Catalog Catalog

Shearing in Romania
edited by Peter Hagerty, co-founder of Peace Fleece  June 17, 2005

Lacu Sarat shearing crew.

High in the Transylvanian Alps of Central Romania is the village of Copsa Mica. The first time I ever heard of this town was when I saw a picture in National Geographic Magazine (June 1991) of a shepherd leading a flock of sheep down a main street. The shepherd, the sheep and the houses were all coated with a thick film of black dust that was spewing from the smokestacks of an automobile tire factory. The article addressed the environmental catastrophe that was unfolding as the curtain lifted on Eastern Europe. I knew almost nothing about Romania at the time and I moved on to other things. But I never forgot that picture, especially the resolute expression of the shepherd.

Twelve years later we were having trouble sourcing Russian wool for our Peace Fleece yarn. The textile mills there were finally getting into full swing after years of recovering from the fall of the Soviet Union and by 2002 it was impossible to find any Russian wool for export. That spring, empty handed and crestfallen after an unsuccessful Moscow buying trip, I arrived in Prague where I was welcomed by an energized young Australian who had a plan. For several years Simon Neylon had been working with a very industrious group of sheep farmers near the Danube Delta in Romania. "The wool is beautiful, the farmers are learning how to sort and class the fleeces. I think we may have something for you".

In the next three years we went on to purchase two lots of Romanian Merino and the wool has been fantastic. Washed and combed in the mountains of the Czech Republic, it arrived in the U.S. as clean and fresh looking as the cotton in a pill bottle. And we are able to use every last little ounce of this beautiful, soft fiber. I promised myself that someday I would spend some time with these farmers, perhaps do some shearing, learn more about their day-to-day lives. I was finally able to make this trip with Simon this June.

Lacu Sarat Farm is a large agricultural operation that was modeled after the Soviet era collective farms. It has 630 milking cows and approximately 900 Merino ewes, rams and lambs. It grows all its own grains and forage on over 1000 acres of rich land about ten miles outside of Braila which is on the Danube River in southeastern Romania. It had been raining in this region for several weeks when we arrived and the shearing throughout the country was way behind schedule. Sorin Jitariu, a veterinarian and good friend of Simon' s, had driven his tiny car like a bullet thru the countryside to get us here in the early morning. Sorin for the past several years has been buying the best wool he can find in Romania and with Simon's help markets it to Romanian mills as well as abroad. Sorin is particularly keen on the wool from the Lacu Sarat sheep.

Sorin, Simon and Farm Manager Peter talking wool prices.

Mariuta, on right, grading fleece.
  The morning dew way heavy but the sun was struggling to make an appearance, which meant that the sheep might be ready to be shorn by ten. We found the farm not far from the rail line that heads for Bucharest and we saw shepherds driving a large flock of ewes and lambs down the side of the road toward the shearing sheds.

"The shearers did not arrive last night. I am very sorry. As you can see, we are ready for you", said Petre Viorel, the manager of the farm, who met us at the farm gate. He was very worried that his first American guest would not see any shearing but for some reason I was in a very carefree mood and tried to put him at ease.

I had read how difficult it was for farms like Lacu Sarat to recover from the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. This absurd and brutal leader drained his country's resources during his twenty four year rule as head of Romania's communist party. One plan of his was to bulldoze thousands of Romanian villages and force their inhabitants into Soviet style high-rise apartments. To prop up his country's economy, he exported valuable food and drove his nation to near starvation. When he finally fell from power in 1989, he and his wife were arrested, tried for mass murder and shot by firing squads, leaving a county in total disarray and in total environmental and economic devastation. It was important for me to hear this history if I was to fully appreciate the challenge that Lacu Sarat's director faced as he worked to rebuild his farm.

As Peter and I talked, there was a flurry of activity near the sheep pens and the smiles on everyone's faces announced the arrival of the shearers. Now the work could begin and everyone began taking his or her places. The ewes to be shorn were pressed closer to the shearing stands and the lambs were sorted out of harms way. The six shearers ran in age from twenty one to sixty three. Before I had much time to think, the first hand pieces started up and the shearing was on.

Constantin shearing.
  Constantin Carmaciu was at the far end of the shearing stands and at 63 the senior partner of the group. As fast as he cut the wool from the sheep's back, it was gathered up in a wicker basket and tossed onto the sorting or classing table. Here Mariuta Bisceanu quickly separated out any contaminated wool, determined into which grade of wool the fleece fell, medium or fine, and passed the fleece onto the bagger. Mariuta was trained as an animal technician specializing in sheep breeding. She has been working at Laku Saret for 25 years and says that she was born to work with animals. Lunch was announced and while the shearers finished up their respective sheep both Simon and I grabbed a ewe and did a bit of shearing. The Merinos had large folds of skin under their chins and we both had our work cut out for us. But somehow we managed and then joined the crew for a hearty meal of soup, bread and sausage.

"Shearing will last for about another month," says Constantin as he dipped his black bread into the steaming soup. "Then we will return home to our families to cut hay. Most all of us have one or more horses and some sheep, so we need to get the winter forage in. This should take about six week. "We cut hay with scythes and we all help each other till everyone's hay is in. Then we go to work in the orchards, picking apples, plums and nuts. Then it is time to begin splitting and storing the winter wood and garden crops. The snow comes in late November and we get set for the winter." Constantin and his wife have three children and two grandchildren. His wife runs a small shop in their village as well. The crew will end up shearing 15,000 to 16,000 sheep this year.

Before we headed down the road, Sorin and Simon met with the farm manager and began the intricate process of negotiating to buy this wool for Peace Fleece. The process will take over two weeks of back and forth negotiations before a price is set. Then hopefully the Laku Saret wool clip will begin its long journey half way around the world to find its way into the sweaters, caps and mittens that will be knit from Peace Fleece. And the spirit of the Copsa Mica and the Lacu Sarat shepherds will live on.

Pete Hagerty shearing.