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Real Dirty Work

Inseminating a cow. Trimming a hoof. Shearing a sheep. They may sound funny, but the paychecks are serious business.

A typical workday for Dick Brown of Richmond, Maine, leaves him soaked in blood, sweat, dirt, and cow manure. The 55-year-old has been a hoof trimmer for 29 years and says a cow with happy feet gives more milk. "A cow has to stand up to eat, and if her feet are sore, she won't stand up to eat as much," he explains. "And if she doesn't eat as much, she won't give as much milk."

Brown's job is just one offbeat, on-the-farm occupation in such high demand that clients have to cool their heels, or hooves, on waiting lists. Others are artificial inseminator, or AI (transfers sperm to animals); farrier (shoes horses); cattle fitter (primps animals for show); sheepshearer; farm-equipment mechanic; fence dealer; and the hired hand who does custom crop harvesting, manure spreading, or livestock butchering.

"Certainly, hoof trimmers, AI technicians - they're in pretty big demand, because there are so few people that even know about these kind of jobs, let alone want to do them," says Dave Marcinkowski, a dairy specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Orono.

"The best of us are almost dancers," says sheepshearer Jim McRae, 58, of Pittsford, Vermont. "You're having to move this sheep through a series of positions and hold onto it . . . and take all its wool off without, you know, cutting it or messing up the wool."

Niche agricultural occupations, most of which are learned on the job, often require long hours but can be surprisingly lucrative, offer great flexibility, and provide an opportunity to travel throughout the region. Sheepshearers can pull down $500 a day in the busy, pre-lambing season; experienced hoof trimmers working full time can make up to $100,000 a year.

The real payoff, though, isn't in the paycheck. "I like being self-employed," says Brown, who sees herds in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. "If I work and it's 100 degrees, it's for myself; it's not for some boss." While Brown wouldn't trade trimming hoofs for sitting behind a desk, just try, he jokes, to get a bank loan when you list your occupation as "professional bovine pedicurist."