Niobrara County gets wild and wooly in SonoraWritten by Wilson Stewart
Where on this earth do the smell of lanolin, dirty wool and runaway mothballs mix together into one distinctive smell? A wool judging contest, of course, and Wyoming youth have spent their summer enjoying those scents.
In late April, the State 4-H Wool Judging Contest was held in Laramie. It was won by the team from Niobrara County 4-H consisting of Amber Jensen, Angelina Bannan and Meghan Proctor. By winning this contest, the trio received the opportunity to travel to Sonora, Texas to compete in the National 4-H Wool Judging Contest, which they did in late June.
Every year in Laramie, in conjunction with the State 4-H Meats Judging contest, teams from various counties compete in both junior and senior divisions.
Inside wool judging
But what exactly is a wool judging contest?
Amber explains, “A wool judging contest has four classes with questions. It also has an identification line where we have to give the grade, the staple length and the yield.”
While the identification contest can be pretty complicated and detailed, Tammie Jensen, former Niobrara County 4-H Extension educator, coach of the 2015 wool judging team and mother to Amber, puts it, “The identification line is where we separate the kids who know wool from those that don’t.”
Tammie has been coaching wool judging for 34 years, 21 of which have been in Niobrara County. This year’s team was the 10th she has taken to the national event.
“I used to prepare pretty intensely,” she explains. “I used to collect between 120 to 130 fleeces from local wool producers. I’d have to tie them and work them myself.”
However, things have changed since her beginning in the contest.
Tammie continues, “Six or seven years ago they moved the wool judging contest to the same time as the state meats judging contest. I started borrowing fleeces from the University of Wyoming. The coach at Campbell County has let us come up and practice with them as well.”
Tammie emphasizes hard work with her teams. This year’s team has been through thick and thin with her, having competed for eight years together.
“As juniors they were only beat one time, but as seniors we struggled a bit,” she said.
But after all those years, their hard work finally paid off.
On June 15, the team set off for Sonora, Texas. While some might desire to fly roughly 1,000 miles to the little town, the team elected to cover the grueling distance by a 15-hour road trip.
For Proctor, the time was enjoyable.
She says, “It was actually a really good trip. We had a lot of fun in the car. We got to stop some places and be somewhat of tourists.”
All the team members enjoyed the opportunity to bond with their fellow teammates.
At the National Wool Contest, there were three 4-H and three FFA wool judging teams. Out of these, the Niobrara County team took third.
Proctor comments, “We actually did better than I had expected, especially with a different judging style.”
She continues, “I think that we competed to the best of our ability.”
Proctor mentions that wool judging in Texas is different from judging in Wyoming.
Tammie reports, “They put a lot more emphasis on how soft the fleece is. They grade them a lot by touch.”
Proctor also mentions the pacing of the contest, noting, “The contest wasn’t timed. We could go at our own pace.”
Even with these and other differences, the team was able to adjust fairly well to a new style of wool judging.
Having a little fun
But the team didn’t spend their whole time in Sonora at the wool contest. Coach Tammie likes to take her teams to more recreational venues while in Texas when they’re not judging.
“We did some different things that are kind of fun. They get to see some new country and get some new cultural experiences,” says Tammie. “I think it is important that they get some new experiences.”
Among other things, the team toured both the Sonora and Carlsbad Caverns and the riverwalk in San Antonio.
Proctor relates, “My favorite part was spending time with my teammates. Wherever we were, no matter what we were doing, we were always laughing and having fun. It was very relaxed.”
All in all, the team enjoyed their trip to Sonora very much. And although they won’t be able to compete again at National Wool, they all have enjoyed the ride and would love to help any future wool judgers in their pursuits.
As a final comment, Amber says, “Most people don’t think wool judging is that ‘cool,’ but we loved it.”