Kerry Johnson reaches for a sheep that’s waiting its turn to be sheared Thursday, July 18. The four-person crew benefited from Johnson’s 62 years of experience during their time shearing at Newman Farms north of Holyoke. — The Holyoke Enterprise | Johnson Publications
During a blistering hot day, Kerry Johnson attempts to stay cool in the shearing trailer while relieving this sheep of its heavy wool coat at Newman Farms. — The Holyoke Enterprise | Johnson Publications
A cut above
In the third week of July, many in the world of agriculture were flocking to the wheat fields. From the view of a worn, dusty road on the northern edge of Phillips County, two combines could be seen plugging away in the amber waves of grain.
But that road also takes you to Newman Farms, and no, they weren’t harvesting wheat.
It was shearing day.
The red paint on the shearing trailer was worn from years of use, and sheep could be seen flying through small openings, joining their now naked-looking friends in a small pen.
Inside, the whirling fans, machine shears and country music on the dusty radio competed for a presence in the small space, and open slots in the sides allowed for some fresh air during a hot 103-degree summer day.
Sheep were lined up in a chute on one side of the trailer while three experienced shearers went about their jobs, one sheep after another. A fourth person gathered up the piles of wool on the floor destined for a large wool baler positioned next to the trailer.
One shearer took a brief moment to use a towel to wipe the sweat from his brow, and a large jug periodically provided a refreshing drink. He dipped his hat in a bucket of water, commenting that the coolness on his head makes all the difference.
It’s a dirt-under-your-nails kind of job (at least you hope it’s dirt), and the long, back-breaking days aren’t made for everyone.
“You don’t have to be nuts, but it helps,” said Kerry Johnson with a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his lips.
His accent pointed to his roots. He’s a New Zealand native, and he’s been shearing sheep for an impressive 62 years.
Johnson first started in this profession as a 16-year-old. His dad was a shearer too, and in a place like New Zealand, shearers are in high demand. “There’s a lot of sheep in New Zealand and not a lot of people,” he said.
Johnson has continued shearing professionally after moving to the United States in 1994. He’s now based out of Casper, Wyoming, but he goes wherever the job takes him. He’s even been known to fly to Australia to shear during their summer, which is the same time as America’s winter.
His time at Newman Farms was special, as it’s one of his last experiences in the professional shearing world. Because of health reasons, Johnson has decided to hang up the shears and retire.
Rindy Harkness, who sheared alongside Johnson, took a moment to snap a photo with him. It was a well-deserved lunch break, and after rinsing off with a hose, Johnson sat atop a bale of wool in the shade of a barn just long enough to scarf down a sandwich and a can of peaches.
Harkness has owned the shearing trailer for 11 years and has been coming to Newman Farms for most of that time.
She said the United States has seen a decline in sheep, noting that Wyoming used to have 5 million sheep alone, but now the U.S. totals only 5.4 million as a nation.
What does that mean for her and other shearers? “Heaps of driving,” she said.
They travel hours upon hours only to spend two to five minutes shearing each sheep in precise movements with a hand-held cutter. Of course, Johnson is the fastest, Harkness pointed out.
Back in his 20s and 30s, Johnson even competed at The Golden Shears, the world’s most prestigious sheep shearing event which happens to be held in his home country. He made the finals four times.
And now it’s time for Johnson to cap off a lifetime career — 62 years that can only be called shear devotion.