Sheep shearer sheds light on daily farm life at Old McCaskill's

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 4/24/18

He has been shearing sheep since 1986 (for the public. He learned when he was 15 at the farm where he worked.) He may be an inch shorter than when he was 20, but he can still get through 150 in a day.

Chuck Costner, a sheriff's deputy in North …

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Sheep shearer sheds light on daily farm life at Old McCaskill's

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He has been shearing sheep since 1986 (for the public. He learned when he was 15 at the farm where he worked.) He may be an inch shorter than when he was 20, but he can still get through 150 in a day.

Chuck Costner, a sheriff's deputy in North Carolina and professional sheep shearer, has been making the trip to Old McCaskill's Farm each spring for the last 20 years to alleviate the family's about 30 ewes of their thick wool coats. About 10 years ago, after the McCaskills and Costner realized people were curious about his work and wanted to watch, they began holding a sheep shearing day, which hundreds, if not a couple thousand, attended on Saturday.

"I would start at 4 a.m. and sheer lambs until 12," Costner said of his shearing beginnings. "Two years ago was the first year I done less than 1,000 in a year. Before that, I was doing several thousand in a year."

Costner said the sheep population has diminished in the last 12-14 years. Goats are

becoming more popular, and it is becoming harder to find shearers.

Even in sheep-loaded countries like New Zealand, where there were 22 sheep to every one person - that's 70 million sheep - at the industry's height in 1982, the population has dipped to just 27.6 million sheep in June 2016, according to Statistics NZ, an independently operated government department.

"I tried to talk one of my kids into it. I tried talking other kids into it," Costner said. "They don't want anything to do with it. It's hard work. It's hard on your back, but it pays pretty good. If you get out there and hustle, you can make a decent living out of it."

The lack of benefits drew him to law enforcement. He once ran for county commissioner to fight farm taxes and to protect agricultural lands.

The work may be hard, but it's wanted and needed at the McCaskills' farm on Cantey Lane between Rembert and Camden.

"It's a good little thing as far as the family goes. You can come around and hang out and get to see something here they've never seen before," Costner said.

He's good at the hard work. Watching Costner shear a sheep is mesmerizing. Like watching a sculptor find the finished piece within a block of material, he goes row by row, shaving off the 5-10 pounds of wool until the ewe stands lighter and thinner, free to feel the almost-summer heat.

"I got ahold of one of them a little while ago, and she was good and greasy, and that's when the shearing's good. When they're dry and sticks, it makes for some really slow shearing," he said.

Kathy McCaskill takes the wool Costner relieves the sheep of and sends it to a mill to be turned into wool blankets she sells at her farm.

Costner's shearing show may have been the keynote address of the event, but the farm was filled with families who could watch border collie herding demonstrations (one with ducks and one with sheep, post-shearing), visit blacksmith, woodworker and grits mill booths, eat food, listen to music, pet a baby goat, grind an ice cream crank and play on the farm.

Vendors set up shop to sell their wool products, from knitters to spinners to tatters to felters to weavers.

McCaskill grew up on an abandoned dairy farm in upstate New York and has lived in South Carolina for 40 years. Her husband, Lee McCaskill, and she run the farm. They sell the meat they raise on the land. They can jams and jellies and pickled produce grown from the dirt with their hands.

"I do field trips for the kids, and the first thing I ask them is, 'Where does your food come from?' A lot of children have no connection to what's on the table and where it actually comes from," she said. "They think it comes from Walmart or grocery stores or factories."

Hint: it doesn't.

She said she loves knowing where her food comes from but that, more so, she wants kids to learn what it is like on a farm and what it used to be like when people had to make their own food, clothing and shelter.

When kids come out to her farm, she said, the highlight of the day is to let them hold a baby chicken after visiting all the animals and learning about gardening.

"Some of them are so terrified of even holding a little baby chick," she said. "And when I finally get it in their hands and they find out it's not going to hurt them, you ought to see their face. It's just awesome. I love it."