On 28 Island Farms, It's Time for Annual Ritual of Shearing
By C.K. WOLFSON
With their limbs fit snugly against each other, the shearer and the 175-pound Corriedale sheep he holds form a shifting, flesh-and-bone puzzle. It is a single, interlocking sculpture, a hologram of shapes.
And the two bodies perform a pattern of movement as exact as a surgeon's that will be repeated 80 times in the barn at Allen Farm, from early Saturday morning to the day's end. Everything, however casual it appears, is precision set: where the shearer places his hand, the slant of the shears, the position to the inch of where he plants his feet.
This is a craft that it has been said takes 10 years or 10,000 sheep to learn. Andrew Rice - everyone calls him Andy - has been coming to the Island from Vermont for more than 20 years. It takes him about 10 days to shear the almost 300 sheep and goats raised on 28 Island farms. The farm names - such as Allen, Brown, Simon, Edey, Fenner, Fischer, Goff, Healy, Hopkins, Kingsbury, Jackson, Manter, Thompson, and Whiting - reflect the Island's history.
"It's incredible for me," Mr. Rice says. "I do 1,000 miles a week in New England, from Canada to Connecticut, and I watch all of these families grow. These people open their homes to me, and say, ‘Come stay with us.'"
Mr. Rice, New York city-born, Westchester County raised, is a big man with a gentle and patient manner, a soft voice, and large wide hands and fingers. Part of what he does is serve as a teacher and management consultant, offering practical advice about the best ways to insure a flock's health, parasite control, foot problems, infections.
"You've got to make it informative. You've got to make it educational. You've got to make it funny. It's all part of it. I don't have the letters next to my name, but I have the experience," he says.
The atmosphere in the Allen Farm's barn is lively and congenial. Mitchell Posin and his wife Clarissa Allen, their son Nathaniel (Ned), and their regular crew know their tasks well enough to engage in banter, often laughter, as they work. There is a quality to the event that seems only to exist in the exercise of work that coincides with nature's cycles: a harvesting of wool; part of a larger, natural process.
Outside the barn, scores of fluffy, sweet-faced lambs (born in April), bleat a noisy chorus of complaint at being separated from their mothers - a safety precaution. Since the lambs learn to recognize by sight, it will take them a short while to reconnect with their newly shorn mothers.
Mr. Rice wears special shearing shoes: ergonomically correct, wool moccasins to support the upright gyrations his craft demands. His new shearing clothes (special, tight-fitting denim pants and long-tailed shirt) haven't arrived from New Zealand yet, so he wears jeans and a T-shirt. He stands next to his shearing rig, a hanging electrical appliance that holds his shears - a claw-shaped shear with a long (in this particular case) flexible shaft, and signals Jason Baird, a friend who's come to help, to separate one of the five sheep in the holding pen.
Holding firmly onto her forelegs, Mr. Rice drags the ewe backwards onto the lanolin-stained plywood boards which keep the concrete floor from becoming slippery. In one motion, he pulls her until she is almost sitting on his feet, gripping her with his knees and between his legs, steadying her with his free-hand forearm. Her head peeks out between his legs and, in response to his calm, authoritative touch, she becomes instantly compliant.
Mr. Rice wraps himself against the ewe, and begins. Even watching the 58-year-old shearer closely, it's difficult to discriminate the separate moves and shearing patterns developed in New Zealand. He begins with the belly and crutch (between the rear legs); then the left hind leg - he smoothes the wrinkles in the skin with his hand as, in a stroke, the shears push back the wool like a blanket. He switches to the top knot (on the head); up the neck, side shoulder and left side, then the "whipping side" on the right.
For a minute or two you can't recognize the position of the ewe; she is camouflaged in the fluff of shorn wool, in the soft contortions of an interlocking design with her shearer.
And almost abruptly, she is released - all smooth, clean pink skin, a form with configurations compared to the crinkle-covered oval she had been.
"They're very efficient animals," Mr. Rice says, explaining that when they get nicked, the lanolin they produce speeds healing; and because they are endothermic (able to create heat from within by the digestion of fiber) they can maintain their body temperature of about 102 degrees even when shorn.
While he talks, Mr. Posin and Mr. Baird apply a dose of worming treatment, and trim the hoofs. The boards are swept clean, and the sheared wool is put on the grated top of a spinning pedestal table (a gift from Teena Parton), where Clare Ives and Clarissa Allen separate the skirting (short end, second cuts usually caked with dirt and manure), and then add the fine merino into a long plastic sheath held by the frame, which constitutes a bale. It will be sent to Maine, be returned as yarn, and appear in the farm's gift shop as woven blankets and knitwear.
The crew goes to the Allens' porch for their lunch break, sitting around a table obliterated by various salads - calamari, marinated this, seaweed that - and share stories about farmers and wool festivals; they trade facts and anecdotes.
Mr. Posin says, "We so depend on Andy. We're geographically separated. We can't go to these festivals. We lamb on a seasonal basis, trying to work with nature. Andy's our link to the industry."
Mr. Rice traces the history of shearing, beginning with crude bone and rock shearing. He knows the grades and measurement of fiber, the shearing records for speed and numbers (the record is 800 sheep in a day). As he prepares a cup of tea and carries it out to the porch, he explains that his shears are so sharp, "I can take an ear off and it wouldn't even slow the machine down ... The only cut a shepherd will not put up with is if you nick the tit on an udder, the orifice will heal over. That's the worst you can do."
A good shearer is rated by speed, efficiency, technique and safety. In addition to a charge for travel and the ferry, Mr. Rice gets paid "by the piece," usually from $4 to $6 for sheep, and $5 to $7 for goats, who are harder to shear.
At Thompson Farm, Liz and Jeff Thompson, and son Oscar, eight, ready their herd of Angora goats, whose mohair hangs in long, fat scribbles and requires two shearings a year.
"The part I enjoy is the continuous learning," Mrs. Thompson says. "You always have new situations and you always have a new problem or a new challenge."
She learns, she says, "by calling up the experienced herdsmen and saying, ‘What do I do?' In February, I called Andy in Vermont from my cell phone in my pasture, and said, "I've got a sheep that won't get up, and he walked me through it." (Warm water, coffee and molasses.)
Mr. Rice explains that most goat shearers hog-tie the animals, and work in pairs. He doesn't; instead, in an adaption based on his experience, he shears in a system similar to the one he uses with sheep.
He takes the goat by her horn and leads her to the shearing apparatus, turning her on her back. Holding her front forelegs, he gently shakes her legs and, as if hypnotized, the goat drops her head back and relaxes.
He moves his hand to isolate hair, cuts against grain, first cuts around the belly. He knows what sections are best removed first, which are the finer sections; he knows the rhythm of moving the animal.
Belly fleece is not as good, it's shorter and dirty, and matted like felt. The hair on the shoulders, flank, and back makes the best fleece. Each goat yields about eight pounds of hair.
It is Oscar's job to note the tag number of the goat on an index card, and add it to the box with the fleece - still warm from body heat.
"If we didn't have kids it might be different," Mrs. Thompson says. "But [the farm] teaches them responsibility and regard for the animals and for where their food comes from, where their wool comes from, and that it's a privilege to have a relationship with [the animals]."
She continues: "It's the pace. In a world of instant gratification, you have to wait for the hen to lay each egg. You know that there is old age and there is disease in the world, and death is very real. And there is respect for it all. ... I'll sit on a lawn chair out here and just watch the lambs and all is well with the world."