The Fine Art of Sheep-Shearing — for Fun and Profit

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Hugo Perez for TIME

Seth Jenkins grabs a black-faced Suffolk sheep around the neck and with Billie Fowler nudging from behind, they lead the nearly 200-lb animal onto a plywood board. The friends maneuver the ewe onto her rear haunches, exposing her belly, and with Jenkins wedging the furry animal between his knees, Fowler hands him a pair of electric shears.

What follows is the lesson of the day at sheep-shearing school at New Mexico State University: how to remove a year's growth of wool without nicking the sheep — or yourself — with the clippers. And how to do it without taking your back out.

It doesn't take long for rivulets of perspiration to trickle down Jenkins' face as he discovers the physical demands of the process. "We tried to do this on our own, but it was a joke," says Rick Banks, who, along with neighbors Jenkins and Fowler, raises farm animals near the New Mexico-Texas border as part of a commitment to self-sustainability. In 2007, it took them all day to shear eight sheep and already Fowler knows they can cut that time in half.

The friends are joined by 13 other students in the two-day class taught by Pat Melendrez, an agriculture specialist with the university's extension service, who has been taking shears to sheep for more than 30 years. The idea is to train people who might be interested in meeting the annual shearing needs of small flocks, like the one Jenkins and his friends own. It's not cost-effective for professional shearers, who travel across the country from one large commercial flock to the next, to bother with small flocks.

But for someone like David Herrera, a Las Cruces film technician whose work depends on what movies are being filmed in the area, shopping around his newly earned sheep-shearing skills might just be a way to supplement his income, and return to his family's rural roots. His grandfather was the ranch foreman for the western artist Peter Hurd in southern New Mexico's Hondo Valley and even appears in some of his pastoral paintings. Herrera's classmates included NMSU undergraduate and graduate students, some of whom considered sheep shearing an important part of their studies. "I'm doing a graduate project with sheep and I thought this would be a cool class so I could feel more confident handling them," says Laura Jacobson.

Hamdy Oushy, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture, wanted to know his way around a sheep before he heads to Afghanistan to start up a USAID-funded program to establish sheep-shearing schools as a way to re-introduce sheep/wool production to nomads and villagers. Melendrez will teach the skill to Afghans, who will then head out to rural provinces and train young sheepherders.

By noon on the second day, a nearly 6-foot-tall burlap sack was bulging with freshly cut fleece and the students were clearly ready for a break. Melendrez brought in a 250-pound ewe and promptly removed the wool in a matter of minutes, reviewing the process as he went.

In New Mexico, about 150,000 ewes are shorn of their coats every year, yielding about $1 million worth of wool. It is a far cry from the 1 million ewes who grazed the state's rangeland 20 years ago. With fewer restrictions on predator controls, losses of lambs to coyotes and mountain lions have mounted in recent years, causing more and more ranchers to trade their sheep for cattle.

Still, Melendrez anticipates an increase in boutique farm flocks for personal use, like Jenkins and friends, who look forward to growing their herd with every lambing season. "At $5 to $10 a head, a young guy can make some pretty good money shearing sheep," says Melendrez. Dismissing the class for lunch, he is satisfied with their progress. When asked the hardest thing to teach, he responds, "Patience."