Sheep to sweater

| 01 May 2012 | 04:07

Imagine a baby who despises getting his hair cut, twisting and struggling to avoid ending up in the barber’s chair. Now imagine this baby weighs in at between 100 and 300 pounds— and may have horns.

Now you have an idea of sheep shearing time at Catskill Merino Sheep Farm in Goshen. The 100-pounders are lambs, the 300-pound horned variety, rams. Over the course of two days each March, three professional shearers and a handful of volunteers corral, shear and bag 2,000 pounds of merino wool. Merino is some of the finest, softest, and most expensive wool in the world.

Time is of the essence. Eight hands, paid and volunteer, work swiftly and in unison, including farmer Eugene Wyatt, who alternates between sweeping and photodocumenting for his blog.

As soon as a shearer finishes one sheep, a volunteer hands him the on-deck sheep in seated position. The shearers are paid professionals, and it shows. They swiftly maneuver and pin the animals with their knees, while one hand finds the line where wool meets flesh and the other runs the buzzer. The idea is to get the fleece off in one piece, as fast as possible, without knicking the sheep.

“There’s definitely a high competition base,” said shearer Mike Horton, from Towanda, PA, who shears a sheep in three minutes. He learned to shear at age eight from his dad, Tom, one of the other shearers here. “There’s very few people who do it and those who do want to be faster than the others. That’s the name of the game out west. That’s the only way you can make any money.” In the northeast, the Hortons get paid better, but there are fewer sheep.

Dominique Herman, a neighbor who rehabilitates Wyatt’s injured sheep on her own farm, gathers the shorn fleece into her arms and stuffs it into an oversized plastic bag that already looks impossibly full and about to topple.

Herman keeps up a cheerful chatter. “105 – that one’s a little addict. Completely addicted to pocket feed,” she says, affectionately grabbing a muzzle. “416, I call her Shnucke, which means small sheep or something like that.” She sighs. “I hated that there was a Snooki on Jersey Shore.”