Can I come shearing with you?

Peak shearing season (January through June) has reached its halfway mark, though many folks perceive March and April as its beginning. This is the time of year when I receive a surprising amount of email along the lines of “Can I come shearing with you?” Given the volume, I figured it was worthy of a post.

Before you read the answer, know that most people do not like my responses. They say I am mean, and point out that Jordan took me shearing with him. Yes, he did…after I had two years at shearing school (10 full, 8-hour days of shearing and two certificates) under my belt.

Can I come shearing with you?

First, thank you for asking. This is an important, gracious, generous request, for many reasons. It shows that people have genuine, deep interest in where their raw materials come from; that they value the people and animals who do the hard work of bringing these materials into our textile supply chain. Folks even say things like “I can carry your tool box.” They want exposure to shearing work and the sheep, and appreciate fiber so much that it genuinely pains me to have to say…

Probably not, with one exception: If you have attended shearing school somewhere at least once, live in Northern California, and have a flexible schedule, your chances are higher than anyone else’s.

Reason #1: It’s my real job.

Shearing is work. Yes, it is interesting, unusual work, but it is skilled, professional labor. My customers are clients. Asking to come shearing is much like asking “Can I tag along on that client website pitch?” or “Can I tag along on your nursing shift?” Shearing jobs are not (only) field trips.

My customers want their sheep sheared cleanly and well. Most do not want to volunteer their sheep to be learned on, especially if they plan to sell the fiber. There are exceptions to this, namely meat sheep with short, coarse wool who are headed to the butcher. Their fiber wasn’t going to bring much money anyway, so it doesn’t matter if you reduce the staple length with second cuts as you learn. We all do that when we’re learning.

This is why public shearing days (of the sort Meridian Jacobs holds) are so wonderful and worthy of attendance. They are designed to provide a full, shearing day experience, complete with fleece sale, with a team of folks managing everything else so the shearer can work. It is the best of all possible worlds.

Reason #2: Safety – and School – First

It is not easy to get into shearing schools these days, I’m told. The Hopland school I’ve attended sells out in less than five minutes each year, and schools across the country fill quickly. I know folks in California who have traveled as far as South Dakota, Canada, and Tennessee because those were the only shearing schools that had room.

This is why it feels especially unfair to say: If you want to come shearing, it will be in an apprentice role, and you must have attended shearing school at least once, and gotten certified. Safe, humane animal handling, bodily memory of shearing moves, and equipment knowledge are prerequisites for coming shearing.

I am glad there is more interest in learning how to shear, and love that I have more shearers to give work to than I did a few years ago. Yeehaw to that.

Reason #3: Trust, risk, and PETA

In case you’re fortunate enough to have missed it, PETA has waged an anti-wool crusade for several years. They claim shearers skin sheep alive. To that I can only say: Pish. There are so many cleaner, easier ways to make a lot more money.

This anti-wool harassment–which targets ranches directly–means many wool producers understandably and justifiably do not want anyone who is not a known, skilled worker on their property (especially a person who likes to take video with their mobile phone more than work). It’s a sound approach, though it does make it harder to teach apprentices safe, humane animal handling and shearing.

This is my sixth season shearing. Knock on shearing plywood, in those six years I have had to stitch a sheep once. It was a tiny nick, shorter than my thumbnail, but in a bad spot: the top of a belly vein. Of course, it was an accident, and required just a couple of stitches (fewer stitches than I have needed myself from work related injuries). The sheep bopped away and grazed and that was that, while I cried off and on for the rest of the work day like a real competent professional (not).

Crying aside, it was a 15-minute event out of the 525,600 minutes in that year, and the 3,153,600 minutes in six years. Is this event representative of a body of work? No.

Imagine that, in those 15 minutes, a PETA infiltrator has tagged along, knows the location of a ranch, and starts recording. The flock owner and I will be subjected to an online reign of terror and harassment for…how long? Months, years? Does it put the flock owner out of business? Do companies decide not to buy wool from them, to appease PETA? These considerations make it very risky to take a chance on a stranger.

Reason #4: Difficult logistics

Most people have traditional 9-to-5 day jobs and, much as they might wish, cannot afford to take full weekdays off to come shearing with me. If they can, they often have family responsibilities that mean they must get back home at a certain time. Given Bay Area traffic, this often means they might only be able to be on-site shearing with me for 2-3 hours. When weekends roll around, folks are not exactly eager to wake between 4:30-6 AM so that we can reach a shearing site by 7 or 8 AM.

Weather, sheep, and customers drive shearing dates more than my availability (for existing customers, anyway, who get and keep their annual slot for as long as they wish). If we’ve managed to find a date and time when someone can ride along with me, and it rains, they may not be free on the rain date scheduled for the following week (or month).

In the past three years, I actually agreed to take certain folks shearing with me. I’d call or text to offer dates, and they either said they couldn’t make any of them, or said they could and, when I called or texted with a reminder 24-48 hours before the job, bailed. I don’t have the time for that additional management or the space for that mental overhead. This is not to say everyone is like this, but it happened more often than not.

Reason #5: Farmer Centricity

I try very, very hard to shear at dates and times that work best (not just those that work, but work best) for my customers.

Which brings me to a related, unflattering, and possibly controversial point about perceptions of farmers, and how we value their time and agricultural work in general: Unskilled labor, however well intentioned, is not necessarily valuable – or, if it is, is not without costs – to a skilled farmer.

I used to think “I am willing to work hard, put my back into it. Granted, I know nothing about farm work, or the animals who live there, but many hands make light work, right? Someone will be grateful to have my help. 90% of life is just showing up.”

Well, sort of.

As anyone who’s worked on a team in any sort of job knows, when a new hire joins, they don’t ramp up to 100% on day one. They need training and on boarding, and it takes a LOT of time to set someone up for success. When I managed engineering teams, I was simultaneously desperate for more help, yet had no idea where I would find the hours to give a new person the time and attention they deserved – even though they have some experience and know the field.

Conceptually, we get this. This is why we have managers and apprenticeships. We willingly invest time in people, at least partially because we expect those folks to stick around for a while.

But farmers, I think, we see a little differently than the engineering manager. Sometimes, the way we talk about farmers sounds like the way some folks speak about poor people: They should be grateful for anything we choose to give them. Farmers must be so desperate for someone, anyone to show up, even just once, inconsistently, when it’s most convenient for us, like on Sundays (but not every Sunday, I have weekend stuff to do), and never mind if the farmer wants to go to church or a picnic, while needing a ton of the farmer’s direction and time, and never mind the risk to animals or risk of injury.

The person making the offer is in a position of power, in a way, in that they want to call the shots, whether it’s about the clothes they’re donating or the sort of farm labor they’re willing to do, and when.

Even though we’re ostensibly giving something to someone (whether clothes to poor people or labor to a farmer), we get something in return: a tax deduction, in the former case, and time in the fresh air with animals, on a farm, outside of a city, exercise, and instruction in the latter. It’s an exchange, and we should strive to keep the exchange fair to the farmer: Farmers should not give us more than they receive, as they are already often giving all they can and then some.

And, if the farmer is giving us more (instruction, valuable knowledge, life skills), we should recognize and appreciate them for that, not the other way around. This is another reason I like the Meridian Jacobs Farm Club: You pay for membership, products, and the privilege of learning from a real farmer – and it is a privilege.

 

 

 

 

 

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