Wild and woolly
The nation’s best sheep shearers and wool handlers are headed to New Zealand next month to compete in the Golden Shears World Shearing and Wool Handling Championship.
Five Americans: Loren Opstedahl, Piedmont, S.D., Leann Brimmer, Biddle, Mont., Alex Moser, Lester, Iowa, Kevin Ford, Charlemont, Mass., and Maggie Passino, Scottsville, Virginia will represent the U.S. at the world championships.
Each of them qualified for the U.S. team by garnering points at nationwide competitions or winning the national championship, held in Rapid City at the Black Hills Stock Show.
Teams from across the world, including England, Mongolia, Switzerland, South Africa, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand will compete for the world title.
Each team consists of six people, with two in each event: machine shearing, blade shearing (using hand shears instead of machine shears), and wool handling. Opstedahl had the most points in the blade shearing and won the national championship in the mechanical shearing, putting him on the U.S. team in both events. Moser is a machine shearer, Ford is a blade shearer, and Brimmer and Passino are wool handlers.
Competitors are timed and receive points, and are docked points for mistakes made. Golden Shears World Championships are held every two or three years, with the location varying each time. They have been held in Norway, Wales, Ireland, and this year, in a warm climate for the Northern Hemisphere competitors – New Zealand.
This is the fifth world championship for 45-year-old Opstedahl. The event runs Feb. 8-11, and he will leave January 25, to get some time in for practice. Sheep shearing is done world-wide, but differences in livestock and equipment make shearing different in the Southern Hemisphere. New Zealand has different breeds of sheep than are found in the U.S., and Opstedahl will familiarize himself with the breeds and the different equipment as well.
Brimmer, one of two wool handlers, said this is her fifth time to represent the U.S. at the Golden Shears World contest.
A wool handler’s job looks easy, but is demanding, Brimmer said. Wool handlers are the “right hand man” for the shearer, gathering and handling the fleece while the shearer works, skirting the fleece (to remove inferior wool), keeping the fleece out of the way of the shearer as he works, pressing the fleece (packaging it), and keeping the shearing area clean, among other duties. A good shearer can shear a sheep in a few minutes, so a good wool handler must multi-task, keeping track of the whole board (the shearing area) at all times. “You have to know what’s going on, on the whole board,” Brimmer said, “where every shearer is on their fleece, so you can keep fleeces out of the way.” A good wool handler is sought after by shearers; because shearers are paid by the head, “a good wool handler can improve a shearer’s tally.”
Brimmer was raised on her family’s sheep and cattle ranch in the southwest corner of the state and tagged along with her dad as he sheared sheep. She has been a professional wool handler for the last twenty-five years and has worked in Australia, New Zealand, Norway, England and Wales.
It’s good pay, and a good way to make a living, Brimmer said. “It’s like anything. If you work hard, you get a good reputation, and you can get a job anywhere. For a lot of it, you’re paid on your skill level. The better you are, the better your pay is, for the most part.”
Brimmer has worked with all of her team members before. She has known Opstedahl for years, has worked with Alex and Kevin, and trained Maggie. The shearing community, even world-wide, is small, and it’s a family, she said. “It’s close-knit. You’d be amazed. Everybody knows everybody.”
Brimmer will compete in the 2017 National Championship Sheep Shearing at the Black Hills Stock Show on February 2, then fly out the next day to New Zealand. Even though this will be her fifth competition, nerves still get her. “I get nervous,” she said. “The more I listen to the announcer and the goings-on, the more nervous I get.” She remedies the problem by tuning into her Ipod. “I’ll stick my earphones in. I want to watch what’s going on, but I want to stay in my own little world.”
The U.S. will be among thirty-two countries represented in New Zealand, and Opstedahl and his teammates are ready. “It’s going to be a good contest,” he said. “I love going to these things. You meet people from around the world, and we have the same thing in common. A lot of them don’t speak the same language, and I’ve made friends with people I can’t talk to, but we have one thing in common.”
The competitive nature of the contests is no surprise, Opstedahl said. “You get a crew on the farm, and we get paid by the head, and it’s human nature to compete against each other. You want to do better than the other guy next to you. Shearing is a natural competitive sport.”
The World Championships will be webcast live during the event Feb. 8-11. More information can be found at WorldShearingChamps.com.
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