News From the Farm | May 10, 2021

Sheep Shearing  —

Tuesday began as so many farm days have before. Myself and the other interns emerged onto the yard, fresh from our morning kitchen congregation, full to the brim with eggs, toast, and coffee. In that brief moment we’re one, a pod of aspiring young farmers, trading jokes and stories over breakfast. As quickly as we emerge, we separate, scattering in search of the day’s tasks, destined to reconvene and unpack at our next meal. Tuesdays are unique because we pack the truck for our only afternoon market. We don’t load the truck the day before, but rather the morning of. Once Judith’s market truck is ready, the interns who loaded truck are left with the strange sensation of an empty and quiet yard—a far cry from the morning’s chaos of people and vehicles. At this point, just shy of 9am, I was left with the undeniable feeling that I’d missed my ticket out of town.

Seeking my fortune elsewhere, I was led towards the impossibly busy figure of Jan, half power-walking, half sprinting across the yard. Jan is the Farm Manager at Full Belly. Like all of the farm’s leaders she possesses an unmatched work ethic and an unyielding knowledge of the day’s tasks and how to complete them. So, she was able to rattle off a rapid fire of possible answers to my question of what to do next. “Well, Celso’s in the lettuce. You could help Alfonso in the carrots. I know Paulino’s bunching onions. Or you could see if Rye needs help with the shearing.” As she added the final option, I could have sworn I saw a twinkle in her eye. Jan is unique for so many reasons but within the intern community her past experiences are a point of profound empathy and respect. Jan first came to Full Belly Farm as an intern in 2001. She is an extension of our intern community in a prominent leadership position, allowing her the unique chance to delineate tasks with an intimate knowledge of our experience. Thus, with all this in mind, I couldn’t help but feel she might be throwing me a bone for one of those truly momentous farm experiences.

Needless to say, I took option D. As I pulled up to the sheep barn, Lauren and Elsa, a former intern and the daughter of a past Full Belly intern respectively, greeted me with quizzical faces. At their feet lay stacks of enormous cardboard boxes. Like many of the packaging products at Full Belly the boxes arrive flat and require a series of intuitive folds to build them out into their final “3D” container form. Evidently these boxes were proving to be anything but intuitive. And as we huffed and puffed to no avail, Rye Muller pulled up and stepped out of his truck, calmly sauntered over, and promptly put together the first box in 30 seconds flat, an all too familiar occurrence. Soon enough we had four enormous cardboard boxes ready and waiting in the lambing barn complete with the wool color labels “White,” “Light Brown,” “Brown,” and “Grey”. As Rye set up the shearing station (a mess of extension cords, gas generators, and shears), Lauren and I walked out to the east facing bluff where the sheep and their lambs were. The enclosure is roughly a half-acre and mainly utilized for moments like these so it remains largely temporary: little grass, a few sparse olive trees, water bins, salt licks, and feeding cubes. It didn’t take long for us to lure a quarter of the unsuspecting sheep toward the barn with nothing more than a little alfalfa. Lauren and I led the sheep through a series of gates and walkways within the barn to create a queue of animals for the shearers. I opened the gate for the day’s first sheep and after a gentle push from behind she galloped out of the walkway and into Rye’s waiting arms.

Rye flipped her with one deft movement, hoisting her by her front hooves and gently resting her fluffy buttocks upon his dusty boots. As he began trimming her belly, Rye explained that footwork was the most important tool in a sheep shearers repertoire, “It’s really like a dance,” chimed in Elsa, who’s family farm in Alaska shears their flock annually. After shearing the sheep’s belly, butt, and tail, Rye moved to her leg, the goal of this movement was to open up the sheep coat on one side before moving to the head. Each “blow” as the shearing actions are called, is a calculated move; a good sheep shearer wastes no movements, and extra passes or “second blows” are the clearest sign of an amateur. With his topknot blows, Rye’s goal was to open up the sheep coat from the top, much like his leg blows had opened up the bottom. Next, he moved to the neck where his blow bisected the coat, allowing the final product to be laid perfectly uniform upon the nearby tarps. With the coat separated at the neck and belly, Rye laid the sheep on her side where she seemed most comfortable and pushed the humming shears up her shoulder and along her back and tailbone. For his final blows Rye hoisted her up once more to reveal her unshorn side, and after a few passes the wool-less sheep hopped to her feet and galloped out of the barn back into the original enclosure.

Elsa holding a finished coat

As Lauren and I laid out the day’s first coat, Elsa demonstrated how to clean the coat and discard the dirty edge wool. Once the coat had been properly evaluated, we placed it in the aforementioned enormous cardboard boxes. The day marched on, Lauren and I released sheep after sheep to Rye and Elsa who stood ready and waiting to wrestle, body slam, and occasionally tackle the sheep to the ground before beginning the shearing. Now, I’m a self-professed visual learner and a year of farming has whipped me into pretty good shape so I must admit after watching a few sheep pass through Rye’s shears I grew to feel that I could easily step into his role. After all, I’d cut my friend’s hair before, how hard could it really be?

Rowan getting started shearing

After Rye and Elsa had completed their tenth sheep, Rye called me over for my chance. He spared me the more advanced belly, tail, and groin blows then he handed me the mother’s front hooves and allowed me to pull her into position until I felt her tailbone pressed against my feet. First, he instructed me to plant my right knee firmly into her side and then he handed me the electric hand shears, which upon closer inspection more closely resembled a police flashlight in size and weight than the barbershop clippers I’d imagined. My first blow was the topknot and much like when one shaves their own face or legs, you angle the skin so as to ensure a smooth, taut surface. With the mother’s snout held down I pushed my whirring shears from the crown of her head down to the base of her neck. By the time I’d finished my head blows the less than enthused mother looked as though she was wearing an oversized wool hoodie. I followed these movements with neck blows and by the time I had completed these and moved the mother to her side, I was completely drained.

Rowan almost done shearing, instructed by Rye

What I couldn’t have gleaned from the previous visual cues was the sheer strength and finesse utilized by Rye and Elsa for each and every animal. Even if the sheep are calm (a big “if”) the sheer weight of the animal resting upon your body and the awkward angles a shearer must occupy are a surefire way to break a sweat. After what felt like an eternity and likely a dozen too many second blows, I clipped the last bit of wool from the sheep’s leg and sunk to my knees. Unlike Rye’s sheep, she remained on her side and peered up at me as if to say “You done yet, kid?” Our collective physical struggle had left the both of us exhausted. Eventually with some cajoling, I got her up and back out to the enclosure. Upon my return, I stared down at the gray tarp, on it lay the sheep’s patchy coat, surrounded by small tufts of wool, it barely resembled the beautiful contiguous coats produced by Rye and Elsa.

Not to be deterred, Lauren and I tried our hands at a few more sheep with varying results (Lauren was a natural, I was humbled). By the time we finished the workday, I reflected on the fact that Rye and Elsa had collectively shorn upwards of thirty sheep in comparison to my two. As if I’d needed another reminder that farming is hard work!

It’s days like this that drive home the magic of Full Belly Farm. During my farm internship, there have certainly ups and downs, but it’s the special experiences like sheep shearing that shake up the workflow and provide one with a reminder of the immense diversity of learning opportunities contained within this space. Granted, I may not go on to become god’s gift to the wool industry, but as a young adult sifting through agricultural opportunities and career options, this day, along with so many others at the farm, left an indelible mark upon both my internship and my life.

— Rowan O’Connell-Gates, Fully Belly Farm Intern