Shearing students, ranchers flock to livestock advisor Harper UCCE livestock advisor John Harper retires after 32 years

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Shearing students, ranchers flock to livestock advisor Harper UCCE livestock advisor John Harper retires after 32 years

By Pamela S Kan-Rice, Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach

John Harper gives sheep shearing pointers. Most of the sheep shearers currently working in California have graduated from his sheep shearing school, which started in 1993.

“If you know how to shear, you’ll never be poor,” Stephany Wilkes remembers John Harper, University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Mendocino and Lake counties, telling her sheep shearing class in 2013.

“He was speaking to everyone, of course, but he really spoke to me: being poor (again) is one of my greatest fears and I’ve avoided it at all costs,” Wilkes said. Harper’s words and a certificate from the course gave her the confidence to leave Silicon Valley for greener pastures.

“Eleven years later, with a successful business and published book about shearing to boot, I can confirm John does not lie to his students,” says the former software developer. “More than that, he is encouraging, calm, respectful, experienced, honest, funny and an excellent storyteller. If not for John, I would not have the life I live today.”

Today, Wilkes is a sheep shearer, knitter and author of “Raw Material: Working Wool In the West.”

Harper officially retired July 1, 2023, after 32 years in his UC Cooperative Extension advisor role, but returned to serve as interim director of UCCE for Mendocino and Lake counties until Matthew Barnes was hired on May 1.

For years, UCCE has offered the only five-day sheep shearing school in California, training 15 to 28 students annually, and Harper has been the force behind it.

“Most of the shearers now in the shearing business in California were trained by me and my fellow instructors,” said Harper, the state’s Ed Sheeran of sheep shearing.

He first offered the sheep shearing school in 1993 at the Paul and Kathy Lewis ranch in Upper Lake, with subsequent schools at the Stanley Johnson ranch in Booneville. In the early days, Harper brought in instructors from New Zealand, before he and Mike McWilliams, a former member of the USA Sheep Shearing Team, began teaching. Later Harper moved the school to UC Hopland Research and Extension Center, where he has hosted the school for the past 27 years.

With grant funds from the National Sheep Industry Improvement Association, Harper bought shearing equipment and made seven portable shearing pens to offer shearing school at a private ranch in Clear Lake Oaks this year. 

“This program is nationally and internationally known and there is a waiting list of over 1,000 people who want to take it,” Harper said.  
Harper’s baa-ackground in 4-H.

Growing up on his family’s farm in Yucaipa, just east of San Bernardino, Harper’s electrical engineer father gave him a choice between caring for the horses’ hooves and shearing sheep. “I chose shearing since I wasn’t very big and didn’t like horses leaning on me,” he said. 

From age 9 to 19, he was active in the California 4-H Youth Development Program, achieving the Gold Star rank. “I was in 4-H with sheep, horses, veterinary medicine, tractor, electrical, welding and woodworking projects,” said Harper, who won the outstanding junior leader award. “I was a junior leader in sheep and won the state award for my sheep project. I showed registered Hampshire sheep, and my flock grew to 50 ewes before I was done.”

“Shearing sheep helped me pay for college,” said Harper, who earned a master’s degree in range management at the University of Arizona and a bachelor’s degree in animal science and agricultural economics at UC Davis.

After college, Harper worked as an assistant manager on the PolyPay breed development at Nicolas Sheep Farms in Sonoma before starting a career in Cooperative Extension in Arizona.

When Harper joined UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in 1991, the internet was in its infancy, but he recognized its potential for sharing information. He learned how to write code and created the university’s first websites for livestock and natural resources. He also was an early adopter of blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to extend information, which earned him a silver award in 2011 from the Association of Natural Resources Extension Professionals.

Beyond shearing, Harper pioneered cutting-edge research
Although sheep are more photogenic on social media, Harper has been flooded with awards and accolades for his water quality research.

Informed by research from Harper, Lake County rancher Russ Rustici created the first rangeland water-quality ranch plan in the state. Rustici was so pleased that he donated research funding for the entire UC Rangeland Watershed Program team and later established two endowed chairs at UC Davis and one at UC Berkeley. The Rustici Endowment now provides research and education grants for rangeland and cattle efforts.

In 1995, Harper and his UCCE colleagues began teaching the Rangeland Water Quality Planning Short Course to help land managers develop water-quality management plans for their ranches to prevent water pollution. By 2015, they had taught more than 80 of these short courses, reaching more than 1,000 ranchers in 35 counties, representing over 2 million acres statewide. In one follow-up survey, 68% of the participants said they had implemented practices on their ranches to protect or improve water quality. 

In 2012, the Western Extension Directors Association presented Harper with its Award of Excellence for the Rangeland Watershed Program.

Eating between the vines
For one livestock research project, he and UCCE colleagues trained sheep to graze the grass in vineyards and not eat the grapevines. “The results went viral internationally and really brought targeted grazing to the forefront,” Harper said. “It also raised sheep number by 2% in our two counties.”

In addition to advising ranchers and teaching sheep shearing, Harper has served in several leadership positions, rotating in every few years as UCCE director in Mendocino and Lake counties. From 2014 to 2017, he led UC ANR’s Sustainable Natural Ecosystems Strategic Initiative, advocating for the hiring of experts in climate change, economics, small ruminants, forestry and fire.

“I’m especially proud that we were able to recruit a small ruminant extension veterinary specialist – a position that was unfilled for over seven years, despite California being the second-largest sheep-producing state in the nation,” Harper said. 

The certified rangeland manager and rangeland professional has long been a member of the Society for Range Management and the American Society for Animal Science. In 2008, he served as president of the California-Pacific Section of the Society for Range Management. Currently he is the secretary/treasurer for the Mendocino/Lake Wool Growers Association and is ad hoc director of the Mendocino/Lake County Cattlemen’s Association. 

In 2015, the Society for Range Management gave him the Outstanding Achievement Award-Stewardship. In 2017, the California Wool Growers Association bestowed on him its Golden Fleece Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2019, Harper was named Range Manager of the Year by the California-Pacific Section of the Society for Range Management for his contributions to the profession. In 2022, the 12th District Agricultural Association Redwood Empire Fair honored him with their Mendocino County Agriculturalist of the Year Award.

Harper also received UC Agriculture and Natural Resources’ prestigious emeritus status. In retirement, he plans to play his banjo and continue offering the sheep shearing school with GaryVorderbuggen, who has been teaching with him for 18 years. Randy Helms, a former member of the USA Sheep Shearing Team, and Harper’s former students Matt Gilbert, Lora Kinkade and Wilkes are among those who have re-ewe-nited with him as sheep shearing instructors.

“John taught the UCCE sheep shearing schools I attended in 2013-2015, and I was deeply honored to teach beside him in 2023 and 2024. It is one of the highlights of my life,” said Wilkes, now better known for working with wool than developing software.

“Like so many past students, I am forever in his debt,” she added. “We’ve got to keep this shearing school you started going, John. It is a gift. Thank you.”