It’s a celebrated evening in April when the sheep shearer arrives. On countless New Hampshire sheep farms, spring shearing has signaled a definitive end of winter for centuries. After months of winter confinement to house and barn, both farmer and sheep are liberated.
Released from under eight-pounds of thick fleece, our Romney wool-breed sheep don’t recognize one another. They kick-up their hooves and gambol across the sodden, emerald-green pasture, bleating with mouths stuffed full of green grass. They’ve eaten only dusty, dry second-cut hay since late October.
From the shade of the porch, I smile with satisfaction and rub the back of my head. I feel a sudden urge for a clipper trim myself. I recall frigid January morning barn chores with rubber water buckets frozen solid. It’s finally safe to say we’ve survived another long winter together.
Our shearer, Gwen is talented, efficient and shy. She arrives, unpacks gear and stands with hands on hips astride a worn sheet of plywood in the incandescent glare of our garage. She stretches her back and squints at the barn like a baseball pitcher staring-in at the plate awaiting the sign.
My job is to wrangle sheep from their winter pen to the garage. The old ewe, Matilda is compliant. She knows the routine. We call her twins “the lambs” even though they’re three. With no history of county fair 4-H competition, the lambs are terrified, unaccustomed to handling. We corner them and slip in manure while struggling to halter and alternately push and drag them to the garage.
Our old ram, Gregory won’t be shared. He’s well past prime. His winter fleece is meager. He was once a holy terror. Now he’s lame from the excesses of a well-spent youth. We trucked him to other farms to breed. He’s a minor legend so I give him special treatment. Gwen jokes about my “inappropriate affection” for that old ram. I’m thankful to see him greet one more spring.
Our farm is just a hobby. We’ve scaled-back to a micro-flock. But raising sheep connects me to seasonal agricultural traditions on New Hampshire farms both great and small.
When not engaged in shearing, Gwen works in the maple orchard of a large commercial maple producer. Few people appreciate how critical the entire farm services infrastructure is to perpetuating our state’s celebrated rural scenery: pastures grazed by livestock, rolling hay meadows, roadside vegetable stands and hillside fruit tree orchards and managed sugar maple operations.
Beyond bolstering tourism, NH agriculture provides food and connects residents to the land. New Hampshire consumers rank third nationwide in per-capita interest in buying local foods to support local farms.
According to NH Commissioner of Agriculture, Lorraine Merrill specialized agriculture skills are as becoming more rare. “The viability of farm service businesses and the education/research/extension institutions that serve agriculture to benefit farmers and their customers is a concern just as we are experiencing a renaissance in agriculture.”
As a flip-side to renewed interest in farming and local foods, Merrill cites the need to maintain, enhance and rebuild or recreate the agricultural infrastructure as a challenge. “Specialized services like sheep-shearing, large animal veterinarians, and meat-processing facilities and inspection services are critical to the livestock industry particularly as small backyard poultry and small livestock becomes increasingly popular.”
Even as the average size of farms decreases, the total number of specialized “niche market” farms continues to increase statewide. We’re lucky to have a shearer who is willing to shear four sheep and we treat her accordingly. We worry that we couldn’t replace her. Merrill agrees: “Professional shearers prefer to do larger flocks, as it is not as economically feasible to incur time and travel costs to shear just a few animals.”
Merrill cites a group of women agriculture students at UNH, members of Sigma Alpha, a national agricultural professional sorority, who recently created an instructional video on sheep-shearing for an “Ag In The Classroom” project. “It wasn’t practical for them to take a sheep to school and shear it in the classroom, so they made a video.”
At Monadnock Regional High School in Swanzey, principal Brian Pickering is excited about a new, community-based agricultural education project, called ‘Growing Our Own.’ He recently wrote Merrill about a request from a student - Mary? - to bring a newborn baby lamb to school. The now agriculture-friendly principal approved the visit and helped babysit the lamb in the assistant principal’s office. Pickering told Merrill: “It had an amazing calming effect on some students!”
At the New Hampshire Farm Museum in Milton, sheep shearing is a perennially popular demonstration. The historic Jones Farm and the Plummer Homesteads are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum consists of 50 acres of field and forest, a working farm, historic houses and barns, a blacksmith shop, a shoe shop and exhibits on agriculture and rural life. The museum hosts special events, programs and workshops as part of its mission to preserve, understand and carry forward New Hampshire's agricultural heritage. The Farm Museum isn’t a figurative jelly cupboard of quaint traditions preserved dusty Mason jars, the museum promotes modern farming to children and adults. This spring, the museum is hosting educational programs including a wool workshop during the school vacation and a new "Backyard Farmer" program with a 3-hour seminar series in that included a program on raising poultry and one planned on composting with worms. For more information, visit them online at www.farmmuseum.org.
Agriculture education and demonstration programs are key to encouraging new generations of future farmers and to fostering understanding and appreciation for the role of farmland, farm jobs and the statewide economic and social significance of agriculture in New Hampshire. More consumers support local farms when they have the opportunity to experience where fresh local food and specialty products including locally-grown wool originates.