Once Upon a Job: Sheep Shearers Are Hard to Come By Today

Jul 14, 2017

When April rolls around this man from Wiscasset is one of the busiest guys you’re likely to meet.

“Once Upon a Job” is a series looking at some of the uncommon skills that are still being put to good use. In this installment, meet a man who is in high demand all over New England.

“It’s sunup to sundown, you know, usually I don’t get home until the kids are asleep…get to bed at a reasonable hour and get up and do it all the next day,” says Jeff Burchstead.

And from April to July, he spends seven days a week on the road, traveling from farm to farm, where he’ll spend 16 hour days bent over, shaving down well over a thousand sheep, all by himself.

Shearing day at A Wrinkle in Thyme.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

“It’s a pretty self-limiting occupation you know, can be hard on your body,” he says. “So you have to have a strong back, you have to be physically in good shape.”

Sheep shearing is not for everyone. Burchstead says it requires just the right temperament and the right touch.

“You know I always tell people it takes about a hundred sheep before you kinda know what you’re doing,” he says. "You kinda have a feel for the sheep themselves, and then maybe the pattern that you follow. But it probably took a thousand sheep before I felt like I could go anywhere and shear any sheep, where I didn’t have the butterflies in my stomach as I pulled into the barnyard.”

In the 19th century, when sheep outnumbered Mainers almost two to one, a lot of people would have known how to shear. Today, the Maine Sheep Breeders Association knows of only a dozen people in Maine who can shear, but only half of those do it fulltime. It’s not uncommon for shearers to travel to Maine from Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, on a circuit, shearing as they go. Basically, says Burchstead, a New England shearer can be as busy as he or she wants to be. Shearers negotiate a basic travel fee, and then they’re paid for work on each sheep. Burchstead gets $7 for each shave down and another $3 if they want him to trim the animal’s hooves. A farm in Sumner, called A Wrinkle in Thyme, is the first of six Burchstead is hoping to get to today, so with the clock ticking, he doesn’t dally.

Mary Ann Haxton (left) and Marty Elkins (right), who together own A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm in Sumner, rely on finding a reliable professional shearer each year for their flock.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell/Maine Public

“He does the belly first, and the belly wool is shorter and dirtier, and that goes into the compost bin, says Marty Elkin, co-owner of A Wrinkle in Thyme.

She and her partner are happy to pay Burchstead to denude their small flock of 32 Romney-Corriedale crosses. What would take them about an hour per sheep, he can do in just five minutes.

Burchstead shaves down the lower legs, and then proceeds to the sweetmeat: the thick, kinky fleece attached to the rest of the ewe. He passes the clippers from breast bone, to neck, to chin, and head, working his way systematically under a puffy parka of wool.

Marty Elkin: “Now he’s gone clear along the spine, all the way up the back of the neck to the ears and he does three or four or five swipes that way.
Jennifer Mitchell: “Look at that, and just gradually a sheep is emerging from all that fluff.”
ME: “A beautiful white sheep, with a little bit of pink showing through.”
JM: “Just a few more passes with the clippers.”

Like any good shearer, Burchstead has removed the whole fleece in a single piece, like a shirt, with no cuts or nicks to the sheep’s delicate skin. The wool will be combed, washed, and sorted, eventually to be sold to a local yarn maker to supply a growing artisanal fiber arts industry. The process is much the same as it would have been in centuries past, when wool was big business in Maine.

“You know, there were millions of sheep in New England, and in Maine,” Burchstead says. “I mean, that’s why Maine looks like it does. Because of sheep.”

As he trims hooves, Burchstead explains that all those low stone walls that criss-cross Southern Maine, and much of the open green space you see, are the legacy of long ago sheep farmers, who raised the animals for meat, milk and cheese, leather, and of course fiber.

“It was one of the things we wanted independence from England for — to be able to sell our own wool,” he says.

Black sheep: Elkins says a good quality, black fleece is especially prized in the artisanal fiber industry.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell/Maine Public

But times change. The demand for natural fiber is a lot lower than it once was; raw commodity wool in recent years has seen prices as low as 20 cents per pound. In the 1940s it was still fetching a $1.00 per pound. And modern tastes have skewed toward beef and cow’s milk and away from the sheep products that once sustained New Englanders. Burchstead says he doesn’t think Maine fields will ever be home to a million sheep again, but he says there are hopeful signs, that, as more small farms pop up every year in Maine, there’s still work for people like him.