A creative intersection of farming and tech
In rural Oregon, farmers are leveraging technology to sell their products to a mostly urban clientele. Fifth-generation sheep shearer Jacob Valentine, proprietor of Darkside Shearing in Crabtree, OR, has found a high-tech way to augment the value of a fleece. Valentine shears live on Facebook while members of a closed group, Darkside Live, bid on the fleeces. Most of the 800 members are hobbyists who spin or felt the fleeces for their own projects. They enjoy the community, connection and access to a product with guaranteed quality. His story is a good example of how technology and broadband connectivity can transform the livelihoods of rural communities.
Sheep waiting to be sheared are kept separate from the flock, without food. Valentine explains that being sheared with a full stomach is uncomfortable and can put strain on the heart.
One by one the sheep are lead to onto a clean board where they will be denuded.
Sheep struggle. Valentine says that being a shearer is like being a prizefighter who has a new opponent every two minutes.
While the shearing can appear rough, Valentine seems to have a great deal of compassion for the animals. He says that in the sheep’s mind, it’s about to be eaten. “They’re prey animals,” he says, and when they’re caught and held down, they’re sure they’re going to die. Valentine tries to complete the shearing as quickly as possible to reduce the stress on the animal.
As Valentine shears, Zane Van Horsen livestreams the event to Facebook from her cell phone. As she does, Van Horsen narrates the wool-cutting by giving her audience a little background about the ovine beast. Van Horsen tells when the sheep was born, who raised it and any awards it might have won (e.g. blue ribbon at the county fair).
During the auction, participants can communicate with Van Horsen and each other by instant group message.
As the shearing progresses, Van Horsen may move around the sheep so that the bidders can see it from different angles.
When finished, the sheep’s new haircut is displayed to the bidders before it is allowed to trot off to graze.
Van Horsen and her mother, Kirsten Holbo, then provide the bidders with close-up views of the wool.
The participants are bidding on a single fleece from a single sheep. All the stats relating to the wool (including the sheep’s name) are written on a sign. By selling the wool this way, direct to the consumer, Valentine can get 5 to 8 times the wholesale price.
When not being sheared, the sheep of Iron Water Ranch graze in the verdant fields of the Willamette Valley, turning grass into wool.
Read more about Valentine’s business model in a feature about rural technological innovation in the May issue of Oregon Business magazine.
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