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Shear industry: A career of shearing and selling wool

Cup of coffee in hand, Jim Barnett takes a break from shearing Brian Iburg's sheep. They seem unaware of the change, however, as they mill around the barn. It's hard to hear over the bleating, which Barnett weathers good naturedly.

Shearer Jim Barnett drinks coffee while sitting on a filled bag of wool on March 9 in Mitchell. Shearing a flock of sheep tends to be an all-day event and takes place normally around the Spring, so sheep will be cool in the summer months. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)
Shearer Jim Barnett drinks coffee while sitting on a filled bag of wool on March 9 in Mitchell. Shearing a flock of sheep tends to be an all-day event and takes place normally around the Spring, so sheep will be cool in the summer months. (Sarah Barclay/Republic)

Cup of coffee in hand, Jim Barnett takes a break from shearing Brian Iburg's sheep. They seem unaware of the change, however, as they mill around the barn. It's hard to hear over the bleating, which Barnett weathers good naturedly.

"You'd swear these sheep were trying to interrupt you all the time, wouldn't you?" he said with a smile.

Barnett, of Wakonda, rests his lean frame on the electric wool sacker he has used since 1977. A veteran of the industry, Barnett got his start in Sioux Falls just out of high school. In need of a job, he started catching sheep for shearers, then started shearing in the fall of 1971. He's been doing it ever since, now the proprietor of Jim Barnett Sheep Shearing.

"I just grabbed a hold. I was just watching people," he said of how he learned. "I just thought it would be a good way to see the country. I like to eat and I like to work, so the two go together."

He later went to a sheep-shearing school when he was 28 years old, but by then most of the information was repetitive, he said.

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It's physically demanding work, he admits. He's had to have a hip replaced, which slowed him down for a while.

"That and mentally demanding, too. Because it doesn't always go your way," he said.

Catching, shearing sheep

Iburg, of rural Mitchell raises Rambouillet and Suffolk sheep, along with about 130 head of cattle. A Mitchell High School graduate and lifelong area resident, Iburg also farms corn and soybeans. His dad used to raise a large herd of sheep, about 1,000 head; now Iburg's herd is about 150, which he raises for meat and wool. For a few years, he has sold the wool to Barnett; Iburg and two of his children, Justin and Jamie Iburg, were on-hand on a recent spring morning to help catch sheep for the shearers.

A finely tuned process, it starts with Iburg's herd being cordoned off in one of his barns.

The system works something like an assembly line: Iburg and his son and daughter catch a sheep, then pass it to Barnett or Duane Norberg, of Sioux City, another sheep shearer.

The shearer typically begins by removing the belly wool and some other bits, which is separated from the main fleece. The rest of the fleece is kept in one piece so it can be graded, Barnett said.

Over the years, Barnett has come up with his own style of shearing, where instead of lifting the sheep up, he rolls them over.

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"I just roll them, let them do the work. It's a different way, but it still works," he said. "The fleece still comes off in one piece, and the sheep seem to be more satisfied, too."

Once Barnett or Norberg finishes a sheep, they send them to freedom on one side of the pen. Then one of the Iburgs hands them another wooly creature, and the process starts over.

Barnett likes to bring in another person for bigger jobs-whether that means larger herds, or just larger sheep-which helps jobs go faster, he said.

"Instead of doing it at 5 o'clock, you get done at noon or so," he said. "On the bigger jobs, we'll take two or three days to do it."

'You go where the sheep are'

Sheep are raised for meat and wool, and the industry has gone through significant changes since the mid-1970s, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Sheep numbers peaked in 1884 at 51 million head in the U.S., according to the USDA. They totaled 5.32 million head on Jan. 1 of this year. That's a 40,000-head increase from 2015, according to the USDA, marking the second consecutive year of gains in the sheep and lamb inventory after eight consecutive years of declining numbers.

Barnett agreed the number of sheep has been dropped steadily since he started in the '70s, but he manages to stay busy. Spring is typically his busiest time of year, but he shears year-round, covering a large region. Most of his clientele are repeat customers, but those clients are as far away as Oklahoma, and everywhere in between. Barnett said he travels to Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and a little in Iowa and Minnesota. He used to go into Wisconsin, too, but "that's long gone," he said.

"You go where the sheep are and where you can be there long enough to make the money, make it work," he said. "You've got to travel quite a bit to stay busy."

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One day it could be a herd of 230; the next, it could be 40. As long as they're sheep, Barnett said he's "not fussy."

He sells the wool, too, to Illinois-based Groenewold Fur & Wool Co., which he said is one of the few remaining places to sell wool. The fleece, once removed from the sheep, goes into the wool sacker, which packs the wool into a large, burlap bag. Once the bag is full, Barnett ties it off and loads it onto his trailer. From there, he takes it home to Wakonda and stores it until the buyer picks it up.

They'll sort out the wool to determine the quality, or grade. According to Sierra Trading Post, sheep's wool grades are selected to suit the needs of the products being made. Different wool grades offer different fiber lengths, fiber thicknesses and other properties.

Fine-quality wool is used to make luxury garments, medium-quality wool is used to make things like sports coats, sweaters or light blankets. Coarser wool is used to make heavy blankets, topcoats or upholstery items.

Barnett raises about 100 head of his own sheep, too. If he gets too busy, he might sell-but he enjoys the animals.

"If you're patient with them, they'll do about anything for you," he said.

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