There are three major sections in the Page News and Courier. News, sports, and Local Life. It's a feature section. Whoever writes one those articles is decided on a rotating basis. My first one was back in November, when a local man's daughter who can't walk or speak helped choreograph a play. Sometimes it's feel-good stuff like that. I did one about the bike races in town and the controversy surrounding that. People really reacted to that one. Sometimes we cover parades, or do interviews with veterans about war stuff. Sometimes it's a little cheesy. Sometimes it's very cheesy.
I was assigned back in March or April of 2016 to cover an annual event in the town of Stanley - a local vineyard has sheep and they turn shearing them into an event. Yeah. Not exactly my idea of a good time, but to each their own.
One mantra has been metaphorically beaten into my head with these local life articles: tell a story. Make it something interesting and make people want to read it. The news aspect of that isn't too big - "We're shearing the sheep and making some blankets out of it."
So, I went and observed and talked to people and took pictures. It was really early in the morning, it was really cold out, and I was very much out of my element.
As I was driving home, I was thinking to myself, "What is the story?" What could I get out of that event that was unique and offered something more interesting than just "Sheep were sheared." Then it hit me - I was the story.
An interesting, unique take that had never been done before in the newspaper would be a story about a man who had never been on a farm or touched a sheep to go there and experience everything that was happening.
I wrote it. I turned it in. And, it was rejected. I was given a compliment, though: "It's good, it's entertaining, and this is the direction that long-form narrative magazine writing is going. But, it's not what the Page News and Courier does."
So, it's below.
* * *
I stare at my phone. I need more information. A sheep-shearing event? At Wisteria Farm and Vineyard? What happens? What is this? I call the number and hear the voice of Wisteria co-owner Sue Ishak on the other end. I need to get to the bottom of this. "I'm new to the area," I begin. "I'm going to be attending your event on Saturday and I'm curious about what exactly will be going on." All I know is that they'll be shearing sheep.
"We're going to be shearing the sheep," Ishak said.
I ponder how to probe further. I go for it. "Is anything else gonna happen?"
"We'll have coffee and snacks," Ishak adds.
Works for me. "Alright. I'll see you then."
The next big question in my head: "There's a vineyard in Stanley?" I think about it and realize that I pass the Wisteria sign every time I drive into town.
Saturday morning, I pull up to the vineyard. It's cold. It had snowed earlier that day, but nothing stuck to the ground. I can think of at least 12 things I would rather be doing right now - 10 of which involve laying in bed. My body gradually gets used to the temperature and I wind up enjoying myself, but that first moment of cold hitting me was misery.
I see a crowd of people and walk toward them, navigating my way through two gates. The first thing notice is the large amount of animal "pellets" under my feet. I stop, momentarily startled, as I see chickens. I have never been this close to farm animals before. One chicken approaches and stops before me, staring me down. I let him assert dominance as I break our stare and walk over to the sound of electric clippers.
My eyes are darting between a man - Ashley Craun - holding down a sheep and making quick work of shaving off the wool, and a freshly-shorn sheep off to the side. I'm still taking in the surroundings as Sue Ishak walks toward me. We had never met in person before, but I guess when you show up holding a notepad and with a camera around your neck, people can figure out who you are. She extends her hand. "You must be," she says, pausing to remember my name. "Chip?"
I am not Chip, but I am curious about how everything works here. She is happy to explain the process to me. She points out that most people do not even question where the wool in their sweaters comes from, and that this is a nice event for people to participate in and learn something.
"This is one of those old skill sets that gets lost in modernization," Ishak says. "This is a dying art."
She also assures me that it is usually a little warmer when they hold this event.
"We've been doing this since we bought the sheep in 2001," Ishak says. "This has been a public event since we opened in 2009. This is good to let people be a part of it because they usually don't get to see things like this."
I spy a husband and wife watching the shearing. Their two young children are running around chasing the chickens. I strike up a conversation with the wife, Consuelo Scott.
"We came here for this," Scott says. "We live in Northern Virginia. We came out for some wine and a good experience."
The two kids have left the chickens alone and wander over. Knowing people eat up adorable quotes from cute kids, I ask them what their favorite part of today has been. The boy, who cannot seem to keep his eyes on any one thing for more than a second, excitedly blurts out "watching movies in my dad's van!" as his mom rolls her eyes and smiles at me. "I won't use that one," I tell her.
I lean down and ask little 8-year-old Marisol what is her favorite thing to watch here. Her face tilts to the left, lips pursed, as she contemplates it in her head. "My favorite part is when they shear the sheep and put it on the table."
A large table is set off to the side. After the wool is removed from the sheep, it is brought to the table. It is all in one piece and looks like a large blanket. A group of six ladies is gathered around. I walk over and ask what they are doing. Sue tells me this is part of the cleaning process. "We shake it to remove any excess dirt, then we pull out the dung tags." She asks if I want to help. Realizing what a "dung tag" is, I politely decline.
"It's a fun thing," Ishak says. "We have to do it anyway, we might as well make a party out of it."
One lady making a party out of the event is Debbie Forrest. Between sharing stories about her new grandson and gleefully cracking jokes about her age, she explains to me why she is enjoying today so much.
"This is up there with Christmas morning to me," Forrest said. "I like the whole process, and the history behind it. I love the feel, the smell of the wool. I like to spin it, and make things out of it. The process is close to my heart."
She wants to see more people get involved with events of this nature, especially children.
"This is good for the community to see because it will give them a better respect for natural resources and the process of farming," Forrest said.