WINDHAM – Raising chickens and shopping at local farms are growing in popularity in Maine. And sheep farming is evolving right in step.
The Maine Sheep Breeders Association’s shearing class last weekend sold out quickly, and that’s become the norm.
What’s more, the shearing classes, run in conjunction with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, are filling up with people who don’t even own sheep.
It’s one more example of how farming is now considered cool.
“It’s a good time to be a sheep farmer,” said Lisa Webster, who hosted the class at North Star Sheep Farm in Windham.
The sheep breeders association has been around since the 1940s, and sheep farming in Maine has been around along the coast since well before that. But never before has sheep husbandry been more popular.
Webster’s family has raised sheep in Maine for more than 100 years. And the fourth-generation sheep farmer said there is a new kind of buzz in the business.
“Wool is up in price and lamb has doubled in price in the last 18 months. Last year at the class, we had 22 new shearers, and 21 didn’t even have sheep. Everyone wants to get involved in sheep and fleece. It’s great,” Webster said.
In the shearing class last week, only half the 22 students owned sheep. Many other students planned to get sheep, and some were knitters or spinners who came to learn all parts of their craft, said Joan Rolfe, a demonstrator with the association.
For most, learning the work of shearing sheep had less to do with making extra money than learning about sheep.
Caitlin Stevens of Manchester, N.H., traveled to the class because there was none offered in New Hampshire. Stevens, an avid knitter, said she wanted to be able to barter for her yarn, and shearing was a great way to do that.
“I would like to trade for yarn once I get comfortable handling the sheep. I’ll probably take the class here in the fall,” said Stevens, 25.
Others wanted to learn to handle and shear their own sheep.
Sheep farming is popular now because it’s a relatively easy way for people with no farming experience to become farmers.
Small sheep farmers don’t need much land, just a few acres for three or four sheep, Rolfe said.
“Very few are in it for the business. They like the idea of raising their own sheep. More and more are getting into backyard farming,” Rolfe said.
Ben Stern of Mount Vernon said he and his wife waited 20 years to raise sheep. They finally decided they should wait no longer, and a year after buying four ewes, they attended the class.
“It’s been our dream to have sheep. We’ve never had the opportunity. But now our kids are grown. I just had major surgery, and we said, ‘Let’s do this now.’ So we set up fencing,” said Stern, 53.
Beginner classes like the one taught by the Maine Cooperative Extension give hands-on experience, with instruction tailored for people who have never been around livestock.
Turning a sheep over to shear requires an age-old technique and some strength. Handling the sheep with confidence is key. If the shearer loses control, the sheep could kick or bolt.
The best shearers maintain perfect balance in how they stand and how they position the sheep. But mastering this art can take years of practice.
“Sheep are amazing. They’re strong and rugged. Ninety percent of it is holding them right. If you hold them right, they become docile,” said John Ripa, 25, of Durham, who hopes to start a sheep farm with his father, Phil.
The Ripas attended last weekend, two weeks after taking their first shearing class at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where they learned from Doug Rathky, one of the world’s best sheep shearers.
“It’s really pretty exciting. There are a lot of people looking for a specific kind of fiber. And there are a lot of people getting back to farming for fiber or meat,” said Phil Ripa of New Sharon. “If you get in with the right crowd, there are a lot of people you can learn from in Maine.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: