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Women in Ag: Sarah Higgins

Sarah Higgins started her shearing contracting business in 2015 at the age of 23 and hasn’t looked back since

Having grown up on a farm in Havelock, Sarah set off to Lincoln University, working in the holidays ​​as a wool handler (​​rousie) on the family farm and also with local shearing contractor Chris Jones.

After university, Sarah briefly worked in an office but found being stuck inside wasn’t her thing. She continued to do wool handling work when she travelled overseas for a couple of years to England, Germany, and South Australia.

Becoming a shearing contractor ‘kind of just happened’ she says.

“I’d heard there was an opportunity here in Blenheim; a couple of guys wanted to sell their shearing runs. I was pretty green, and I’d never done a full season, but when I looked at the opportunity to start my own business, and with encouragement from Chris, I decided to go for it.”

Getting down to business

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The team in action: Chris Jones, Sarah Higgins, and Alice Watson

Beginning with two small runs, Higgins Shearing has grown to employ a team, on average, of between seven and 10 shearers. Most are under 30 years old – Sarah is 27 – so it’s a dynamic young team, with plenty of energy and a drive to succeed.

Chris has been a great mentor and still lends a hand. Sarah says she doesn’t have any particular team-building strategy.

“Having the right people and the right dynamic to make it work well is the main thing. It’s been a natural process.”

Given that shearing is a male-dominated industry, Sarah waves away any notion of especially wanting to encourage women to get into shearing.

“I like to encourage anyone to get into shearing. It doesn’t make any difference whether they are male or female,” she says.

The Higgins Shearing team works throughout the Marlborough region, travelling everywhere from small farms to large stations.

“We work mostly on second-shear crossbreeds. Merino shearing takes place in September and October and are by far the most challenging breed to work with.

“They are more technical, and you need different gear for them. You can’t get away with poor cutting gear on merinos as you can on crossbreeds.”

When it comes to business administration, Sarah says it has been a learning curve.

“The toughest part is learning about employment law. It’s been a big step up for me and we are now at the stage where I’ll need to step back and be a bit more hands-off in terms of physical shearing and focus more on the admin side.”

Sarah is also an executive on the board of the NZ Shearing Contractors Association.

Mobile shearing unit

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Inside the shearing unit, Sarah shears a fat lamb that’s wintered on the vineyard

Sarah has a mobile shearing unit that she bought when she started her business. The unit is mounted on a Hino truck, unfolds hydraulically, and contains three stands.

It’s used mostly for shearing fat lambs that have been wintered in vineyards around Marlborough. It also came in handy after the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake when some woolsheds weren’t able to be used for safety reasons.

Record-breaking

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World record-holders Natalya Rangiawha, Megan Whitehead, Jills Angus-Burney, Sarah Higgins, and Amy Silcock

Sarah enjoys competitive shearing and regularly competes in the annual Golden Shears competition in Masterton. In 2020, she won the Women’s Shearing Invitation event.

This year also, Sarah and a team of four women broke a world record on a farm in Turangi, shearing 2066 lambs in nine hours. Sarah’s tally was 528 lambs.

Sarah used to be a netball coach, so knows what it takes to maintain the high level of fitness required for competitive shearing.

“Shearing is a physically and mentally challenging activity and to get fit, you just have to keep on shearing sheep. You can’t train, but you can do things outside of the normal workday to get your body ready. That and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is very important. For the record in January, I trained every day, having signed up with a trainer from the UK to do workouts at home. Because of where I live, it’s too hard to get to the gym.”

Tahi Ngatahi

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Sarah says shearing is a physically challenging job and to get fit, you just have to get stuck in

Higgins Shearing uses Tahi Ngatahi, which is an educational online health and safety platform for people working in and around woolsheds.

“It’s excellent especially for newbies who’ve never been into a woolshed before. It’s a unique environment, with a lot going on at a breakneck pace. There’s so much that the uninitiated don’t know.”

Sarah places a great emphasis on the need to be fit and have a healthy lifestyle to gain maximum performance as a shearer. It’s a rigorous and demanding occupation involving bending for hours on end while operating machinery and having to control a powerful, wriggling animal. She reasons that if you don’t look after your body, you won’t have a business to run.

Not all shearing sheds are equal

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Shearing contractor Chris Jones (centre) has been a great mentor to Sarah

Working in modern sheds makes shearing much easier than the old ones, says Sarah.

“The hardest ones are the old, closed board woolsheds, where they used to use blade shears. They’ve been converted for machines but often they are still not set up correctly.

“With modern sheds, it’s not dragged across the board anymore; it’s either an open or a raised board. With closed boards, you have to drag the sheep further and swing it. It’s hard on your body compared to the raised board design.

“New shearing machines are worlds apart in terms of user-friendliness and performance, too; they drive faster and can maintain that drive. The older one’s struggle under extreme load, whereas the new ones don’t hesitate.”

At the end of each day, despite feeling knackered, there is gear to be cleaned and sharpened.

“You have to wash everything; remove grease and wool, then grind and sharpen to take the worn edge off metal.”

Modern clothing such as shearing jeans that are lighter and have more stretch has developed for wearer comfort too.

Sarah and her fiancé Ben Hewson are looking forward to getting married at the end of this year, having delayed their earlier plans because of the COVID-19 lockdown. The couple enjoys taking a break from their work routines (he is a fencer, and they live on his parent’s farm) to enjoy the many offerings of a Marlborough lifestyle.

“Marlborough is a cool place to do outdoor things, whether it’s getting out around the Marlborough Sounds or going fishing,” says Sarah.

What is Tahi Ngatahi?

Meaning ‘one, together,’ Tahi Ngatahi is a joint initiative between the NZ Shearing Association (NZSCA), Federated Farmers, Worksafe NZ, and ACC.

Skills and safety tips are passed on via video clips.

The goal is to reduce common injuries, build a stronger, more skilled workforce, attract new people to the shearing industry, and support the wellbeing of rural families.

For more information, visit tahingatahi.co.nz.

Find new and used farming machinery on Farm Trader NZ 

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