic value of the wool they produce” and the growing demand for value-added agricultural products that are locally sourced, Hampton said.
“For some shepherds, the fleece is the primary goal,” he said, adding that these producers take great care to optimize both the quality and the quantity of the fiber produced by their flocks. These producers typically have small, diverse flocks and aim to grow wool that is strong, clean and appealing to hand spinners and other fiber artists, he explained.

Hampton said clean-wool prices for the best commodity wool are about $3 per pound, but producers of high-quality hand-spinning fleeces can charge in excess of $20 per pound for their unwashed wool.

These producers, he said, are rewarded for their yearlong efforts to optimize nutrition and eliminate sources of fiber contamination -- and for the steps they take on shearing day to remove defective fiber from each fleece on the skirting table.

For other shepherds, Hampton added, wool is a secondary commodity that is coincidental to the production of lamb meat. Meat producers tend to be less concerned about the quality of the fiber and thus take fewer steps to protect the clip throughout the year and on shearing day, he said.
Hampton, who is also a Vermont Sheep and Goat Association board member, said that although wool has value, “a typical meat or dual-purpose breed of sheep produces wool that is not as appealing” to hand-spinners and other fiber artists. This wool is more likely to be destined for commodity markets.

Still, he said, a properly prepared wool clip optimizes the financial return for the producer, regardless of the type of wool.

“It all becomes apparent on shearing day,” Hampton said.