By John Clayton
Twelve years ago, a local woman—a self-described city slicker, a kid from Rhode Island, a graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan, and an accomplished web developer—bought a farm in Boyds which she turned into an animal sanctuary: Star Gazing Farm Animal Sanctuary. She had some sheep, and about two years later she thought it might be nice to be able to shear them herself. After all, she was dedicated to the welfare of animals of all kinds, so it fit in nicely with her other pursuits, and who knows, it might even be good exercise.
This is the process that initially started Anne Schroeder on the path to becoming an extremely busy sheep and alpaca shearer. She heard about a shearing school, which was “the coolest thing I had ever heard,” and after she received that training she started shearing her own sheep. She said that her neighbors then asked her if she could shear their sheep, but she really didn’t feel confident enough in her skills and experience to take that step, and she told them, “I don’t really know how.” They replied, “That’s okay, we just need them sheared.” Then more people called, and then a few more, and what was once almost a hobby, an intention to be more self-sufficient on her own farm, became a fulltime job.
Schroeder, or Farmer Anne as she is more widely known, insists that while this is the best job in the world—wrestling occasionally uncooperative animals which at best are two-hundred-pound dead weights—it is a service, not a business. At the start, when she complied with those friendly-neighbor requests, she would just go and shear one or two sheep here or there. This is indeed a service, because as any owner of a small flock will attest, it is hard to find a shearer who will travel to your farm for just a few animals. Ten years later, she has over 175 clients in five states, assisting clients in this immediate area, Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore including Delaware, the Shenandoah region of Virginia, Southern Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
As the sheep service started to expand, she also took an advanced shearing course, and learned how to shear alpacas, which she began shearing in 2006, which is about when things really began to take off. In fact, “They exploded.” The job is full-time March to June, and while she also shears some llamas and goats, her primary service (this might be a business) is sheep and alpacas. She sees her hard-earned shearing fees as a source of income for her farm, and she is presently saving up money from shearing to build a new barn for her sanctuary.
Her service is primarily word of mouth, and while she hasn’t had much luck with advertising, her website (stargazingfarm.org/services/shearing) has brought in new clients, and increasingly she finds herself shearing production flocks of larger and larger numbers of animals, often using an assistant for alpacas or the larger flocks of sheep. Farmer Anne still promises on her website, however, to show up for only one or two animals as long as it is in her travel area.
Opportunities for shearers abound across the country and even the globe. Schroeder says that while the population of shearers has grown somewhat in our area, and many are women, shearers are frequently scarce. She said she would love to act on open opportunities to travel out west and shear, but that is difficult to do as she is responsible for the relentless day-to-day needs of her farm.
One of her more ambitious dreams would be to go to a week-long professional shearing school in New Zealand, where she said that everyone she knows that has gone there “comes back a different shearer.” Unfortunately, that trip is made difficult by those familiar limiting factors, time and money, to say nothing of the aforementioned farm requirements.
Schroeder says the work is “sweaty, dirty, hard, often frustrating, and you hurt when you get home,” but it is also “incredibly satisfying. It is the best job in the world, and even when it’s a really hard job, I love it.” Besides, she asks, where else can you do something you love and “leave behind a trail of naked animals?”