This article about Carl Geissinger ’82 is re-published with permission from Lancaster Farming.
A Mifflin County sheep shearer said he does not need any additional clients, but he hopes to still be in business when he is 100 years old. The bi-vocational pastor is quite content with the flocks on his schedule. His record for sheep shearing stands at 127 animals in one day.
The summer, winter and fall months are also busy, but it is more common for his days to be lengthy from April through June.
Geissinger grew up on a dairy farm in Bucks County. His older brother Ray learned to shear sheep from a high school agriculture teacher. Geissinger then learned from the same teacher when he reached high school. A family farmhand also knew how to shear, and he helped Geissinger get better acquainted with the task.
Geissinger then took part in the sheep shearing contest for those under 18 years old at the Keystone Livestock Expo, placing third. Despite his good performance, Geissinger said he chose not to return because of the fact that the event was on a Sunday.
“That kind of bothered me,” he said.
As he grew up, Geissinger said he thought he would be a dairy farmer. He soon realized he was being called to ministry, and while in school at Eastern Mennonite University, he worked on a dairy farm. He took up shearing sheep for extra money by putting an ad in local newspapers.
“I did enough to get good at it,” Geissinger said.
He found himself regularly responsible for flocks of 70 and up to 130. The Bucks County native estimated that he easily sheared 1,000 sheep a year in those early years.
As a pastor, he took a position in Beaver Springs, Snyder County, at Manbeck Mennonite Church where he served for 20 years. Geissinger spent two days a week working with the small congregation and three days a week logging.
“I did some shearing as a side job while I was at Manbeck,” he said.
Geissinger and his wife sent their children to a private Christian school in the area. The shearing, he said, paid their tuition.
“I did 2,000 a year for a while. I sheared on Saturdays and fit it around my schedule where I could,” he said.
One of his sons, Matt, was 14 years old when he learned to shear as well.
“He got really good at it,” Geissinger said. “We started shearing together for a number of years. He went to Philadelphia Biblical University and worked for Central Pennsylvania Youth Ministries in Juniata County. He supplemented his income with the sheep shearing.”
It didn’t take long until the father-son team was averaging 4,500 sheep a year. The work took its toll on Geissinger.
“In 2003, I took a year off. I was burned out,” he said.
He then stopped pastoring and returned to logging as a full-time endeavor in 2004. He began teaching Bible courses at Belleville Mennonite School in Mifflin County. Geissinger had also been helping with a Snyder County prison ministry program.
“At that point I was doing 2,000 sheep a year,” he said.
In the fall of 2005, he accepted a pastoral position at Barrville Mennonite Church in Mifflin County. Five years later his family moved to Reedsville to be closer to the church.
His son Matt then went to the State Police Academy, married and had three children.
Geissinger is now back to part-time ministry and part-time shearing. However, his workload on his own is at its maximum.
“I now do about 4,500 sheep a year by myself,” he said.
The shearing is a third of his income, he said, and he has not had to spend money on marketing himself.
“All of the business I have acquired since we moved to this area 35 years ago has been word of mouth,” he said.
Geissinger regularly sheers 250 Angora goats in Perry County. He has also done some shearing for Penn State.He has worked with rams worth $8,000 and weighing as much as 375 pounds. Geissinger travels in a 120-mile radius within central Pennsylvania, heading into towns like Mount Joy, Hershey, Danville and Bloomsburg as well as areas along the Susquehanna River.
Over the years Geissinger has had to hold down the strongest rams and ewes to shear them: “I never had a sheep get the best of me.” He laughed as he admitted, “I have chased them down, though. I like to get paid to exercise.”
The average sheep is 150 pounds with some Dorset breeds at 225 to 250 pounds.
“The rams can get an attitude,” he said, “But they also tend to give up.”
Geissinger has learned to use his body strength to hold the animal in place. In his teen years, he said, he was only 120 pounds.
“I would get out of the truck and the farmers would wonder how I was going to do it,” he said.
Every now and then he faces a sheep that is beyond need for a haircut.
“Occasionally, I sheer sheep that have not been sheared for three to four years. It can get 14 to 16 inches long and matted.”
Geissinger does most of his work in the barns when he shears during colder months. It is not uncommon to shear in January or February, he said.
“They have a thick hide,” he said. “They like to lay out in the yard. They have enough fat to keep them warm. Some people don’t like to see it. They look naked and people think they need a coat.”
There are also farms where the sheep get sheared twice a year, he said, because it looks cleaner.
Geissinger has a system of names and numbers of his clients. Most of the time he does the scheduling based on when their sheep were sheared last. He also performs hoof trimming for those who request it.
At age 57, Geissinger said even though his workload is heavy, he may end up shearing until he is 100 years old, and that is OK. He offers to teach individuals how to shear every year. He expects he will be up to 100,000 sheep sheared in his lifetime.
Anyone interested in taking on sheep shearing should not be afraid of hard work, he said.
“To be good at it, you need to like to work. If it’s 90 degrees outside and you give someone the option of watching TV in the air conditioning or unloading hay outside — if you pick watching TV, you’re not a sheep shearer.”
Article and photo by Tabitha Goodling/Lancaster Farming