2018-05-10 / News

At Watson Farm, shearing is caring

Sheep set to be fleeced at annual spring festival

Melissa Higgins, a member of the Connecticut Sheep Breeders Association, tags a sheep after shaving its winter coat during the 2017 spring festival at Watson Farm. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Melissa Higgins, a member of the Connecticut Sheep Breeders Association, tags a sheep after shaving its winter coat during the 2017 spring festival at Watson Farm. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Flowers are blooming along the Four Corners and boats are sailing through Narragansett Bay, proving that spring truly is the season of renewal. For the flock at Watson Farm, however, it’s a time of regress — at least for their hairlines.

The Historic New England property will host its annual spring festival Saturday afternoon. Highlighted by the sheep shearing, the 265-acre working farm along the East Passage has been hosting this wooly event for 25 years.

“It’s sort of a celebration of spring on the farm,” said Don Minto, Watson Farm manager.

According to Minto, sheep have played a pivotal role in the agricultural history of Jamestown. Although the town was incorporated by English settlers in 1678, the Narragansett were farming the land generations before Europeans arrived in the Colonies. A visit to Watson Farm, including the original farmhouse built in 1796 by Robert Watson, provides a snapshot of those simpler times.

During the course of the afternoon, the entire flock of 30 sheep will get its haircut in the barnyard. Lara Sullivan, a member of the Connecticut Sheep Breeders Association, will answer questions as she trims the wool from her quadrupedal customers. This only happens once per year; the sheep will spend the next 12 months growing their coats to insulate for the colder months.

“It was a winter where they needed that wool,” Minto said. “Now it’s warming up and they’ll be happy to have it off.”

Sullivan, a sixth-grade science teacher at Nathan Hale Ray Middle School in Moodus, Conn., operates the Shear We Go Farm with her sister, Melissa Higgins. Although the siblings have been co-hairdressers at Watson Farm for two decades, Sullivan will shave alone this season. It will take about 10 minutes to shear each sheep, depending on the animal’s size and the audience’s curiosity.

“A lot of people think it’s brute strength, and having a strong back does have something to do with it,” Sullivan said. “I kind of think of it as a dance.”

The process starts when Sullivan places a sheep on its rear with its legs toward the sky. This is a soothing position for the animal, she said, and it is used by veterinarians to administer vaccines.

After she gets the sheep into position, Sullivan keeps the animal secure between her legs while she carefully moves around its body to shave all the “nooks and crannies.” Typically, Sullivan starts the process around the sheep’s belly, rear end and legs; this fleece is typically tossed aside because it is the dirtiest part of the fleece. After that, she attempts to remove the remainder in a single swoop.

“Practice,” she said. “I try to do every sheep exactly the same. Ninety-nine percent of the sheep sit there and are totally fine. It doesn’t hurt them. Some sheep are a little more feisty.”

Sullivan is often asked by onlookers whether she gives the sheep drugs to calm them down, which she does not. She is usually able to relax sheep through her positioning routine, which she has perfected following three decades of working with the animals.

“I could take a crazy sheep that’s jumping, and once I set it up on its rear, it really just stops moving,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of experience.

If I handed it to you, I don’t know if it will settle down and be as calm.”

Another question Sullivan is typically asked during shearing is about the sheep’s seemingly dirty fleece, which she answers visually. She parts the top back to show the fresh wool beneath, which is either black, silver or white.

“The outside looks very dirty and brown, but that’s actually the sun that bleaches the wool,” she said.

The newly shorn wool is then cleaned at a skirting table before it is handed to volunteers from the Rhode Island Spinners Guild. Members spin the wool into yarn while answering questions about their wheels and looms. After their work is finished, the yarn will be woven into a shawl, which will become a raffle prize later in the afternoon.

Minto said the finished shawl typically is 30 inches wide and 7 feet long. The spinners have chosen to weave a shawl, opposed to a scarf or sweater, because it is large enough to see the unique pattern that volunteers will incorporate into the fabric.

The excess wool will be saved to make the farm’s Rhody Warm blankets, which are typically sold at the end of the year. The remaining inventory of their 2017 blankets will be available for sale on Saturday.

The guild has been spinning at Watson Farm since the event was founded in the mid-’90s.

“It’s an outing for them,” Minto said. “They really love coming here.”

Aside from the shearing and weaving, the afternoon will include food trucks and live music from Saddle up the Chicken, a band founded in Jamestown that includes Minto. The group can be seen at farmers markets and block parties throughout Newport and South counties.

While many of the activities and demonstrations are organized, families are welcome to take a hike to the shoreline and view the newly born calves from the herd of Red Devon cattle. Unfortunately, the farm’s lambs were born later than usual this year, which means they are too small for petting.

In the past, the leashed lambs have walked around the festival so children could cuddle with them. On Sunday, however, they are going to be in the paddock, available only for viewing.

Minto hopes visitors leave the farm Sunday aware of its mission to preserve New England agricultural traditions. The property was bequeathed to Historic New England on the condition that it continue to be a working farm with public access.

“The history of our agriculture is very important, but agriculture is also very important for our future,” he said. “When people come, I think the more they understand about working farms, the more they appreciate and support it. That’s out goal.”

Admission to the spring festival at Watson Farm, 455 North Road, is $10 per carload. There is no fee, however, for members of Historic New England. For families who aren’t able to make it from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, the farm is open for tours Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays through Columbus Day starting in June.

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