March 15, 2004
By Ross McSwain
Mar/Apr 2004 -- The future for young sheep shearers in America is not bright and prosperous, despite shearing costs going up, better working conditions and shearers perhaps having the opportunity to become certified practitioners of the craft.
With sheep and Angora goat numbers on decline throughout the nation, men with shearing experience or those wanting to learn the trade are hard to find. Among three major shearing contractors in Southwestern Texas, the average age of their crews are men in their 50s, and it is not uncommon to find shearers who are over 65 years of age. Elsewhere, ages of shearers usually range in the 40s, and shearing crews are smaller in size as sheep numbers on ranches decline.
Last December, a special Shearing Task Force Committee established by the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) met in Denver to discuss various issues concerning the role of shearers and the harvest of wool throughout the nation. Among the challenges mentioned by the committee participants were attitude, packaging and labeling, availability of labor, education and training, contamination and other matters.
Among recommendations made by the task force were to have more meetings with shearers to continue dialogue on important issues with wool buyers and warehouse operators present. As a result of the meeting, ASI will soon establish a shearers and shearing crew database to help in the production of high-quality U.S. wool.
Jim Bristol, a Michigan wool grower and shearing contractor, served as chair of the task force. He said the group got a good line on what needed to be done, but its recommendations would have to be approved by the Wool Council.
Also under consideration by the task force is the adoption of a certification program for shearers and shearing crews that meet certain criteria, such as crews helping to reduce contamination by removing undesirable fibers, vegetable-matter and other trash from producers' wool clips.
He said one of the most important recommendations was providing shearer education for both the small flock shearer and for the full-time shearer. Various educational materials are available, he said, as well as shearing trailers that can be utilized in training programs during the off season.
Bristol, a full-time shearer as well as wool producer, says the importation of foreign shearers from New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and other places has helped solve some shearer shortages. However, Bristol said it was difficult to keep the imported shearers busy, and many times the exchange rate does not allow the visiting shearer to make as much money as planned. Currently, his shearing crews are getting $2.50 to $3 per ewe. An experienced shearer in Michigan can earn $180 to $300 per day. These wages, depending on experience, are competitive with any construction job, Bristol said.
Despite the serious shortage of shearers nationwide, Darrold Reiter of Butte, Mont., business manager of Local No. 301, Sheep Shearers Union of North America, says the union has less than 50 members who pay $265 per year in dues. The union was organized in 1903.
Reiter says union shearing rates, nationwide, are a minimum $1.65 per head. Rams are double and horned rams are triple in price. These rates were voted on and approved by the union membership.
Reiter does not see times getting better for Montana sheep producers with continued predator problems from wolves and bears, few available trappers and sheep numbers down to about 300,000 head in the state.
Fermin Venegas, of Fort Stockton, Texas, a shearing contractor and member of the Shearing Task Force Committee, says education of shearers would be most helpful, as well as training programs, but a shearer and the shearing crew captain must have the cooperation of the wool producers to make the certification program successful. A wool grower shares in the responsibility of keeping his animals clean and his premises free of contaminates.
Richard Ruiz, a San Angelo, Texas, captain and second generation shearing crew chief, said he had to quit a recent shearing job because the sheep were so dirty.
"The fleeces had so much dirt in them that we had to stop and sharpen our clippers after shearing each one. We couldn't make any money having to stop so often," Ruiz said.
Shearing has been the chief occupation of the Ruiz family for nearly a half-century. His father, Daniel Ruiz of Eola, Texas, has been shearing sheep for nearly four decades and has been a contractor for more than 30 years.
Like Venegas, the elder Ruiz used to travel all over the southwest and as far north as Wyoming during the shearing season.
"We used to have 12 to 14 men with each shearing rig, a large trailer with up to 12 shearing drops. We now use eight men if we can find them," he said.
Ruiz said his shearers range in age from 50 to 70. He has a difficult time finding young men who want to learn the shearing trade, and uses from five to six Mexican immigrants who hold "green cards," which they must have to work legally in the United States. However, the paperwork in getting Mexican workers through government-approved programs is time-consuming and expensive.
Ruiz has another son, Raul, who was a shearer for a number of years until a wool buyer saw the young man doing pencil sketches of Rambouillet rams during breaks. Today, Raul is a nationally known artist, painter and sculptor.
Venegas, who still travels to California and Wyoming during the shearing season, believes the only answer to solving the shearing problem is educating all of the industry of the importance of shearers to the harvesting and marketing of the product.
"Shearers have too long been taken for granted by the industry," he said. "It takes three years to train a good shearer, but the industry has not paid much mind to their needs."
Venegas said he first noticed the decline in shearing crews five years ago when sheep numbers started dropping throughout much of the country because of drought and the drastic drop in wool and mohair prices.
"We used to have five or six ranches where I live that easily had 3,000 or more sheep. They don't have any sheep now," he observed.
Daniel Ruiz, the San Angelo, Texas, captain, said his crews used to shear 100,000 or more sheep during a season. He estimated that his crews might shear 15,000 this spring.
Venegas, recognizing that his sheep shearing business may come to an end if sheep numbers keep dropping, has started a new business that can keep his men working year-round -- building fence and manufacturing his own fence wire.
"Sheep shearing is a lifestyle. I will miss it after all these (30) years, but fence building will keep me busy working outdoors," he said.