PEARISBURG — Monday was makeover day for Fantasy Farm’s merino wool sheep.
Veterinary students from Blacksburg trimmed the hooves of 140 sheep and the barn was filled with the buzzing of the shears, like angry mechanical wasps.
For $5 per head, Stuart Matthews of Mount Airy, North Carolina, peeled away the fine winter coats, exposing the fluffy white fleece beneath the dusty brown exteriors.
Matthews said he’s been shearing sheep professionally for about 30 years, having worked around the country. But he started with sheep in the 4-H program, when he was about 12 years old.
For four years he’s sheared the Fantasy Farm herd for owners Lynn and Bernie Cosell. On Monday, he sheared a sheep about every six minutes.
The Cosells, both Massachusetts Institute of Technology grads, worked most of their careers as high-flying Boston-area computer programmers, and were part of a team that helped build the modern-day Internet.
In the 1980s, they fell in love with Merino sheep and the ancient occupation of shepherding.
Merino wool is sought after for its softness and because it generally doesn’t cause the itching associated with clothes made of stiffer wool.
Looking for mild winters and cooler summers, in 1992 the Cosells bought 82 acres in Giles County. A surprise March blizzard hit in 1993, forcing them to wade through hip-deep drifts to care for their animals.
Named when it was nothing more than an idea, both Cosells agree that 24 years later Fantasy Farm remains mostly a flight of their imaginations. Efforts to run it as a business petered out.
For a time, they worked to build a factory on-site with retired mill equipment salvaged from idle northeast factories. Lynn hoped to run a small mill by herself.
But, “getting and keeping the machines running was too tricky for us and actually doing the work wasn’t much fun,” according to Bernie. “Neither of us ended up relishing the idea of retiring to this idyllic farm only to become vintage 1950 factory workers.”
Then they tried raising lambs to sell for meat.
“That was too painful,” Bernie said. “Our sheep get socialized and become friendly … and it was just too hard to send the baby lambs off to market.”
Today many of the flock, like their dedicated shepherds, are pensioners. The oldest sheep is 17, with many of their peers aged 12 to 16. Bernie is 69, and Lynn is 68, and they’ve started to think about attrition.
“I need animals,” Lynn said. “Whether I need 150 sheep is another question.”
Not to mention the three guard dogs that keep coyote away, and the 12 cats that live in their house on the hill, set in the middle of a pasture.
The Cosells say they’ve taken pains to keep any sheep breeding at bay since some “surprise lambs” were conceived unintentionally about three years ago. If they don’t, their sheep might outlive them.
They dote on their fleecy friends, giving the remaining animals the best life possible and getting what they can for the wool. The couple is thinking about writing the sheep into their wills.
What would happen to them, Lynn mused, if she or Bernie went into a nursing home?
On Monday, Giles high school students interested in animal husbandry helped gather the fleece and pick out what Bernie Cosell called “the yucky parts.” The good stuff was bagged up for sale to an Ohio cooperative that grades it and resells it, he said.
Fantasy Farm fiber might end up in Italy, weaved into fine men’s suits. Or it could go into a plethora of other products.
“They don’t tell us what happens to it,” Lynn said.
She holds back some prime fleece to hand-spin into yarn for knitting and weaving. In winter, she said she stays warm making heavy sweaters and the like, and in summer she switches to lighter projects.
She’s also one of a small group of spinners in and around Blacksburg who meet weekly and call themselves “The Spunsters.” For one reason and another, the group couldn’t make it to shearing day this year, Lynn said.
They missed a large spread of home cooked stew, chili, salads and a special shearing day cake filled with chocolate chips and pecans. The other workers at the table included a handful of Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine students, overseen by large animal specialist Dr. Kevin Pelzer. He brings the students out each year to do wellness checks and hoof trimming.
It’s a win-win, Pelzer said, as it helps the Cosells and gives the students hands-on experience.
Sheep must be sheared of their thick winter fleece to keep them cool in summer, and healthy. After shearing, they are treated for biting lice, which can cause intense itching, Lynn said.
The hours it takes to trim, shear and treat the sheep is the only time all year they spend inside, Bernie said.
The animals seemed glad of that. Many kicked up their heels as they exited the back of the barn, retreating to the safety of a sunny pasture.