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For three days in September each year Wisconsin becomes the sheep center of  the U.S. That’s when the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival comes to Jefferson and some 600 sheep of many breeds come to compete for trophies and ribbons, 140 vendors exhibit and sell sheep and fabric products and some 8,500 visitors come to buy, sell, look, talk and participate.

Last weekend I made the trip to Jefferson to see what the event was about. As I’d never had any long term direct contact with sheep raising or wool production, I had a lot to learn.  

Sponsored by sheep raisers

Wisconsin is home to some 75,000 sheep located on about 2,600 farms making the state number 19 overall in raising sheep, far behind #1 Texas and #2 California. But, it was obvious that lots of people want to learn about sheep or come from afar to buy wool yarn for their own craft projects. 

The festival is sponsored by the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative headquartered in Janesville that represents over 200 members who raise some 70 different breeds of sheep across across the state. The large number of sheep breeds was a bit surprising to me considering the America’s Dairyland has over 1.2 million cows of only seven different breeds of which 90 percent are Holstein.  

It’s diverse

Jill Alf, Janesville, executive secretary of the cooperative explained  that the festival was a very diverse event with over 25 breeds on the grounds, four days of “Wonders of Wool” classes selected to appeal to beginners and complex for the more knowledgeable. The classes range from four hours to all day events with varying costs. Subject taught range from “Beginning spinning” (six hours) to “Needle Felting Open Winged Birds” (18 hours over three days). 

Alf says some people come for all three days of the festival and the classes — 75 different classes were offered this year — and come back year after year. 

“The fleece sale, which is one of the largest held, is another big event,” she says.

Since 2002

Bob Black, Columbus, is a former sheep raiser is the longtime chairman of the festival.  He also taught Sheep Production at Madison Area Technical College for a decade. He explains that for many years the cooperative hosted a Wisconsin Sheep Industry Conference that gradually declined in attendance as the sheep industry had its ups and downs.

“In 2002 we opened the event to other aspects of the sheep industry including the fiber arts and the festival has boomed ever since,” Black explains. 

The festival now includes events covering the entire sheep industry and of interest to people of all ages.  

A full agenda

There are youth activities including an all day sheep and fiber camp for kids 8 - 16 years of age where kids learn different ways too work with wool. They also visit the lambing barn, watch sheep shearing and learn a bit about Wisconsin history. On Saturday there is also a “Skillothon where youths knowledge of sheep production is tested, a poster contest and a photo contest.

Shearing

The biggest crowd I noted was the one that filled the bleachers at the sheep shearing demonstration where Josh and Emma Huber, of Oxford, showed the art and science of shearing sheep.

Josh Huber is a member of the Huber family that has been shearing sheep in Wisconsin for decades. The sheep that were provided by the UW-Madison sheep unit at the Arlington Research Station, probably not really interested in the process, were held firmly between Josh Huber’s legs and sheared belly first with the fleece coming off in one piece. When sheared, the sheep walked away no worse for wear and obviously  lighter in weight minus their 8 - 10 pounds of wool.

Josh, who is a civil engineer by profession shears only on weekends. 

“I can shear 75 sheep in a good day,” he says. “My family with five of us shearing probably shear 10,000 sheep a year.” 

What do you do with the wool after it is off the sheep?  You can sell it, which most people do or you can process it into yarn and make sweaters with it.  

From California

Clemes and Clemes, a father (Henry) and son (Roy) business at Pinole, California, have been making and selling fiber art equipment (processing, spinning and weaving tools) since the early ‘70’s. In addition to having a display at the festival, they taught classes on the various aspects of fiber art. 

Henry said his next show was in New York and that he would drive there, leave the trailer with all their exhibit material and fly back to California until the show that is several weeks away. He also said hey would be exhibiting at a dozen shows this year.

Show and sell

The Country Store occupies two of the dairy barns at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds and they were full of everything one would need or want to carry out their wool fabric hobby or business. The 140 vendors came from near and far, some selling yarn, some selling equipment and tools, some with sweaters, hats, shawls, knits of many kinds and even art. 

As festival director Bob Black says, “It’s the fiber arts that make this festival what it is today.” I believe him just from the full aisles in the store and women carrying bags of things they bought. 

Charlie's for eats

After walking much of the festival, it seemed time to get a bit of something to eat and as I left one of the exhibit buildings I noted the food trailer with the name “Charlie's” on the front. Regular readers may remember my several columns over the years about Charlie Miller and his family who sell sandwiches, pizza and other fair food at county and state fairs and (as they told me) for many years at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival. 

While Dad Charlie was at a fair in Iowa, son Doug, his wife Monica and a son and daughter were running two food trailers at this event. Needless to say, my food problem was solved as I devoured one of the huge Charlie's cheeseburgers, a great way to end a most interesting day. 

A dairy friend

While writing this column I noted in the festival catalog, along with a list of members, was a list of some 70 different sheep breeds they raised. Being always curious, I called Doug Wilson, president of the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative and asked,  “why?”  

“There are many different kinds of wool depending on the breed, each with its own specialized market and there are meat breeds and meat/wool breeds,” was his response.  

Note - When I called Wilson I wondered if this was the same Doug Wilson who I had worked with at ABS so long ago, who went on to head the Shawano-based Genex Cooperative for many years. Surprisingly it was the same old friend, who after retiring “pretty much raises sheep — some 150 meat breed ewes” with his son on a 150 acre farm near Shawano. I’ll admit I never imagined Doug as a sheep raiser but he is and is perhaps one of the state’s bigger ones at that.

An interesting event, you would enjoy it. But, take a full day, there’s so much to see.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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