Katie McRose met her future business partner and wife, Darian, in preschool in Seguin, Texas.
"We were best friends. We totally hit it off. Our first date was at Chuck E. Cheese playing in the ball pits," Katie McRose jokingly tells CNBC Make It with a laugh. "We started dating in high school, but that was all completely in the closet. And then after high school, after a very traumatic process, we finally came out in college. And we just got married in 2019."
Together the two make up one of the few, if not the only, wife-and-wife sheep, llama and alpaca shearing businesses in the country.
"Being a sheep shearer is a minority in the United States. And then being a woman is definitely its own subcategory. And then to be a gay woman, I don't think I know another gay woman, sheep shearer besides my wife," says McRose. "The business would not be as successful as it is today without my wife, because I might be the brawns (and maybe some of the brains) but she does all of the organization and makes sure that everything runs smoothly."
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Between February and June 2021, the couple made over $80,000 and served roughly 480 farms.
Getting the job
At just 26, McRose already has more than a decade of experience shearing.
"I never thought that I would be a sheep shearer when I was growing up. I had no idea that something like that existed. But when I was 14 years old, I watched somebody shear a show goat and we bought the equipment to shear a show goat. And my mom was on Craigslist looking for someone to shear our llamas and alpacas and saw this lady needed her sheep sheared to my mom was like, 'You know how to do that, right? I was like, 'Yeah, totally,'" remembers McRose. "So I went out there with a friend and it took us four hours to do seven sheep. They looked horrible. They looked like chewed-up Tempur Pedic pillows."
She made a grand total of $35 during that first long job. Today, their business, Right Choice Shearing, typically charges a $40 set-up fee and charges between $5 and $45 per "head" — depending on the breed and the number of animals.
But what at first felt like "flying by the seat of your pants" later became a marketable skill for survival.
"My senior year of high school, I separated with my family," says McRose. "And I had to figure out how I was going to be able to afford to go to college. So I worked four jobs and I picked up shearing again. I started building that shearing business when I was in college."
Both Katie and Darian studied animal science at Texas A&M. Shearing sheep helped cover their costs.
"I think that the most I made in college was around $30,000 working part-time," she recalls. "My [grandparents] did help me — $1,000 here, $1,000 there — but everything else was completely out of my pocket. I paid for the dorm that I lived in, paid for all the tuition and books. And I did come out debt-free, which was really nice."
After graduating in 2017, the pair decided to expand their business rather than get traditional office jobs.
Their business costs included roughly $900 for a motor and a shaft that powers their work as well as $2,000 for their various shearing handpieces. Each year they buy around 60 new combs, which cost roughly $15 each. McRose also paid to take an advanced sheep shearing course.
"We knew that we like shearing and that it allowed us to travel, and we made decent money at it. So we decided to give that a go full-time and it worked really well," says McRose. "The first year we did 350 jobs, the year after that we did 475, then 575, and this year, we're gonna knock that out of the park again. It's really been an exponential run now that we are doing it full-time because there's not a lot of people that do what we do. And there's even fewer that do it well."
A day on the job
Their shearing season typically runs from late February through July and consists of long, physically demanding days.
"During shearing season, we work seven days a week, and it's typically 14 to 18 hours a day, depending on how hard we run," says McRose. "I run my own business, which means I get to make my own hours, which sounds really great — until you hear that I make 18 hour days."
In season, the pair drive across the country and stay in hotels. They usually leave their hotel around 7 a.m. and begin their first job around 8 a.m.
"We could have anywhere from one job, which would be a large job with hundreds of animals, or we'll have multiple small jobs, our average being five to eight jobs a day," says McRose. "But we do as many as 14 in a day."
McRose typically handles shearing the animals while Darian corrals them and handles the business logistics. One reason Darian likes to avoid shearing: it can be dangerous.
"Just this year, I cut my pinky in half while shearing. I was shearing up by the head and the sheep jerked my hand into the clippers," says McRose. "Then in March, I broke my toe. A ram fell onto my lap and his head went down into the concrete with his nice hard horns, caught my toe, and broke my toe. Then a couple weeks later, I was shearing and the corner of my clippers got caught underneath one of the sheep and I pulled it out and I hooked my leg and put 22 stitches in it."
On one wet day, McRose was electrocuted.
The job "is really hard on your body," she says. "Physical exhaustion is one thing. I can pretty much power through that. But the mental part is really hard. Sheep shearing is mostly a mental game. Doesn't really matter about how strong you are, it's about whether you can hack it for that many hours."
Paving the way
In March, the couple began posting shearing videos to TikTok and quickly went viral. Their TikTok account now has some 1.6 million followers, bringing new attention to their business and to their lives. McRose says she has had to get used to the attention.
"The hardest part with not wanting to be known as the lesbian shearers was that I didn't want people to judge me before I ever got out there. I didn't want being lesbian to be a defining part of me," she says. "As I've matured, I've realized that it doesn't have to be a defining part of me, but it is an excellent quality that I have. Because of this lifestyle that I live, I get to be with the most amazing person in the world, the person that was made for me, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing to be ashamed of."
Together the two have turned these fears into an opportunity,
"I was so scared that if I called [Darian] my wife (or girlfriend or fiance) in front of [clients], that they were gonna judge me for it. But there's so many husband-and-wife teams, why can't there be a wife and a wife team?" she says. "That's what we're here to do. We're here to pave the way and make it normal."
And if her family were to see the TikToks, McRose says she would hope she has made her family proud.
"I hope that they can see that I didn't turn out to be a lowlife. That I created something successful and that I had a lot of opportunities to go down dark paths, but somehow I ended up here in a great part of my life and doing great things and making an impact on the industry," she says. "I hope that one day they'll find pride in that — that I turned out okay."