Watching Emily Chamelin outmaneuver a wriggling sheep as she shears its woolly coat – deftly dodging swift kicks at the whirring electric clippers in her hand as the animal lies on its back – it's clear who's in charge.
As an award-winning professional sheep shearer who travels the world to work and compete, she has come a long way since she was given her first ewe at age 15.
Seventeen years after her heartfelt essay won her a heritage wool sheep of her own to raise and show, Chamelin will join in celebrating the Youth Conservationist Program's 20th anniversary at the 43rd annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival set for May 7 and 8.
The program introduces aspiring shepherds to the idea of conserving rare sheep breeds, which are donated by breeders across the country. Ewes will be awarded to 15 youths from various states in a special ceremony on Sunday, followed by a reunion of donors and past recipients.
The festival is hosted by the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association and is expected to attract 50,000 visitors from around the world to the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship this year, organizers say.
Chamelin will also give a shearing demonstration on both days of the festival, an event that festival chairwoman Gwen Handler describes as "one of our most popular because Emily is so good at what she does and her enthusiasm is infectious."
Now 32, Chamelin said being entrusted with a rare sheep breed as a teen really ramped up her interest.
"The Youth Conservationist Program gets young kids really excited about farming and developing bloodlines," said Chamelin, who was given a Leicester longwool at the 1999 festival by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which raises the rare English breed.
"Getting that ewe was my stepping stone into raising sheep," she said, a desire she attributes to teenage rebellion after working with dairy goats and cows on her family's Westminster farm.
Chamelin owned Leicester longwools for eight years and now owns Cheviots, which are raised for her by her parents, Martin and Ruth Chamelin.
"Breeders have females they want to pass on to continue their legacy, but the price tags on those sheep can exclude kids from raising them," she said, making the program that connects breeders with deserving youths a win-win situation for everyone.
Elaine Ashcraft, an Ohio farmer and 4-H adviser who serves as program coordinator, said she works with breeders to send animals to youths in states as far away as Maine, Georgia and Missouri.
"We want to encourage young people to get involved in agriculture – that's the bottom line," she said.
Chamelin is one of the program's rare youth recipients who has gone on to carve out a career in the sheep industry, she said.
"Most young people don't stay in agriculture," Ashcraft said, "but if they do, the hope is that these rare breeds may become a priority for them."
Chamelin has traveled all over the country and as far away as New Zealand and Ireland to take part in competitions and accept jobs, building a career on her innate passion for sheep and shearing.
"Something about the wool as it comes off the sheep is so beautiful," she observed, adding her personal record for shearing is 236 sheep in one day.
Handler – who raises Leicester longwools, horses, chickens and dogs at her family's farm in Westminster – said Chamelin's contributions to agriculture are huge.
"She's the poster child for the Youth Conservationist Program, which is so important because they are caretakers of endangered breeds," she said, "and she's an ambassador to the sheep industry."
Lee Langstaff, president of the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association, said Chamelin was recently appointed to the American Sheep Industry Association Wool Council, an honor not regularly bestowed in the Eastern region of the United States.
"This is big deal since most of the industry is in the West and we were very eager to increase representation, not only from Maryland, but from the East," said Langstaff, who nominated Chamelin, calling her "energetic and forward-thinking."
Chamelin will team up to demonstrate shearing techniques at the festival with Kristen Rosser, of Philadelphia, one of her former apprentices.
They'll take turns shearing and giving a presentation that will cover a general discussion of sheep, wool and sheep handling.
"Most of the people in the audience are seeing this for the first time and we try to make it fun for everyone," Chamelin said. "I love an interactive crowd."
Spectators ask a lot of questions, which she looks forward to, she said.
They usually want to know, among other things, if shearing hurts sheep (it doesn't), and why it's necessary (sheep are bred to not shed their wool, so shearing must be done once or twice a year for their health), she said.
Chamelin said she learned to shear the same year she got her ewe, but only after talking her way into a class at the Maryland Sheep Shearing School, which has a minimum age of 16.
"I annoyed them enough that they let me come," she said, despite only being 15 at the time. "It turned out that I was good at it. The school asked afterward if they could refer people [in need of a shearer] to me."
Chamelin, who started her business in 2008, said there aren't many females in shearing.
"Women are not very common in this industry; only five percent of shearers worldwide are women," she said.
But as more farms are transitioning to ownership by women, the number of female shearers is also rising, she said.
"People want you to relate to their animals. You are dealing with their babies, and you need to handle them with kid gloves," she said. "Women are often viewed as more nurturing and having a more personal approach."
Bill Swann, who co-owns Swann Farm in Highland with wife Pat, first hired Chamelin four years ago to shear their 14 sheep and has had her back each spring.
"We've had different shearers over the years, but Emily is by far the best – not only for her shearing skills, but for her attitude and friendliness," said Swann, who lives on the farm off Route 108 that his parents started in 1950.
"She also has a wealth of information about sheep, aesthetically and health-wise, and is always willing to share it," he said.
Chamelin said she's grateful to the Youth Conservationist Program for helping to nudge her in the right direction.
"I've led a bizarre and eclectic life," she said. "I've followed my whims, and I've never looked back."
If you go
The 43rd Annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival will be held May 7 and 8 at the Howard County Fairgrounds, 2210 Fairgrounds Road, West Friendship, with over 250 vendors and 40-plus workshops. No dogs allowed. Festival chairperson Gwen Handler says "all events are popular," but recommends the Parade of Sheep Breeds, at 12:30 p.m. Sunday and the Farmers Market, which is back for its second year and offers meat-cutting demonstrations and lamb tasting. Information: sheepandwool.org..