Do sheep shrink in the rain? Well, the herd at The FARM Institute (TFI) did reduce by a few inches during last Saturday’s wet weather, but not due to wool shrinkage. The flock underwent their yearly shearing at the Edgartown teaching farm’s annual Sheepapalooza festival.
The celebration of everything sheep was attended by a couple of hundred people — mostly families with kids — who had the opportunity to watch the shearing, enjoy ox cart rides, sample some of the bounty of the farm and engage hands-on in every aspect of the process in which wool is transformed from sheep covering to human garment.
Sheepapalooza was initiated in 2011 as a way to introduce the public to one of the aspects of life at TFI. “We shear our sheep every year,” executive director Jon Previant said. “We thought since we’re an educational institute maybe people would like to come out and witness the shearing.
“Almost everything we do on the farm is a teachable moment. Our more recent focus is to educate on the stuff we do routinely. We thought it was a good educational opportunity in the most relaxed sense of that word.”
Along with the shearing, the day provided kids with the chance to participate in all stages of wool processing and creation. “We try to keep the fiber arts alive,” Mr. Previant said.
During the festival a long table was set up in the barn for dying and felting. Kids dipped bits of carded (cleaned and processed) wool into bowls of dye. For the felting process, kids arranged tufts of different colored fiber in zipper bags with soapy water and then pounded them to merge the fluffy samples into patterns. Once drained and dried, the multicolored felted pieces could be taken home by the little artists.
Education coordinator Shaina Dulberg set up a handmade loom made from dozens of strings attached vertically to a frame. Kids of all ages engaged in the patience-testing task of weaving lengths of yarn in all different colors, diameters and textures through the strings. Ms. Dulberg explained that what will eventually be a rug is a community project that has been going on for some time. She takes the loom around to schools and other events — a great way for kids to start to recognize patterns and build tactile skills.
While the kids seemed to thoroughly enjoy these activities, the main attraction was the shearing demonstration by Andrew Rice of Hoggett Hill Farm in Vermont. A 35-year veteran of his trade, Mr. Rice is responsible for shearing all the sheep on the Vineyard. He makes four trips a year to various farms around the Island.
Throughout the day Mr. Rice methodically made his way through the entire flock of 32 sheep — reducing fluffy Cheviots and Katahdins, and curly-coated Cotswolds down to their bare essentials. Farm manager Julie Olson gathered up garbage bags full of wool — three to five pounds per sheep — to be processed into yarn.
Using an electric shearer driven an engine suspended overhead, Mr. Rice expertly controlled and maneuvered the animals with one hand — flipping them over on their backs and constantly repositioning them and restraining their legs to prevent them from kicking and righting themselves — all the while running the razor over every bit of their hides, and heads, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
While the sheep didn’t seem to enjoy the process all that much, Mr. Rice reassured people that the shearing doesn’t hurt the animals or deprive them of needed insulation. “Sheep are endothermic,” he explained. “They generate heat from the inside through the mechanical process of digestion.” He said that he shears sheep throughout New England year-round.
There was quite a racket in the barn during the shearing — with the penned sheep baaing loudly while awaiting their turn. That, Mr. Rice explained, had nothing to do with the procedure they were witnessing. The sheep were not happy about being temporarily separated from their lambs who were staging a similar protest in the outdoor pen on the other side of the barn.
“It’s much quieter to shear sheep when the babies are in utero,” said Mr. Rice. “Also the sheep are nice and round and taut.”
Mr. Rice was not unmindful of the bonds that connect us. “It’s stressful having a baby, whether you’re a human or an animal,” he said, noting that post-natal wool exhibits the stress in the fiber.
He highlighted another factor that makes the shearing more difficult after birthing. “When a ewe starts lactating a grease comes up in their wool. The wool is stickier.” Still, Mr. Rice was able to shear each sheep in a matter of minutes. When done, the dazed animals fumbled to their feet and ran through the pen to be reunited with their lambs.
Guests at the festival were able to view the bleating babies in the outside pen. Right now TFI is home to over 40 lambs — blacks, off whites and a couple of chocolate browns.
Mr. Rice, who serves as an agricultural educator at a number of farms, explained why shearing is beneficial to the sheep, as well as their owners. “When a sheep was a wild animal it had one tenth of the wool it now has,” he said. “Man has created this animal that cannot shed. They have to be shorn. Otherwise the wool gets contaminated with feces and urine which will breed maggots and cause infections. You get dead sheep.”
Sheepapalooza wasn’t all about one species. Other animals shared the spotlight, including Pigeon, a border collie. A couple of times during the day, she showed off her herding skills accompanied by her owner, farm assistant Scottie Brown.
Education consultant Sidney Morris offered rides in a small cart pulled by Zeus and Apollo, two young Jersey steers who are in training to be working oxen. Eventually, when they are fully grown, the two will be hauling hay and helping make deliveries around the farm.
Outside the barn, Mr. Previant sold food from TFI, including grass-fed beef burgers, mild Italian sausage, and greens fresh picked from the greenhouse. “In spite of the weather it’s been a great turnout,” he said, noting that the crowds increased once the rain let up around 11 am.
One bovine resident wanted to make sure the sheep didn’t receive all of the day’s attention. Early in the morning, before the visitors started arriving at 9 am, Halo the cow sought shelter from the rain in the barn and gave birth to a calf.
The baby boy exhibits, in miniature, the classic belted black and white pattern that TFI uses as its logo. The cows, as well as the sheep, have been producing new livestock for the farm since February.
The public can visit with the babies and all of the other animals at the farm seven days a week from 9 am to 4 pm. Registration for all of TFI’s summer camp programs is in progress right now. Visit farminstitute.org to find out more.