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More than business: Wiscasset family’s sheep shearing, farming is way of life

Posted March 23, 2014, at 10:28 a.m.
Last modified March 23, 2014, at 11:02 a.m.
Jeff Burchstead shears a sheep on his farm in Wiscasset on March 10.
Kathleen Pierce
Jeff Burchstead shears a sheep on his farm in Wiscasset on March 10. Buy Photo
From left, Buckwheat Blossom Farm apprentice Leah Costlow helps Amy Burchstead skirt wool in Wiscasset on March 10.
Kathleen Pierce
From left, Buckwheat Blossom Farm apprentice Leah Costlow helps Amy Burchstead skirt wool in Wiscasset on March 10.
Ruth Burchstead, 8, plays with May, a bottle fed lamb in Wiscasset on March 10.
Kathleen Pierce
Ruth Burchstead, 8, plays with May, a bottle fed lamb in Wiscasset on March 10.
From left, Ruth, 8, Leah, 4 and Asa Burchstead, 15 months, watch their father prepare sheep to be shorn on their farm in Wiscasset on March 10.
Kathleen Pierce
From left, Ruth, 8, Leah, 4 and Asa Burchstead, 15 months, watch their father prepare sheep to be shorn on their farm in Wiscasset on March 10. Buy Photo
Coopworth sheep at Buckwheat Blossom Farm in Wiscasset await the shears on March 10.
Kathleen Pierce
Coopworth sheep at Buckwheat Blossom Farm in Wiscasset await the shears on March 10.
From left, Leah and Ruth Burchstead watch their father shear sheep in Wiscasset on March 10. Fleecing their 25 sheep is a spring time family affair and their main source of income.
Kathleen Pierce
From left, Leah and Ruth Burchstead watch their father shear sheep in Wiscasset on March 10. Fleecing their 25 sheep is a spring time family affair and their main source of income.
Jeff Burchstead shears sheep at his Wiscasset farm on March 10. He is one of a handful of sheep shearers in the state.
Kathleen Pierce
Jeff Burchstead shears sheep at his Wiscasset farm on March 10. He is one of a handful of sheep shearers in the state. Buy Photo

WISCASSET, Maine – Down ice-slicked Hidden Pasture Lane, Jeff Burchstead shears a sheep to the tune of dogs barking, chickens clucking and lambs bleating. The whizz of his electric clippers fills the air as he wrestles to shave the rambunctious, wooly animal.

The wool falls away revealing shocking white beneath. The kicking white and gray ewes call out to reassure their lambs that “all is well.”

Nearby, Burchstead’s wife, Amy Burchstead, skirts and fluffs the fresh fleeces, rolling and wrapping the clean wool in sheets for sale.

As spring unfolds, Jeff Burchstead will travel from Kittery to Houlton and also New Hampshire to fleece flocks. He is one of about a dozen shearers plying this trade in the state, and he is in demand from now until June.

“Shearing and farming are things that I really like to do. It doesn’t feel like a job to me,” said the lanky 6-foot-5 Burchstead, who has a ruddy face and the callused hands of a woodsman. “It’s so intertwined with how we live, how we eat and how we raise our family. The lines are very blurred. It has its own momentum.”

That momentum hinges on the daily and seasonal rhythms at Buckwheat Blossom Farm, where the couple live and work.

On 140 acres, the pair raise 25 sheep, a flock of chickens, two dogs, a cat and three children. The eldest child, 8-year-old Ruth, is homeschooled and is starting to help out more around the farm. She washes eggs, sweeps up discarded wool, and on a recent Sunday, she intently watched her father work.

Switching to traditional blade-shearing techniques, the “snip, snip, snip” of thick wool accompanied by “bahs,” high and low, filled the hoop house.

Professional sheep shearers emerged in 1850 in sheep grazing regions of the world like New Zealand. As more people take up farming in Maine, there is growing demand for those skilled at this springtime rite.

It’s done for several reasons.

As ewes prepare to lamb, this is the ideal time to shear. They need to be fleeced to “make sure they are in good condition,” said Jeff. “Without their thick coats, they are more likely to lamb inside, it’s easier to see the lamb coming out. And once the lamb is born, it’s easier for the lamb to see the teat.”

Like a hand scythe cutting rows of wheat, Burchstead makes passes down the animal with shears. The wool peels off in one opulent layer. Jeff, who can shear 10 sheep an hour, seems born for this.

“I’m a little drawn to older skills, dying skills,” said the full-time farmer, who grew up in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County.

While most conventional families are segregated during the day, the Burchsteads are a cooperative endeavor.

When Burchstead has a large shearing job, Ruth Burchstead might go with him. Sometimes the entire family goes together. When her husband is gone, Amy Burchstead holds down the business, which includes a 22-acre horse-powered farm down the road where they grow carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, winter squash and sweet potatoes. The farm doesn’t fully support the family, so jobs like sheep shearing are crucial.

“That’s the spring upfront money to run the farm every year,” Jeff Burchstead said.

Shearing is hard physical labor, and Burchstead, who has been doing it professionally for 11 years, will shear 1,000 to 1,500 sheep before summer arrives. As the textile industry continues to pick up in the state, more people are starting to spin and dye their own wool.

Last weekend, the Burchsteads sold six or seven fleeces to a hand-spinner for $600.

It’s a more immediate source of income than harvesting vegetables, which require months of seeding and tending to eventually pay off. Shearing is a critical component of the business model. But it also sparked the couple’s romance.

After a long day shearing sheep 13 years ago, “with manure and lanolin on top of us, he asked me to marry him,” Burchstead’s wife recalled. “He said if I could enjoy a day sheep shearing, we [would] make a good match.”

Amy Burchstead, a New Hampshire native, grew up in a health conscious family with a mother who gardened, but wasn’t sure the farming life was for her.

“I was always interested in having a farm but wrote it off as a career choice because of the economic uncertainty,” she said.

As anyone who relies on Mother Nature knows, certainty doesn’t factor in. Crops freeze, animals get sick and even farmers flag from time to time.

“Our income is primarily dependent on the health and ability of our bodies,” she said.

When Jeff Burchstead became infected with Lyme disease, not once but twice, it made the couple question and reevaluate why they work so hard for little money.

But the Burchsteads are not working for money.

“I don’t define myself by my job and career. I live holistically. I don’t need that to say who I am. Living well is more the goal than a career,” said Amy Burchstead.

By living intentionally, the couple gains access to a wholeness most modern families don’t have.

“We’d rather live more simply and have time with our kids,” she said

To do that, they grow their own vegetables, cook from scratch and don’t own fuel-guzzling tractors.

Clothes are hand-me downs. The house is heated with a wood stove, where most meals are cooked. Hot water is solar powered. Burchstead doesn’t have a cellphone and drives a beat up car.

“We barter a lot, with carpenters, our electrician, babysitters, teachers for home-schooling, and our homebirth midwife, who traded her services for beef,” she said.

And yet their meals would make any gourmand green with envy.

A typical dinner is burritos made with homemade tortillas, hot sauce, salsa, celery and cabbage salad. All from the farm.

“It speaks to our core values. We eat well and have a positive impact on the environment around us,” said Jeff Burchstead.

It helps to have a family that’s all in. Especially during spring shearing.

Handing her father a vaccine-filled syringe, Ruth Burchstead is all business. She carries wool to the skirt table and is by his side to help. As the oldest, she is engaged now, but there’s no telling if she or her siblings will follow in their parents footsteps.

“I hope that they are true to themselves and cause as little destruction to the environment as possible,” said Amy Burchstead.

Whether their children inherit the trade and pick up the shears or not is up to them.

“I don’t do anything with those intentions. I like to have them involved in what we do,” said Jeff Burchstead. “We’ll encourage it if it happens, to carry on what we are trying to do here.”

Practicing good stewardship of the land and long-term sustainability are key.

“The family, the farm, the land … if this can keep growing and create more and better food, that would be fantastic,” Burchstead said. “I am scratching at the surface at what can be done with this land.”

 

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