Grit Blogs > Almost Country

Sheep Shearing and Other Farming Lessons

A portrait of the author, Colleen Newquist.At long last, a “real” farming experience. I drove out to Three Fates Farm last Sunday in what seemed like proper sheep-shearing gear: long underwear, old jeans, hiking boots, a couple layers of shirts and a fleece jacket. Previous visits to the farm clued me in to the wind that whips across the open fields with vigorous velocity. With the temperature hovering at a damp 40 degrees, I was prepared for the barn to be chilly.

Owner Karen Askounis was ready when I arrived around noon. Three Jacob sheep were penned in the barn, awaiting their turns at the electric clippers. Karen rounded up the first girl, Patty, and tethered her in place on a clean piece of painted plywood—a political billboard for Illinois Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, which I found amusing. Since she represents a largely rural district, I’m guessing she wouldn’t mind. Might even make a good photo op: Helping farmers and the environment at the same time!

The shearing of a Jacob sheep begins.

Clippers plugged in, sheep in place, we were ready to get started. I use “we” loosely here. The first thing I learned is that Karen is completely capable of shearing on her own, but is nice enough to let me hang around and “help” in the way that, say, a five-year-old might, peppering her with a hundred questions, petting Vicki the mastiff when she’d lumber in to observe, bagging the fleece for her, and sweeping up between sheep, so I could feel somewhat useful.

The bicolor fleece of Jacob sheep is a favorite for some spinners.

Watching Karen deftly handle her livestock was humbling. She had no problem flopping Patty on her back when she was stubbornly stamping and fussing, a move that immediately subdued her and let Karen finish shearing her belly. For me, touching the sheep at all was a new experience – one that I liked. I felt a little less timid around the creatures, more confident that I could get accustomed to handling an animal without fear of hurting them, or myself. But watching Karen trim the hooves of one sheep while she had her tethered, I felt the doubt creep in. How do you know if you’re trimming enough, or too much? How can you tell if you’re trimming evenly? How do you know if you’re hurting them?

Freshly sheared Jacob sheep ready to head back to pasture.

I had to remind myself that Karen is a vet, and even though she’s more accustomed to handling small animals, she is accustomed to handling animals. And she’s been living with sheep for couple years now. I, on the other hand, am a … a … tenderfoot, for lack of better word. My experience with farm animals has been limited to the chicken coop in my great-great aunt’s backyard that I visited when I was really young. I can recall walking into the dimly lit coop and being terrified as I startled the chickens into a flapping frenzy.

Later farm experience expanded as far as the few months I dated the son of a hog farmer during high school. I remember being equally fascinated and worried as I witnessed squealing piglets being hoisted upside down as they were weighed, their weight written in large green numbers on their backs (was it hurting them? were they scared?). I recall, too, running to my car, chased by hissing geese. Damn mean things.

So how do I explain this latest interest? I don’t know if I can. Maybe it’s facing my fears? Living here on the edge of the woods has given me the opportunity to get comfortable with a lot of critters. There was a time when finding a mouse in the bird feed would have sent me scurrying for Michael’s manly assistance. Last time it happened, I just coaxed the mouse out of the bin and made sure I put the lid on tighter.

Perhaps experiences like that have made me confidant that I’m ready for the next step – whatever that may be. It’s exasperating to me that so much of the journey seems to be simply finding the path.

Even if I’m on the right one, am I crazy enough to head down a trail rife with responsibility, not to mention muck and manure? I have a long way to go before reaching that decision, and (hopefully) many more experiences to accumulate. In the meantime, playing sheep farmer for a few hours sure was fun – especially since the boot that Patty peed on wasn’t mine. Lesson learned, one which Karen already knew: when it comes to what to wear, waterproof is good.

nebraska dave
4/26/2010 3:57:54 PM

Colleen, if you are serious about sending a poetry book by Ted Kooser here's an email address to request my snail mail address. dbentz24@q.com


nebraska dave
4/25/2010 10:55:38 PM

Colleen, I can’t say that I’ve ever read any of Ted Kooser poetry. He must really write some good poetry for you to want to send me a book. I never was much of a fan of poetry but if you send it to me I promise to read it. I’ve been finding in these later years of life that to revisit those things that never appealed to me in my youth is a good thing. I have learned that many things that were not appealing to me back then I quite enjoy now. Maybe this could be one of those things to try again.


mountain woman
4/24/2010 6:21:19 AM

Colleen, Thanks for the book suggestion. I love reading and always have a book with me so I'm off to find this one.


almost country_1
4/22/2010 10:12:49 PM

Thanks, Dave and Mountain Woman! Love hearing from you guys. Dave, as a Nebraska man, I have to ask: have you read any Ted Kooser poetry? He's a former poet laureate, a Nebraskan through and through, and his poetry has a straightforward sensibility that I love. If you haven't read him, let me know. I'll send you a book. I love him that much. Mountain Woman, have you read Mark Spragg's book "Where Rivers Change Directions"? He's from Montana and writes about growing up on a dude ranch there, but his love of horses and open land makes me think of you. I highly recommend it. Thanks to both of you for reading!


mountain woman
4/15/2010 1:58:01 PM

Colleen, It looks as though you had quite an experience and lots of fun. I loved your pictures! Muck and manure have to be my two favorite things :-) and my boots are definitely waterproof and held together with duct tape where they've cracked. In fact, I'm headed out now to make manure tea for my veggies. I think you're on the right track. Here's to the journey.


nebraska dave
4/15/2010 1:34:48 PM

Colleen, it looks like you are on a learning path that has already taken you many places and caused you to witness and be a part of many farm things. Farm life can be hard but satisfying. I would say that you are drawn to the adventure of it all. I’ve never been around sheep. Dad never acquired sheep until I left the farm to find my fame and fortune in the world. I can’t say that I found either of those but I had a lot of adventurous times along the way which as it turns out, in my opinion, is a better anyway. I think you will have many more adventures too. It’s always a good thing to have muck boots around a farm. The higher the boot goes up the leg the better. Here in Nebraska we go through what is called a Spring thaw. That’s when all the frozen moisture in the ground thaws out and becomes mud. It’s not unusual to be mucking around in a foot of mud in some places of the barn yard. Thank goodness it doesn’t last too long. I hope you have many more adventurous learning experiences. Thanks for sharing the sheep shearing one.