Sheep Shearing and Other Farming Lessons

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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!

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.

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?

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.