Haircuts by Johanna.

When one’s new sheep start panting, it’s time to chop their hair off.  Luckily, it was also time for the Maple Ridge Fair–Pete and I like this one because it’s usually free and very livestock-centred.  (Also a 2 minute drive.)  As luck would have it, there was a shearing demonstration in the afternoon.  Just what we needed,  a life-long shepherd to watch, who might perhaps lend us his apprentice for a bit of practice on our five ewes.  Arriving early, we found several likely men gathered around the small sheep paddock, including a few that appeared as though they might have spent a hundred years shearing on a  Northern Territory sheep station, at twenty sheep an hour,  in the full Australian sun without a break.  “Excuse me,” I asked one tanned, stringy-looking fellow, “Are you the shearer?”  But he shook his head no, and pointed instead to a very, very young woman, with close cropped brown hair, wearing coveralls and sipping a slurpee in her chair.  “I’m Johanna,” she said, jumping up.

Johanna turned out to be an excellent shearer.  We watched her tip each sheep to the floor, some with a mere flip, some with bit of a grunting wrestle.  Then the blades, moving in long overlapping strokes across the body of the animal, peeling back the uncomfortably hot wool in one piece, like an orange peel.   And all the while, she chatted, answering our questions with a blunt and confident frankness that was almost eerie, with strong eye contact and a familiar humour.  “She’s been shearing for seven years, since age 13,”  said her dad, standing nearby as we watched her in fascination.  “We put her in 4-H.”

After the demonstration and Johanna was booked to shear our ewes at Horse Drawn Farms next morning,  Pete and I, impressed with her maturity and skill, took the opportunity to tour the fair and talk to many of the other young people showing their animals that weekend.  It was a revelation.  4-H was an organisation I’d certainly heard about, but never had any contact with.  In every case, the teens were remarkably mature, equal numbers of boys and girls, each standing around with an immaculate steer or heifer, happy to stop and chat with us about their animal.  A few poorly behaved cattle gave their handlers a difficult time, bawling or hauling them off course in the show ring, but without exception, the teen calmly corrected their position and behaviour, or gave a philosophical smile when they didn’t place.  And in the barns, when not carefully preparing the livestock for showing, young girls could be found text messaging in the stalls, mucking out or lying in the straw against their cow or goat in recumbant ease.  Still teenagers, apparently, but…different.  Their  energy was directed, their enthusiasm infectious.  They were quick to smile.   When I thought of the average make-up painted, barely-dressed girl concerned only with the label on her handbag and when the next party might be, or the average earphoned, hooded boy, smoking pot with a portable video game while waiting for the bus at the nearby high school, the advantage was clear.

Straight from the 4-H website:  “The 4-H program provides young people with an opportunity to learn how to become productive, self-assured adults who can make their community and country a good place in which to live.”   From what I’ve seen, it works.

It'll do amazing things.