5/10/2014 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent
WEST FRIENDSHIP, Md. — “This is the top,” said Ben Bow, who raises around 200 sheep in Annville, Pa. “Whatever you are in, wool or sheep, this is the place to be and I don’t care where you are from.”
Indeed, the 41st Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival last weekend at the Howard County Fairgounds was the place to be for thousands of visitors who traveled from as far away as the United Kingdom. Sheep from almost every breed were featured during the show.
“This is the biggest event of this kind in the world,” said Gwen Handler, the chairman of the festival committee. “This year we have a new barn with more than 800 fleeces for sale and we had our first ewe sale on Friday night. We are gearing the event more toward selling the commodities of meat and wool and we have more mills vending to process the wool for people.”
It takes more than 200 volunteers to staff the event. There were Boy Scout troops manning the parking lots, while other volunteers guided visitors and kept the grounds trash free.
Tent walls of brightly colored yarn, spinning accessories, food vendors and bedding plants lined the thoroughfares leading to the display buildings and the show rings. Sheep came in from across the country to compete in the shows.
“It’s a nice place to see different types of sheep and learn a little bit,” said Anthony Berger, who brought 11 Jacob sheep from his Bella Pecora Farm in Quakertown, Pa. “I enjoy the competition and the showing. People come from New York, New Jersey, and I just met some nice folks from Rhode Island.”
For many exhibitors, the festival is the only chance they’ll get to put their more exotic sheep breeds to the test.
“This is a very competitive show and there are not a whole lot of Border Leicester shows in the U.S.,” said Staci Taylor of Jadewood Valley Farm in State College, Pa. Her daughter, Callie, showed the champion Border Leicester ram and ewe, while Tracy Sands of Carlisle, Pa., brought her Wooly Wonders Farm Romneys for her 20th year in a row.
Travis Hoffman has been judging for sheep shows for the last 12 years and has judged shows in 45 different states. But this was his first time judging at the festival.
“These are some of the best wool sheep, and I consider this the top-end in America,” he said.
But the festival is more than just showing sheep. There were sheep-to-shawl contests, fiber arts demonstrations, shepherding seminars, photo contests, and cheese and food vendors serving just about everything edible from sheep. There was music outside on the lawn and inside the buildings, with many different artists throughout the event.
Visitors were laden with fleeces and fiber products from the eight large exhibition halls and more than 260 vendors plying their fiber wares, arts or sheep-raising accoutrements.
“I can stand at the top of my hill and gather up 50 head of sheep half a mile away with this dog,” said Mark Soper of Looking Glass Farm in Woodbine, Md., who has put on the working sheepdog demonstrations for the last 20 years. “I don’t have to get into a four-wheeler or get on a horse, I just have to stand there and whistle and she will bring them all in.
“I got the sheep because they were money makers and I got the dogs to do the work. They are like raising kids, and I like training young dogs,” he said. “Some will take six, eight or 10 months to train and some will take the rest of your life, there is just no telling. It’s neat seeing them start slow and then watching them progress.”
Visitors gathered on a grassy slope sandwiched between two buildings to watch Emily Chamelin’s sheep-shearing demonstration. Chamelin started shearing sheep when she was 15 years old. Now 30, she has been doing the sheep-shearing demonstration for six years.
“The people ask great questions and they are enthusiastic about the product and about the different sheep breeds,” she said. “I love doing events because for most people it is the first time they have seen sheep shearing done. I do this day in and day out, so it is fun to be part of something that people see for the first time. It kind of blows their mind.”
He favorite sheep to shear are Bluefaced Leicesters.
“But they may not be the best one for everyone because they take more time and effort to raise,” she said. “I also like the Cheviots, but most people don’t like their dispositions and they are hard to handle. This is the biggest fiber festival I know of and the people have a passion for sheep and fiber.”
Nick Duarte brought his wife, Jill, and their children from Pittsburgh looking for fleeces.
“My wife does the spinning and I do the knitting,” Nick Duarte said, as they lunched on a blanket near the music shell. “Just the variety of everything here, from the sheep to the fleeces, and the yarn is amazing. Jill has been spinning for three years and I have been knitting for 15 years.”
“It is just luxurious,” said Justin Fuller of North Carolina. “I have been spinning since I was a kid. I have never been here before and I am in heaven. I am trying to find some nice darker fleeces for the hats, scarves and sweaters I make. Just take your time and enjoy the fleeces and colors and the wonderful craft people here.”
Spinner Kate Heck attracted an audience as she used a hand spindle at the Baltimore County Wool Producers booth.
“I have been spinning about half a dozen years,” Heck said. “I carried around an old spindle for years before I tried to use it and this is great.”
Caroline Foty was torn over which fleece to buy.
“I am a spinner and a knitter and I was looking for something that would catch my eye,” Foty said, as she caressed the natural-colored fleece bagged in front of her. “I have been spinning for 10 years, but if you want to learn to spin, it would be hard to start with a Merino fleece. If I was a new spinner, I would buy a Border Leicester fleece. That fleece is open and has a little shine to it, or a Corriedale.”
Ben Bow trims his ewe outside the sheep barn as throngs of visitors move around him. He has been showing here for enough years that he would rather tell you he started with sheep in 1968, and he will keep coming back each year.
“When you have won at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, you are saying something,” he said.