Maine sheep shearer Jeff Burchstead

The Wild and Woolly Life of a Maine Sheep Shearer

When sheep need to be shorn, there’s a good chance Maine farmers are going to call Jeff Burchstead. Last shearing season, photographer Greta Rybus tagged along for Burchstead’s visits to far-flung flocks.

Photos by Greta Rybus
Text by Will Grunewald
From our March 2024 issue

In his early 20s, Jeff Burchstead worked on an organic farm along the down east coast. The farm had some sheep, and two local women came once a year to shear them. “They were sort of local legends, this pair of homesteaders,” Burchstead recalls. After watching them work, he decided to enroll in a shearing course offered by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Then, in 2002, he set out on his own as a shearer. He had grasped the fundamentals by then, but he was also learning on the fly — trying not to nick the sheep, trying not to get kicked, trying not to damage any of the long fibers that can be spun into strong yarn. “It can be stressful,” he says. “Every sheep is slightly different, and there are a bunch of different things you need to be thinking about in any given position you’re holding the sheep in order to get it right.”

Early on, his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Amy, would hold up an instructional poster to remind him of the order of operations. Over time, though, it all became second nature. “You have to shear hundreds before you start to sort of feel like you know what you’re doing,” Burchstead says, “and it takes thousands before you’ve really got the hang of it.”

Now, he trims about 3,000 sheep every year — almost a quarter of the sheep in Maine, based on the most recent agricultural census. “It’s all word of mouth,” he says. “When people find out you can shear, the phone starts ringing.” Maine flocks tend to be small, maybe 15 or 20 sheep on average. And since capable shearers are in short supply, he spends a good deal of the peak spring shearing season on the road, often visiting several farms a day.

Around the time Burchstead started shearing, he and Amy bought a wooded property in Wiscasset and started an agricultural concern of their own, the horse-powered Buckwheat Blossom Farm. They keep some goats and laying hens and, of course, a couple of dozen sheep. (They sell wool products online and wool and meat products at farmers’ markets in Brunswick.)

Over the past two decades, Burchstead has turned into something of a sheep evangelist. As he inspected his flock one recent afternoon, he steered conversation from Napoleon’s liberation of the Merino breed from Spain to the key economic role of sheep in Colonial American homesteading to the nutritional value of lamb liver. “They’re a pretty powerful animal,” he says. “Being involved with them for so long, you gain a lot of respect for what they are.”

Shearing isn’t just about sourcing clean cuts of wool. “Sheep can sense somebody’s lack of skill, so you want to make them feel like they can’t get up but also want them to be comfortable,” Burchstead says. “You’re not using a lot of pressure or holding them down.” Keeping their feet off the ground suppresses their inclination to make a dash. “I could probably shear a sheep blindfolded by now,” he adds. “You can’t really see what you’re shearing anyway because you’re in the wool. A lot of it is just feel and muscle memory. It would take me a while, but I definitely think I could do it.”

Right: Burchstead at Stoneheart Farms, in South Paris, where farmers John and Doreen Simmons keep Katahdins and Dorpers, breeds typically raised for meat because they shed their wool naturally and don’t require shearing. They do, however, need to have their hooves trimmed annually, another job Burchstead will do.

Clockwise from top left: at Buckwheat Blossom Farm, in Wiscasset, Jeff Burchstead leads his sheep to a shearing pen, with help from his herding dog, Kit; Burchstead’s wife, Amy, on shearing day at Buckwheat Blossom Farm, where processing the wool is a family effort; shearers progress through a series of positions that keep sheep calm; Burchstead sometimes goes old school with hand shears — still the only way to get a job done without a source of electricity; unfurling freshly shorn wool at a small homestead in Norway.

a flock of sheep sporting fresh haircuts at Hawthorne & Thistle Farmstead in Washington, Maine

Above: Fresh haircuts at Hawthorn & Thistle Farmstead, in Washington, where the flock comprises 50 Jacob sheep. Shearing season starts in the middle of winter and continues into early summer (and some sheep are shorn in the fall too). “It’s never smooth sailing,” Burchstead says. “You might think you’re doing great. Got through five sheep in no time. Then, that sixth one is young or wily and won’t stop kicking. You don’t have any choice but to just push on through.”

Clockwise from top left: Stephanie Grant started Hawthorne & Thistle Farmstead in 2014. “I found Jeff in Uncle Henry’s, and he’s been my shearer ever since,” she says; Burchstead equips his shears with different combs and cutters depending on the size of the sheep and the nature of the wool; Conor MacDonald and his son Rory watch Burchstead work. The MacDonald family runs Bò Lait Farm, in Washington, with a flock of sheep in addition to their herd of dairy cows.

From left: Burchstead at Hawthorn & Thistle Farmstead; at Buckwheat Blossom Farm, Kit keeps a close eye on some of the Coopworth sheep; a sheep waits for its turn; Burchstead shears on Richmond Island, off Cape Elizabeth, home to about 50 Scottish Blackface sheep. He always travels with his jury-rigged hand truck, in case he doesn’t find anywhere else to hang the motor for his shears

To check out the Burchsteads’ line of wool products — socks, rugs, sheepskins, yarn, and more — visit buckwheatblossom.farm.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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