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Mendocino County sheep shearing class wild and woolly

Shearing sheep sounds like a quaint way to making a living.

But it’s difficult, dirty work.

Inside a barn in southern Mendocino County, a few dozen people from various walks of life and across the country were learning that during the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center’s annual, weeklong sheep-shearing course.

At each of a half-dozen shearing stations, students grabbed sheep as they were released from a chute and wrestled them into a seated position, with the animals’ heads balanced against the handlers’ legs. Some sheep struggled and bleated, but most quickly gave up and endured. The less desirable belly wool was removed first, along with feces soiled wool, before shearers’ large electric clippers were turned to the more valuable fleece, removed from the back and sides in one large piece. It’s all over in a matter of minutes, then it’s time for another.

The 30-some shearing students are part of a new wave of sheep shearers and wool enthusiasts industry officials hope will reverse decades of disinterest and decline.

“There’s tremendous interest” in learning and being involved in the sheep and wool industry, said Lisa Surber, a sheep and wool consultant from Montana who was teaching a concurrent, sometimes overlapping, course on wool classing, which includes evaluating and preparing wool for market.

The Hopland field station’s shearing classes were booked well ahead of time, said Hannah Bird, a community educator at the research station.

That interest could help resuscitate the domestic wool market, which has declined over several decades but recently seen a small uptick, industry experts say. Last year, 27.1 million pounds of U.S. wool was produced, up 1 percent from the prior year, according to the American Sheep Industry Association. Mendocino County figures for wool production in 2015 were not available, but 33,700 pounds were produced in 2014, down slightly from 39,600 in 2013, according to the county crop report, far less than the 52,500 pounds produced two decades ago.

California is the second-?largest wool-producing state in the country behind Texas, according to the sheep industry association. But much of its value is being lost.

More than half the wool produced is exported for processing into yarn and goods because wool mills have been disappearing since the 1980s and ’90s, Surber said. The market would be worse, except for a law requiring the military use domestic wool in its uniforms and other goods, like blankets, Surber said. About 25 percent of wool produced domestically is used by the military, she said.

The large textile mills may largely be gone, but there is new interest in building smaller, local mills, like one expected to open later this year in Ukiah following a successful crowd-funding effort.

The mill would create a new outlet for North Coast-grown wool, said John Harper, the UC extension’s livestock and natural resources adviser.

Mills and sheep shearers both are crucial to a healthy, local sheep industry, and he said he is happy to see the renewed interest.

Nearly all of this year’s students are women. In more than 20 years of holding the classes, Harper said he’s taught students as young as 12 and as old as 75.

Their backgrounds are diverse as well.

This year’s participants include an artist and dancer from San Francisco, a retired fire chief from Lake Tahoe, a UC Davis graduate student who assists farmers in developing countries and a Tacoma, Wash., woman who wants to be able to earn money shearing sheep as she travels through New Zealand.

Many are seeking a break from city life or jobs tying them to a desk.

Beatrice Thomas, 41, the San Francisco artist and dancer, recently quit a job writing grants to pursue work that includes community service, performing and creating natural products, like food and fiber. A fellow dancer friend and escapee from the tech industry already has taken the plunge and become a professional sheep shearer for people with small flocks, an expanding segment of the industry.

Surber believes the desire to “get back to basics” is driving many of the people who are exploring the sheep industry.

Shearing sheep is sweaty, back-straining work that earns just $2 to $5 per sheep.

People who are fast, however, can earn a decent living, said Randy Helms, 57, of Myrtle Point, Ore., who sheared sheep for 20 years, during which he was a U.S. sheep-shearing champion.

“It’s a lifestyle thing. I could work six months a year and travel around the world,” paying for the travel by working here and there, he said.

Helms traded it in 15 years ago for a tire shop to give his children a more stable education. But he still loves it. He drove from Oregon to Hopland to hang out, watch and help a little with demonstrations.

Shearing on a large-scale or competitively requires training, as with any athletic pursuit.

“You need to be fit,” Helms said. Shearing sheep all day “is similar to running a marathon,” he said.

“Shearers are like the special ops” of the sheep industry, Harper said.

The students agreed it was some of the most difficult work they’d ever undertaken.

Bruce Martin, 55, a retired fire chief from South Lake Tahoe who is taking the class for the second time, said he feels it most in his hamstrings.

He said he gets through it with help from Aspercreme, Excedrin and a hot shower.

“A drop of whiskey doesn’t hurt,” he quipped.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at ?462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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