Once the fleece is removed from a sheep, we throw it onto a skirting table. This allows us to remove "tags" (wool that is caked with manure), excessive vegetable matter contamination (like stickers), and second cuts (short pieces of wool). We also evaluate the quality of each fleece at this point - sorting off any fleeces that are less than 4 inches long or that may be "tender" (a weakness in part of the fiber). After skirting and sorting, we pack our wool into burlap "sausage packs" - long bags that hold 35-40 fleeces (and weigh as much as 150 pounds) when fully loaded.
We keep a small number of our highest quality fleeces out for hand-spinners - folks that like to spin their own yarn. The rest of our wool is marketed on our behalf by Roswell Wool, a wool broker based in New Mexico. Roswell's field representative, Ian McKenzie, further "classes" our wool (which involves grading it by quality and by fiber diameter) and puts it into hydraulically-compressed packs that can weigh as much as 450 pounds. With small producers like us, Roswell will combine like-quality fleeces into larger lots that are more attractive to buyers. With any luck, our wool will sell this fall and we'll receive a check for this year's "clip" sometime before Christmas. Our wool probably goes to an overseas buyer - the finer wool likely is made into socks (Ian says that SmartWool socks are made with wool of similar quality to ours), while our coarser wool probably becomes carpet.
But enough about the technical and economic side of wool marketing! Shearing and packing wool is a social activity - in some ways it's the shepherd's version of a calf branding. Neighbors come together to help each other. The social aspects of wool production, to me at least, are immensely satisfying.
Last Saturday, I hauled our wool - 5 sausage packs full - to the Joses Ranch in Calaveras County. I've known Doug and Loree Joses for nearly 20 years. Their family has ranched in Calaveras and Amador Counties for many generations, with Doug and Loree's operation being headquartered in the little town of Mountain Ranch. The Joses raise cattle, sheep and angora goats - and keep an amazing garden.
Ian McKenzie, our Roswell rep, was on hand with a baling machine. A number of other producers from the Sierra Foothills had already delivered their wool for baling - and some came on Saturday to help out as well. Tom Fraser, a sheep rancher from Sonora, delivered his wool about an hour after I arrived. I've known Tom for most of my 46 years - he and my Dad became friends when my Dad taught his kids at Jamestown Elementary School in the 1970s - and I went to high school with Tom's youngest daughter, Susan. One of Doug's high school classmates and lifelong neighbor, Leroy Rader, delivered wool with his daughter. Doug and Leroy built the wool sack stand that they both still use while they were in high school in the 1950s.
The work itself was interesting. I always learn something about wool when I pay attention to Ian. This year I learned that most of the wool that we'd sorted off as being too short was in fact long enough. Ian suggested that we'd be better served by sorting off our coarser wools (28+ microns) from our more common mid-range wools (23-26 microns). I also learned that northern California blackface sheep (mostly Suffolks and Hampshires) typically produce longer, coarser fleeces than the similar sheep from the southern San Joaquin Valley (much of our course wool is of similar quality, so Ian combined it with some blackface wool to make a larger lot).
The work was also enjoyable. As with any group of producers, we compared notes on the vagaries of the lamb and wool markets, the lack of rainfall this spring, and the prospects for fall grazing. We told stories about people we knew in common - and funny stories on ourselves. We laughed - a lot! At around noon, Loree showed up with lunch - roast beef sandwiches, homemade salami, homegrown wax peppers and onions, ice tea and lemonade. Later, she sent me home with homemade wine, more salami and homemade braunschwieger. Lucky me!
Shepherding can be a very solitary way of life - even at the relatively small scale at which we operate. Shearing day, wool-shipping day and other activities that require more labor also provide us with an opportunity to share the company of other shepherds. I've cited this quote from Fencing the Sky by James Galvin previously, but last weekend's work reminded me of it once again:
"Mike had tried to convince Oscar that a community of small ranch families was the perfect Marxist society, where everyone had enough but not too much. Everyone worked together - loaning machinery, lending a hand - a Utopian idea, a way of life.Sometimes I get so focused on the economics of what I do that I forget to slow down and enjoy the less tangible benefits of my chosen way of life. Last weekend's work was a timely reminder!
"Funny, thought Oscar, I thought that was freedom. Marxism is for ants."