Tag Archives: alpacas

Chapter 9

Spit Happens!

 

alpacas check out new neighbors
new neighbors Latte, Primrose, Polo and Lindy check each other out

 

While we wait for our first four alpacas to be delivered, we continue to visit alpaca farms and look at their herds. Our goal is to begin with five bred females. One of the largest alpaca farms in the country is fairly close to us. When we visit, I ask about using the fleece and mention that I am a hand spinner. The owner replies, “I think hand crafts are nice, but I’m an alpaca breeder!” This owner, I will call her Breeder B., is physically attractive and clearly smart, but has comically poor people skills. How is she selling anything? Her alpacas are beautiful, but there are so many that they all wear a number around their necks on a plastic chain. Her barn looks brand new, immaculately clean and was obviously built to impress would-be buyers. It’s like something out of “Southern Living.” I try to warm up to her but I can’t get there. I can’t imagine myself calling her for help when I need it. Tom and I decide to go look at some Suri alpaca farms.

 

Huacaya and Suri alpacas are sometimes referred to as separate breeds. They aren’t. Scientifically, they are more like varieties of the same breed of animal. The Huacaya has a fluffy, wooly coat, while the Suri has long, silky locks with a little bit of wave in them. Those who breed only Suri alpacas are constantly pointing out that their alpacas are more valuable than Huacaya alpacas because the Suri type is more rare. They also go on about how Suri fiber sells for a much higher price than does Huacaya fleece. Both of these claims are true, but these breeders were quoting the prices fetched by the Suri alpaca fleeces in Peru, where there is industrial-scale processing of alpaca fleeces for the fashion industry. We weren’t planning to provide alpaca fleece to some huge international market, and none of the Suri breeders we met had ever sold to the huge international market either. The prices they were quoting were not based on the anything that existed in the U.S. Only one Suri breeder showed me a processed Suri fleece, and it wasn’t one of his own but one he’d bought from a Peruvian mill.

 

Unlike Suri fleece, Huacaya fleece has crimp and what knitters call “memory”. It can be used to knit a close-fitting garment. Suri fiber is more like silk; better suited to drapey, dressy garments such as shawls or suit cloth; you’re not going to use it to knit warm socks or a crew neck, raglan sweater, two of my favorite things in life. Suri fleece is quite a bit harder to spin than Huacaya as well. Since I’m not a drapey, dressy kind of gal, and the snob appeal of the rarer alpaca type was not appealing to me, I end up deciding that Suri alpacas were not going to be part of our business. We go back to shopping for Huacayas.

 

In October, we drive up to Alpaca Farms in Pennsylvania. We have come to buy a rose gray female alpaca that we originally saw at the Great Frederick Fair. Her name is Twiggy, and she is the daintiest, most beautifully colored alpaca I have seen so far. Her coat is like soft, smoky lavender. Her owner, Bud Griffith, was one of the first people in the U.S. to own alpacas. He bought his first alpacas from a zoo, and established the enviably named “Alpaca Farms” in 1986. In a business with far more new breeders than old, Bud is an old hand.   In a business full of slick, misleading salesmanship, Bud radiates honesty and common sense. He is fond of children and had been particularly taken with Casey at the fair, due to her old-fashioned braids and shy manner, but he commented that he preferred to see little girls wearing dresses. He mentions his own daughter, Natalie and how proud he is of her. She has grown up very smart and very pretty, but Bud does not approve of her boyfriend. In his gruff honesty, Bud kind of reminds me of my dad.

 

alpaca Twiggy with child
Bud allowed Casey to walk Twiggy at the Fair

 

Alpaca Farms is situated on rolling Pennsylvania hills with huge Autumn-leaved trees and a long gravel driveway leading up to a very old house. The fencing is nice but not fancy. Instead of one large barn, there are many smaller, cross-fenced fields, each with its own run-in shed. Bud welcomes us like old friends and asks us how our kids are doing. He introduces us to his sister, who happens to be a children’s author. The two regale us with fascinating and sometimes frightening stories such as the time one of Bud’s alpacas gave birth in cold weather and no one was home on the farm. The cria, still wet from the amniotic fluid, nearly froze to death outside. It survived, but the frozen tips of the ears broke off. Bud offers this story as a good reason why farms without staffs should not breed for winter. In a few weeks, when we take delivery of the alpacas we bought from Lanark, I will look at the paperwork that accompanies them and realize that Latte is bred for late December. I had not thought to ask her due date; I had assumed that she was bred for spring like Primrose. The frozen ears story will be haunting me until Latte’s cria is safely born and I have dried her off with a towel and blow dryer. Tom and I will never breed for winter.

 

We end up buying Twiggy but, after we agree to pay his price, Bud magnanimously lowers it. He says that he likes us and wants to see us do well. He seems to genuinely mean this. We are very moved by his unexpected generosity. Twiggy will stay at Alpaca Farms until spring, when she will be bred to a silver gray male named Allegheny. When I receive Twiggy’s registration papers, I realize that her mother was named Uhura. The fanatical Trekkie in me realizes that Twiggy was meant to be mine all along. We now own three female alpacas!

 

Finally it’s the first week in November and our agreed upon delivery date comes. Milt drives the livestock trailer up from Virginia to deliver Latte, Primrose, Lindy and Polo. We have alpacas on our farm! Never having imagined our lives beyond the point where the alpacas are actually in the barn, I’m not sure what to do next and I become an over-cautious, neurotic mess. The temperature is predicted to be in the 40s on this night so, fearing that the cold wind here in Mount Airy will be too much for our Virginia-bred alpacas, Tom and I lock the them in the barn with all of the Dutch doors tightly closed. My karmic reward for this silliness will involve some serious spit.

 

When I climb up the hill to the barn the next morning, I am unaware that Lindy and Polo have been rough housing and spitting at each other inside their pen. I happily open the top of their Dutch door, excited to see my precious boys, just in time for Lindy to duck out of the way so that Polo’s can shoot a huge wad of greenish, foul smelling goo directly into my face. My first spit. My God but it smells awful! Imagine an animal that can vomit up a bunch of half-digested grass, mixed with stomach acid and a little bit of fermented grain and turn it into a weaponized puke projectile. That will mitigate the cute and cuddly factor pretty quickly. I am close to losing the contents of my own stomach at this point, and some of this filth has gotten in one of my eyes and it burns, but I hold my breath and quickly let all four alpacas out of the barn. Then I race down the hill to the house stinking, half-blind and desperate for a shower.

 

“Do alpacas spit?” This is a question that I will be asked literally hundreds of times in the next ten years and it’s a very frustrating one. Yes, they spit, and yes, it’s nasty, smelly stuff but, as soon as I try to explain WHY they spit, most people become visibly disinterested. They don’t want to know the reason for the behavior. They want to write off the animals as “bad” and be done with it. Dogs bite, cats spray piss and horses kick, but most people never ask themselves why. Trying to understand the behavior from the animal’s point of view ruins the fantasy of owning a cute, fuzzy pet in the first place. I realize that I sound bitter, but it’s hard think about all the misery and suffering that animals go through because people don’t want to give up their fantasy version of them.

 

Locking up the alpacas inside an unfamiliar barn with new pen mates, little room to move about, and no window to even look through, was a very dumb move on our parts and guaranteed to cause anxiety. Spitting in alpacas is usually caused by anxiety, but it can also be a tactic to express dominance over a herd mate. Herd animals always have dominance issues that must be resolved and re-resolved each time the roster of personalities is shuffled. Every member of the herd must know their status in the dominance order. In addition to feeling anxious, Lindy and Polo needed to work out which one of them would be the top guy in their herd of two. Some spitting was almost a given in this situation. Alpacas should not spit at people, but they will do so if you make them feel anxious and trapped. It is also possible to get in the middle of a dominance fight. I did both of those dumb things.

 

There is a third, more heartbreaking reason that alpacas will sometimes spit at people, accidental imprinting. We humans insist that the key to having a docile, loving animal companion is to cuddle and handle it from the time it is very small so that it “gets used to” people. Alpacas that are over-handled at a very young age will become very friendly with people and thus very attractive to buyers, at least until the alpaca reaches sexual maturity. When these over-handled crias mature, they will exhibit aberrant, overly-familiar behavior toward humans. Females will usually become prone to spitting (a dominance behavior) and difficult to handle. They may invade the personal space of people or refuse to walk on a lead. Over-handled males will usually become aggressive towards humans in the same way that they show aggression to one another. They may spit, bite or ram into humans with their chests. If these males are not gelded before they reach maturity, they will usually have to be destroyed. They are dangerous to people because they no longer see people as something different than alpacas. This used to be called “berserk llama syndrome” but it should have been called stupid owner syndrome.

 

By the time winter arrives, we will have gotten over our ridiculous over-protective behavior, and routinely be welcomed in the early morning by the sight of our entire herd of alpacas happily cushed on the icy ground in temperatures below 20 degrees.  They will only seek out the shelter of the barn in heavy rain or very hot weather. They will come to view the barn as a place to get shade and the relief provided by our huge, industrial fans.

 

Two days after the alpacas arrive, I get freaked out by a greenish discharge from Polo’s nose and call Milt back at Lanark for advice. Milt patiently tells me it’s fine, Polo probably has a cold, but I can take his temperature if I want to make sure he has no fever. Of course Milt doesn’t mean that I should stick a thermometer in Polo’s mouth but … elsewhere. I have the proper thermometer, new, still in its shrink-wrapped box, but I am not ready for this step into livestock owner reality. The under the arm thermometer trick won’t work for this either. I make the cowardly decision to wait and see if Polo recovers on his own.

 

Since I have Milt on the phone, I quiz him about feed. I am sure that I am either feeding the alpacas way too much or way too little. Milt hems and haws a bit on this one until I begin to see that he wants me to understand something without his coming right out and saying it. Large farms usually feed all of their animals the same amount because it takes too much time to figure out an exact amount of feed for each individual member of the herd, but that’s not the best way to feed the alpacas. This is not a critique of large farms, but it is an advantage that small farms have over large ones. Some animals will seem to get fat on air alone; farmers call these “easy keepers”. Others can be fed larger amounts and stay thin. Small farm owners can make adjustments in feed according to which animals have more trouble gaining weight, which are pregnant, are still growing, or just fat. They can also spend more time watching their alpacas eat. It is important to notice if one alpaca is getting bullied and is not allowed to eat its share of hay or grain. It’s also important to know if an alpaca cannot chew well and drops grain out of its mouth as this may indicate a tooth infection or other problem.

 

Another thing that is much easier for small farms to do is to halter train all of their alpacas. I go to the barn every day and halter up each alpaca in turn, and then walk it around the field on a lead rope. Polo is a little bit of a hysteric at first. While he dislikes the halter, he is more worried about some of the stuff that I try to walk him near. He’s terrified of the yellow tape that we use to mark the wire fence at intervals to prevent deer from not seeing the fence and running through it. Later on I will realize that most of the alpacas are afraid of my yellow raincoat as well. Shiny yellow is not a common sight in nature; it’s weird and scary. The alpacas also hate all of my wool sweaters. They sniff them loudly and dramatically and comically shake their heads as though trying to figure out what animal I am wearing. Real wool has a distinctly sheepy smell when wet, but I did not realize that the smell could be detected by animals even when the wool is dry.

Mom leading the alpaca
My Mom & Polo – we call this pic, “The Hair Twins”

 

My caramel-colored Lindy seems resigned to life as a fluffy toy. He obligingly lets me halter him and he walks around on the lead. He allows me to touch his neck, lift his feet and look in his ears for ticks. He is the smallest of the herd but he seems to have taken top spot over his pen mate, Polo. He is less fearful by nature than Polo and he is older by a few months as well. He gazes at me with his huge brown eyes and I feel as though I want to throw my arms around him and hug him but I don’t. I try to respect his adorable, manly little self.

 

Primrose is a delicate, frightened flower. She squeaks when I try to put the halter on her and lifts her head skyward making it hard for me to slip the halter on. She does not walk on the lead as much as hop from here to there skittishly. Having her feet or legs touched is also very frightening for her. She requires a good deal of patience and calm on the part of her handler.

 

Latte is the queen of the herd. The same regal bearing that made her stand out in Lanark’s large herd of females is making her a pain in the butt at our place. She is not afraid of any tape, any halter or any thing. She is large for a female and uses her muscle to resist anything she doesn’t want to do. She will move her head sideways to avoid being haltered and, if that doesn’t work, she will turn her whole body around. She is also willing to kick if you piss her off. An alpaca’s kick doesn’t hurt like a horse’s kick, but it does sting if you get it in the thigh or the knee. The queen bee routine will turn out to be highly heritable. Latte will produce three daughters for us and all will become Queen bees of their herds. Years later other breeders will tell us humorous tales of queen bee behavior from Latte’s granddaughters.

halter training alpaca
halter training Latte -the grain in the large cup  gets her to come over to me

 

While training alpacas to walk on a lead and allow their feet and bodies to be touched sometimes feels like a bad comedy show, it is very important for their health. If you cannot lead your alpaca back into the barn, you cannot worm it or shear it. If you cannot touch its feet, how can you trim the toenails? Like horses, goats and cows, alpacas can become lame if their toenails get overgrown. An un-wormed alpaca can easily become a dead alpaca. If an animal is super difficult to handle, it will be too tempting for the owner to avoid performing routine care for it. Training an alpaca to tolerate handling also makes it far easier to sell. It’s pretty hard to keep a buyer interested after they have seen you run all over your own field like a rodeo clown trying to catch the alpaca they were interested in.

alpaca toenail trimming
Tom, doing some alpaca toenail trimming

 

In a few weeks the alpacas have begun to lose their fear of me. If I stand very still in one of their fields, they will walk near me to see what I’m doing. If they are cushed, I can usually sit down near them and hang out without them jumping to their feet to flee. When I come out holding their grain, they are more than willing to shove their faces in the bowl before I can put it down. I struggle to place their bowls far enough apart so that they cannot steal food from each other. Their dominance issues now settled, the alpacas have begun to act very friendly with each other. They will sometimes walk alongside their pen mates when I am walking them on the halter and lead. They don’t want to be separated. They even get used to my elderly Papillion dog, Sammie. At first the alpacas screeched and fled from him, recognizing him as a predator, but they have begun to understand that he is no threat to them. They will sniff him and then ignore him.

 

Casey and Nick also take part in some of the alpaca feeding and training, and the alpacas treat them very differently than Tom or me. They somehow realize that these two are not adults. They will walk up and sniff the children and try to taste their sneakers or their hair. They will allow them to put their arms around their necks for a hug, something they do not want me to do. They will eat grain out of the kids’ hands but I don’t encourage this as I worry about spilled grain attracting rats to the barn.

alpacas sniff little girl
Lindy and Polo sniffing Casey’s hair

 

Another question I have been asked countless times over the years about alpacas is, “Are they friendly?” and this one is also frustrating. A herd animal is not meant to be friendly to people the way a dog might. They should not beg to be petted by us or want to lie down at our feet. They will learn to trust us if we feed them and spend time with them. They will let us take care of them when they need it. We can love them on their own terms. Isn’t that enough?

Chapter 8

Tractors and Tiaras

 

skeleton of barn
Tom and my brother admire the ongoing barn construction

With the actual purchase of our first alpacas accomplished, it was time for us to finish our fencing, barn building and the buying of all of the weird supplies we would need to care for the animals. It was also time for me to have a little identity crisis. We now OWNED alpacas. We were actually alpaca farmers. Were we really ready for this giant lifestyle change? Were we crazy? I quickly realized that talking about this with others wasn’t going to help. The non-farmers I talked to thought the alpaca farm was a terrible mistake, a hilarious sitcom, or worse, the self-indulgent whim of a bored housewife. At my friend Carol’s party, one of her friends made a rude remark about me joining the “Tractor and Tiara Set”. Ouch! I was used to the dire warnings of financial ruin by now, but the idea that people might think me a spoiled dilettante really hurt.

 

Talking with farm people didn’t go any better. I found out that “real farmers” do not approve of “exotic” livestock. In fact they vehemently disapprove of them. They didn’t know the difference between an emu, a llama and an alpaca, and they didn’t care. Nor did they care for miniaturized horses! Real farmers think people who buy exotic livestock are gullible fools with more money than sense. Due to a childhood of politeness training, I was forced to listen to some lengthy rants about exotic livestock and their dimwitted owners from several farm neighbors, my own county agricultural extension agent, and even from a couple of the sheep breeders in my hand-spinning club.   I wasn’t expecting the agricultural community to welcome me with open arms, but I didn’t expect quite this level of hostility either.

 

Tom’s efforts at farming didn’t help our reputation any. If most of the farm world is separated into “real” farmers and tractor and tiara farmers, Tom would fall into a third category that I called “funny farmer.” He loved his tractor and other farm machinery a little too much, and was as happy as I have ever seen him when doing manual labor, but he always took his projects a little too far.

farm trenching
Tom in a ditch witched trench in our front yard

Take Tom’s love of ditch witching for example. The first time I heard about ditch witching I thought the conversation was about someone trying to locate underground water with a magical forked stick. I soon found out that there is an actual machine called a “Ditch Witch”, and it is used to dig trenches. The official logo of the Ditch Witch Company is somewhat confusing. The silhouetted witch appears to be wearing a very tight-fitting shirt with flowing sleeves but has somehow forgotten to put on either pants or a skirt.   She is pictured riding a shovel rather than a broom, and she is riding it in a way that is very sexually suggestive. This is the logo of a company that is not worried about offending female customers. They clearly don’t have any. Men, on the other hand, love this machine and Tom was no exception. He ditch witched trenches for water and electric lines to our 3 barns, and still couldn’t stop ditch witching. He ditch witched a line from our house, down the hill to a tree by the pond so that he could put an electric socket and a spotlight in the tree, “just in case we decide to have a party in the back yard.”   Our lawn was ditch witched so thoroughly and so often that our neighbors began relentlessly teasing us about our severe groundhog problem.

farm trenching
Tom in ditch witched trench

Tom’s ideas about fencing were equally funny. Gentlemen farmers buy fencing, usually white, three-board, horse fence, and they pay someone else to install it. Real farmers buy posts, dig the holes themselves with a posthole digger and a tractor auger, and run high tensile wire from post to post. This can be barbed wire or un-barbed, electrified wire. This is not nearly as beautiful as white board, but it gets the job done economically, and requires far less upkeep. Tom decided to build our fence with posts and wire too, but couldn’t resist adding his own crazy “improvement.”

 

Since the meningeal worm is the most disastrous of the parasites that can affect alpacas, and its natural host is the white tailed deer, Tom decided that he could devise a fence too high for the deer to jump over. White tailed deer can easily jump a standard 5-foot fence, but what about a 7-foot fence? The obvious problem with this plan is that fence posts are not manufactured to be 7 feet high. Tom, however, had a plan for this. He had heard of a local, pick-your-own-pumpkin operation that needed tractoring help during the pumpkin harvest. This pumpkin farm had a deal with the local utility company that allowed the utility company to discard old telephone poles on the pumpkin farm property rather than having to haul them to the trash dump. Tom arranged for the owner of this pumpkin farm to pay him in telephone poles for helping with the pumpkin harvest. When the neighbors saw that Tom was erecting a 7-foot high fence using telephone poles as fence posts, we were in for another round of teasing, this time about “gorilla farms” and Jurassic Park.

telephone pole farm fence
Tom’s 90 year old father helping set a telephone pole fence post

Another eccentric farmer, our beloved neighbor, Alden Rogers, aided Tom’s progress on the funny farm fence. Al was certainly no stranger to hard work or crazy schemes. You may remember that he sent us a child’s sled with diesel tractor fuel tied to it during the blizzard. During another heavy snowstorm, this old gentlemen hiked the half mile from his farm to ours, wearing snowshoes, to see if WE were okay. Despite having a brilliant mind, Al had once made the tragic error of cutting a strand of barbed wire on his own farm fence without using eye protection. A piece of wire under tension that is suddenly cut will move with astonishing speed. Al did not have time to jump back or close his eyes before the wire struck. The mistake cost him an eye. Al sometimes wore a fake eye, but more often wore a black eye patch like a pirate. He kept right on working on his fence, and those of his daughters and neighbors, well into his 80s. If the weather were warm Al would often drive his golf cart over to our place wearing his trademark white undershirt, baggy shorts and huge mud boots. There is something so beautiful in one neighbor casually joining in on another’s farm labor without even being asked. We were lucky enough to experience that many times, and often dropped in on the Rogers and pitched in on their farm work as well. It saddens me to think that most people in our society no longer have the time or inclination to form these kinds of relationships with their neighbors.

 

Al is not the only farm guy in this story who was prone to accidents. Tom hurt himself badly and often, but always refused proper medical treatment unless absolutely forced to do so. This was all part of the fun of having a farm to him, but not so much to his long-suffering wife. In one such incident, I was standing on a playing field in town, coaching our son’s soccer team when Al’s wife Mary appeared and asked me, “How’s Tom?” (Her grandson was a member of the opposing soccer team.) “He’s fine, I think?” I trailed off uncertainly. “Is there some reason you are asking?” “Well Al said he offered to take Tom to the hospital after he cut his head open with the post hole digger, but Tom said you were home and could take him.” replied Mary looking at me quizzically, due to the fact that I was clearly NOT home. Of course I rushed home to find Tom alone, the huge lump and gash on the top of his head covered pathetically by a napkin. This was one of many incidents that cemented our close friendship with the Rogers. Mary and Al thought that Tom’s accident and subsequent lie were hilarious and they teased him about everyone knowing your business in our small town.

farm guys working on fence
Al Rogers admiring the telephone pole fence

But Tom’s overzealousness could also be very useful. He was smart enough to think through the placement of our main barn and each of its 6 entrances so that we could have 5 separate fields, each with an entrance into a penned off interior section of the barn.   When we got to the point where we owned breeding females, breeding males, younger males, and maiden females, we would be able keep each group in separate fields, and separate pens inside the barn. We even had a small quarantine area for new arrivals. We had noted that large farms such as Lanark kept their animals separated in this way. It is obvious why un-bred female alpacas and breeding males cannot be left in the same field without indiscriminate breeding occurring, but many new alpaca owners find out the hard way that it can be just as disastrous to keep young male alpacas in the same field with breeding males.

two barns on alpaca farm
Tom’s home built barn with main barn in background

Despite looking like fluffy teddy bears, male alpacas can badly hurt or even crudely geld their perceived reproductive rivals. A fully grown, un-gelded, male alpaca knows that a 6 month old male will be a threat to his position one day, and he will not hesitate to bully or hurt the young male. While fighting, male alpacas will try to bite their rivals either on the tendon of the back leg, below the hock, or on the testicles. Sometimes they will charge the other male, hitting chest-to-chest and damaging the younger male’s shoulder, or they may try to mount the younger male as a sign of dominance. It is important to keep young male alpacas out of the range of older, un-gelded male alpacas. Young males will still fight one another, but they will be less likely to do actual damage to each other. They will not have the size disadvantage with one another that they will have with larger, stronger males, and their dangerously sharp “fighting teeth” will not have erupted yet. Older males should always have their fighting teeth blunted by an O.B. wire, a file, or other method. They will continue to fight one another from time to time, especially when one of them is allowed to breed a female but, without fighting teeth or a size advantage, they should exhaust each other without causing real damage.   Male alpacas that are gelded early are generally very docile and disinclined to fight.

 

Our main barn was 60 x 40 and two stories, and was built by an actual barn builder with Tom “helping” the work crew as much he was able. When the job was finished, there was enough left over material for Tom to make an additional small barn further out in our main field, using his beloved telephone poles as part of the supporting structure. It was these two barns, along with the old “goat palace,” that were furnished with water and electric during Tom’s ditch witching frenzy. Since the foreman on the barn job offered me a choice of colors for the siding, I chose sky blue rather than the traditional red, again amusing the neighbors. I never regretted flouting tradition. I loved my sky blue barn! That barn was the heart of our farm and would soon be the home of our alpaca herd.

kids with alpaca in front of blue barn
Entrance to our blue alpaca barn

Before we accepted delivery of our first alpacas, we drove to Lanark farm one last time. Part of our deal in buying the alpacas was that we would be able to work as farm hands during Lanark’s monthly herd health day. Most alpaca farms do monthly worming, toenail trimming, weighing and vaccination of their herds. By aiding Lanark farm’s employees in this effort, we would be getting hands-on training in how to care for our own alpacas. As we worked our way through the herd, Amanda and I chatted like old friends. At some point she told me a harrowing story about drawing blood from a young alpaca cria’s jugular vein for a DNA test and slicing the vein instead. She knew immediately that the cria was bleeding internally and clamped the fingers of one hand tightly on the neck to stanch the flow, even as she frantically dialed the veterinarian with a cellphone using her other hand. Some skillful suturing on the part of the veterinarian saved the cria’s life. Years later, this story would be remembered during a more tragic occurrence on our own farm.

Chapter 7

The Stud the Bred and the Cuddly or:

Mother Nature does not do politically correct.

alpaca with fluffy top knot
Latte and the “Don King” hairdo

Despite the “it’s all about the fleece” hype, no one makes enough money on alpaca fleeces to recoup the price of their live alpaca purchases, much less the expense of feeding, worming, vaccinating and paying for vet care for their herd. If you don’t plan to run a petting zoo, the only way to recover your original investment is to sell live alpacas to others. To do this, you must become alpaca breeders, not just alpaca farmers.

 

There are so many aspects of animal breeding that seem strange or even uncomfortable to people who did not grow up on a farm. Most of us have never given much thought as to how animals mate and reproduce. We’ve seen two dogs sharing a candlelit, spaghetti dinner in a Disney movie, or a cartoon skunk in love with a fancy cat. We learned in church about the two by two procession of animals into Noah’s ark. We might know that some animals mate for life, but we rarely remember that the majority of mammals do not, and this is especially true of herd animals. Nature seems to prefer a system in which the strongest male breeds all of the females in the herd, and the remaining males are unlikely to ever pass on their genes. The losers form “bachelor” herds and hang around the periphery watching one lucky guy get all of the action.

 

We may not like this, but it makes sense in a mathematical way. If a female alpaca can produce only one offspring per year, every female is valuable in the numbers game of reproducing and growing the herd, but it only takes one fertile male to breed every adult female in the herd. While the female spends up to 12 months contributing to one birth, the male can reproduce his genetic material hundreds of times per month. In the wild, the top alpaca stud will keep his harem for a few years, passing on his superior genetic material, until a younger, stronger stud can fight him and win. Remember this next time you hear someone trots out the old biology is destiny argument. Yes, Mother Nature does think that female mammals should raise the young, and she’s not big on monogamy, but she also thinks most male mammals are superfluous. Nature does not believe in political correctness for any of us. Thankfully, humans evolved big brains that – theoretically – let us make more nuanced choices.

 

Thus bred females are the most important part of any alpaca breeding business. The ability to gestate, birth, and nurture new life is the most valuable ability there is. Male alpacas are separated into two types, the stud, sometimes called the “herdsire”, and the gelding. The vast majority of male alpacas are geldings. Their job is to produce nice fleeces, be trained and shown by small children in agricultural fairs, participate in parades and petting zoos, or be living lawn ornaments for wealthy people who like to have cute farm animals. In other words, they are cuddly, pets. They are nice to own, but not necessary to the breeding business. Lest you think the female alpacas have the better part of this deal, remember that most are pregnant almost all year, and they are also nursing last year’s cria while pregnant with the current one.   This is their natural state, but we can be forgiven if it makes some of us feel glad to have birth control for our human selves.

pr-guys
Cuddly P.R. alpaca geldings, Lindt, Polo and Comet (a Suri alpaca) doing their job

Many small alpaca farm owners begin their herds by purchasing three or four bred females. Stud fees for very high quality males were often in the tens of thousands when we began shopping for alpacas. A national show-winning herdsire might sell for $200,000 or more. It made more sense to buy a female already bred to such a male than to purchase a male outright.   It is best to buy a female that also has a well-known sire. The first two questions about a bred female alpaca should be, “Who is she out of?” and “Who is she bred to?” Having both her sire and her breeding partner be well known and of good quality is very important. Mr. No Name alpaca might be a great quality male but, unless he wins big in the show ring, his offspring won’t have the brand name appeal of Mr. Show Winner’s offspring.   So buying a pretty, fine-fleeced female alpaca, who is bred to Mr. Show Winner, and whose sire was Mr. Well-known Megastud will ensure that you end up with a great quality, show winning, super salable cria right? Of course not! Nothing is really that simple. We will find that out later.

 

In addition to purchasing good quality breeding stock, any new alpaca farm will want to figure out what their possible niche could be. As we visited more and more Maryland farms and saw that almost all of them had bought from the three largest farms in the region, I wondered if it were not a better idea to buy some alpacas that were not related to the breeding stock of all of the farms around us. Why not travel farther, make that extra effort to get unusual bloodlines and see if that helped the salability of our alpacas’ offspring? We could still buy from one of the nearby farms if they had a female we really wanted, but we would try to have a more diverse herd.

 

Our other niche would be a true interest and involvement with our own alpaca fleeces. Every alpaca breeder tries to produce the finest, softest, most desirable fleece, but they differ on the question what makes a fleece desirable. This brings us to a point of tremendous contention among alpaca breeders. I call it the “Cottage versus Industry” debate. In 1999, as in the present time, there were those in the alpaca business who claimed that we should all be breeding identical, superfine, white alpacas to supply an industry that would require huge amounts of these identical fleeces. In this scenario, a future U.S. alpaca fleece industry is somehow able to compete head to head with the huge Peruvian alpaca fleece industry.

 

Peru has far more alpacas than we do in the U.S., so they have the advantage of economics of scale. Their alpaca processing infrastructure and their buyers are well established and of long duration. The pay scale of their workers is quite a bit lower than ours, but they have a well-trained workforce with multiple generations of experience. Yet there are those who claimed that this imaginary, U.S. alpaca fleece industry would somehow compete with Peru’s and make a good profit. They are still making this claim 15 years later.

 

In order to breed for this U.S. industrial market, breeders would want to buy only superfine, white alpacas. White fleece is preferred by the Peruvian industry because it can be processed in huge quantities and later separated into batches and dyed any color. Some of the recent proponents of the U.S. alpaca fleece industry model would also have us buy only alpacas with Accoyo bloodlines.

 

Accoyo is the name of a ranch in Peru, but also a name that some U.S. breeders have “borrowed” to refer to their own bloodlines, those that – presumably – originated on the Estancia Accoyo in Peru. These alpacas were skillfully line bred by Don Julio Barreda to be almost identical in their fleece characteristics. Accoyos are super dense, crimpy, uniform and very fine. They are also all white, and they are inbred. Line breeding is inbreeding done carefully and deliberately. It is known for fixing traits such as body size and fineness of fleece. It is also known for increasing the likelihood of birth defects and reproductive problems.

 

Since Tom and I never bought into the idea of this thriving U.S. alpaca fleece processing industry, we were free to pick the type of alpacas we wanted to breed. As a hand spinner, I liked unusual, natural colored fleeces, and alpacas come in many beautiful colors, Like sheep, alpacas can be white, black or gray, but they can also have fawn colored fleeces, reddish-brown fleeces, grayish-lavender fleeces and maroon-gray fleeces. Natural-colored fleeces are far subtler in their coloring than dyed fleeces.   The lack of chemical dyes makes them softer as well. Really crimpy alpaca fleeces can be used to make yarns with good elasticity that knit up into garments that fit well, and hold their shape without drooping. If I wanted to spin colored, soft, crimpy fleeces, I was willing to bet other hand spinners did as well. We would look for female alpacas with those characteristics, along with good body structure, proper dental alignment and well-known bloodlines. We would become lowly cottage industry breeders and be proud of it. Armed with the knowledge of what type of alpaca we wanted to buy, we began to shop in earnest.

bred female alpaca

Lanarks Primrose with Lanarks Latte in the background on right

The first alpaca I truly fell in love with was named Chanel. We discovered her at the Mid Atlantic Alpaca Association (MAPACA) show at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in northwest New Jersey. The weather was frigid at this outdoor, agricultural arena.   It would have been perfect weather for selling alpaca fleece products, but none of the alpaca farms present were selling them. There was a couple from Ecuador selling alpaca and llama wool blend products from a truck/booth and I bought from them an “alpaca[9]” wool pullover with llamas dancing across it as a gift for my mother. Tom, the kids and I watched the alpacas being judged in the show ring, and we also visited the pens of alpacas lined up along the aisles of the large, open barn. In one of those pens, we found Chanel.

 

Chanel was fawn-colored. Her face and body seemed perfect, and her fleece was the softest I had yet felt. This was in a time when many alpacas in the U.S. were still imports from Peru and Bolivia. These imports were usually very skittish, if not downright hysterical and spitting with fear. In contrast, Chanel was sweet and calm. She stood still while I reached my hand into her side and rubbed her fleece between my fingers. Just as I did this, her owner said “Just like butter.” It did feel almost moist and slippery to the touch. Chanel was out of a very famous sire, but she had not yet been bred to one. Most breeders will not bring bred females to shows, as the experience is way too stressful. All of the alpacas I had seen that day were pretty, but this girl was gorgeous. I wanted her. She was the first alpaca that really struck me as being superior to all others I had seen. We found out that she was to be auctioned at the 1999 All American Alpaca Futurity. When the auction day came, we bid on her by phone, but dropped out somewhere around $26,000. Chanel would end up commanding the highest price of any female alpaca at that auction. We did not end up with Chanel, but seeing her in New Jersey made us decide to make an appointment to visit the Charlottesville, Virginia farm where she was produced and see the rest of their herd.

 

 

Excerpt from my alpaca breeder diary:

 

Sunday, June 06, 1999

Left the kids at my sister Krissy’s house at 7:00 AM to drive to Lanarks Llamas and Alpacas in Charlottesville, VA. We had met the owner, Antoinette Brewster, at the Eastern Alpaca Jubilee in New Jersey, and really liked the look of her animals. So we made the plan to visit and headed down south.

 

As you approach Lanarks, you can’t help but notice that you’re traveling back in time to the colonial Virginia of yesteryear. First we passed the Historic Michie Tavern where the former presidents went to hang out and drink with the other gentry. Then we passed Monticello itself, home of Thomas Jefferson. Next comes Ashlawn Highlands, the former home of John Adams, then on past the Jefferson Vineyards to the home of John Kluge, once the richest man in America. Just past the hand-built stone fences of the Kluge estate sits Lanark Farm. This is Old Dominion Virginia with a capital D.

 

The long, gravel driveway cuts through fields for miles around. Some have grass, but many are red clay dirt, which blows about and hangs in the air. It is the summer of the worst drought on record in Maryland and Virginia, and almost every farm is covered in dust of one color or another. On the right side of the driveway are several fields full of alpacas. There are about one hundred and fifty in all. Some are black, some gray or dark brown, but most look peach colored because the red clay dust coats their white fur completely. It is just past 10 am, but the temperature is already in the 80s. It will reach the mid 90s by lunchtime.

 

By the barn we meet Milt, the farm manager, and Amanda, the herd manager. Milt is the perfect Hollywood cowboy movie extra, not tall but all wiry muscles with a calm, direct manner. He wears jeans and a white woven cowboy hat. He learned his animal skills on a cattle farm in Vermont back when he was still a Yankee. He’s had his arm inside many a cow’s privates and isn’t afraid to talk about it, but doesn’t brag either. The first time I hear him casually mention “her vagina” (the cow’s) I have to freeze my face so I won’t look shocked. I can’t remember ever hearing any man say that word once, much less over and over the way this guy does.

 

If Amanda were a character in a movie, she would be played by Debra Winger. She is a size 6 at most, but with well-cut little arm muscles. She wears a tight white T-shirt and old jeans. On the back of her neck, under her upswept, wavy black hair is a small blue tattoo of Sagittarius the archer. Her eyes are blue. She talks to the alpacas in a high breathy baby voice and calls the little ones “my peas” but she sure looks tough when she’s slinging a bale of hay around. She knows each one of the many, many alpacas by name! She sneaks a cigarette here and there as she does her farm chores. I like her instantly.

 

Antoinette shows up a fashionable 15 minutes late. All attention rivets on her immediately as she is larger than life. She is very good looking, resembling a slightly older Michelle Pfeiffer. Men must have followed her like pathetic little dogs when she was young, but she does not act “Southern Girl” and coquettish. She stands close to me and her voice is a little loud so that I have to fight the urge to back up, but she also has some serious charisma. That can’t hurt if your job is to sell animals. I’m shocked to realize that Amanda and Milt call her “Mrs. Brewster” instead of her given name. She has on a red and white checked shirt that is some fashion designer’s idea of a farm outfit but you can tell it’s not from Southern States or the tractor store. I appreciate her directness. She is very professional, and she doesn’t tell us any fairytales or offer any heartwarming stories. She assumes we are there to buy. She hands us a list of all of the bred females currently on sale along with their prices, dams, sires and birth dates, and our tour begins.

 

A couple of hours later I am lost in a fog of half remembered animals, the teeth on this one, the color of that one. Which one had the good crimp? Which had the strange legs? I have taken notes furiously, but am not sure they are even correct. It is too much to look at so many animals, and the added strain of trying to remember the sire and dam of each one makes the whole task impossible. I need a scorecard with photos, genealogical trees and pertinent footnotes on it, but no owner is going to remind you that the pretty one whose fleece you love is also the one with the bad bite. I’m panicking!

 

We break for lunch beside the pool next to Antoinette’s house. The pool has male and female bathrooms, a kitchen area with a sink, and a patio with tables on it. There are large statues of animals along the edge of the pool. For a second I forget why I’m there and wish desperately that I had my camera with me and that everyone else would momentarily disappear. I would kill if only my mother, who has never been rich, but is yet a faithful reader of “Town and County”, could see this setup.

 

Antoinette discreetly leaves us to compare notes, and not a moment too soon. I am dying to see what animals Tom has fixated on. I turn to him eagerly, demanding that we trade lists. That is when it hits me. He HAS NO LIST! We have been tramping around in dusty hot fields for hours staring at this animal and that, and trying to decide which animal, if any, we will pay a small fortune for and Tom has NOT TAKEN NOTES! I briefly consider drowning him in the nearby pool but realize it cannot go unnoticed so I refrain. This explains why Antoinette all but ignored Tom and talked at me while we tramped around; She KNEW he would have no list. When I confront him, Tom’s defense consists of the lame comment, “I thought you were doing a really good job of deciding.” Oh my God. Men!

alpaca greeting a small dog
Lanarks Latte greets our dog Sammie

We head back out to the fields after a very good lunch at which Tom pigged out as usual, but Antoinette seems to find this behavior endearing and she starts to like him. She smoothly asks which animals we want to look at again. I am sweating bullets but finally decide on Latte and Primrose. Latte is a lovely maroonish color with a white face and a crazy Don King-style afro. Her sire is Pizarro. I disapprove of this name due to its bad Karma, but Pizarro is a beautiful guy. Latte is bred to 5 Peruvian El Cid, a guy with a spectacular fleece. Latte radiates intelligence and self-confidence and so, sticks out in a herd of merely pretty faces. She is a queen bee. Her mother, Marguerita, is one of the animals I initially liked as well, but she is older than I wanted.

 

Primrose, I pick because I love her face and her perfect, crimpy fleece. Not the fleece on her body, it is summer, and that fleece is pretty short. However, Antoinette has the fleeces of each animal bagged up for prospective buyers to look at, so I was able to see Primrose’s shorn fleece from last year, and it is just what I want. Primrose’s famous sire, Drambuie is now in Australia. I have seen him in an ad in “Alpacas” magazine and he is gorgeous. Her mother, MA Krystal, is still at Lanark. Primrose is bred to Lanarks Peruvian Teddy, who also has a wonderful fleece. I have found my first two alpacas!

 

Having finally picked, I feel I can relax, but Antoinette surprises us. She offers to throw in two pet-quality males, and I must choose again. This is easier, because they are free, so I pick two boys just because I like them. Polo, because he is so friendly and has a crazy white afro, and Lindt because he is cute and little, and the color of a caramel candy.  (We would later change his name to Lindy because people often thought he was named after dryer lint rather than a fancy chocolate!)

male alpaca pets
Polo and Lindt Note the peachy color of white-fleeced Polo

For a big farm like Lanark these not-quite-herd-sire males might be just another mouth to feed. The big money is in selling breeding stock, not pets. But it is a nice touch for Antoinette to offer them AFTER we have made the deal. For us, the boys will be invaluable. They are P.R. machines that can go to fairs and shows, and we don’t have to worry that the stress will make them abort their babies. I am pretty thrilled because I am one of those nuts who can never have enough cute little animals to take care of. Four alpacas feels like a real start to our farm. It is almost 4:30 when we leave and I feel exhausted and anxious but incredibly excited too. We are now alpaca owners!

bred alpaca females
bred females Primrose and Latte

[9] The garment labeling system in Peru allows llama fiber and wool blended with llama or alpaca fiber to be labeled as “alpaca.”

 

Chapter 5

Alpaca Research Rant

Suri alpaca with children
Casey and Nick visit a Suri alpaca at The Great Frederick Fair

Mention alpaca farming to a group of random people and several of them will immediately lose their minds and begin to rant about “exotic livestock”, “farming fads”, “pyramid schemes”, “latest market bubble” and also, “emus!” and/or “llamas!” It will be very, very unlikely that these people have experience in livestock farming, any kind of farming, or know what the end product of an alpaca or llama is. This will not stop them from KNOWING that they are right, and you are doomed if you do not heed their advice.

On the other side of the proverbial coin are those who advertise and talk about cute, fluffy “livestock investments” and encourage you to spend your retirement years raising alpacas. You will spend your golden years sitting on your porch watching your adorable, livestock investments frolic through your fields and, also, multiply exponentially causing you to become filthy rich with hardly any effort on your part.

 

Con artists and their naive followers exist in every type of business. If there is good money to be made deceiving others, someone will be willing to do it, but they can’t do it without people who refuse to do their own research. I know there are people who do not enjoy researching a new and exotic subject, but I don’t really understand them. Doing research is one of the great joys and privileges of life. It’s what separates us from the people who bought Windows ME. I’m not saying that people who don’t do their research deserve to be conned, but remember that it is the alpacas that suffer the most due to lack of research and preparation on the part of their owners, and some suffer pretty terribly.

So, while people were lining up to tell me how crazy I was, I was in research commando mode. I ordered the only three books I could find about alpacas, two of which were mainly about llamas with a little alpaca information thrown in. My favorite was The Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman and Murray E. Fowler, DVM. It was 255 pages and published in 1995. [2] This book cost $70, and offered a great deal of scary information about alpaca diseases, parasites, infections, developmental problems and a list of possible birth defects printed in very small type, and covering one and one half pages. A thorough reading of this book would cure anyone of the idea that alpacas are adorable,

carefree “investments.”   It wasn’t all unpleasant though. The first paragraph offered a lovely, poetic view of the relationship between the Andean people and the Alpaca. I reproduce it here,

 

“Ausangate is a magnificent snow-covered peak south of Cuzco, Peru, and the legendary source of llamas and alpacas. According to legend, Pachamama [mother earth] loaned alpacas and llamas so people of the puna could survive. Since the animals belong to Pachamama, they must be well fed and never be treated cruelly. If they aren’t properly cared for, Pachamama will call them back to Ausangate and people will disappear.”

The above quotation is attributed to an “ancient Quechua legend.” Some people could read this and think only about the thrilling adventure of raising a mystical, magical animal. Others would focus on the idea that, if you don’t take good care of your alpacas, the Goddess takes them away, and you could be disappearing too! Both parts of the paragraph are important. Alpacas are a link to an ancient way of life, and raising them can feel very magical at times, but we must be committed to caring for our animals to the absolute best of our ability. A big part of that is doing the research.

 

photo of The Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman and Murray E. Fowler, DVM
The Alpaca Book

 

I already knew that alpacas were one of four members of the South American camel family. The alpaca has traditionally been used for fleece, while the much larger llama was used for packing on steep, mountain trails.   The guanaco is even larger than the llama, and usually allowed to run wild, while the vicuña has the most valuable fleece of the four, but has never been successfully domesticated. All four can interbreed and produce live offspring. I knew that alpacas and llamas in the U.S. were not slaughtered for meat.

I was already a knitter, and a serious lover of natural fibers, both animal and plant. For as long as I can remember, I have had the habit of stroking and admiring the weaves, knitting patterns and textures of my own clothing. Thanks to my Bostonian mother, I grew up wearing wool, mohair, linen, silk, angora, camel hair and goose down.   A lot of my childhood wardrobe consisted of wool sweaters and skirts, especially Fair Isle sweaters, and plaid, wool skirts. Many of these came from thrift shops because we were not rich, and these materials can last almost forever if properly cared for. Some people would call this wardrobe style, “preppy”, but I think it was common to most New Englanders of my mother’s generation.   People who live in cold climates have to know about warm, durable clothing. When it comes to keeping warm while “breathing” and venting sweat, no manmade fiber can do what Mother Nature can do.

In my research, I had learned that Huacaya alpacas (one of two varieties of alpaca) produced a fleece that is very similar to sheep wool, but not nearly as itchy as most types of sheep wool. As I had spent an entire childhood warm but itchy, it seemed that alpaca fleece and I might just be made for each other.

 

In addition to reading books, I subscribed to Alpacas Magazine as part of my research. It was mostly advertising, feel-good stories about alpaca breeding, and many photos of high fashion alpaca garments from Peru, but it had a useful article in it now and then. I read everything I could find on the website of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA), as well as the International Llama Registry website (ILR)[3]. From these sources I found out that importation of alpacas to the U.S. began in the mid 1980s, mainly from Peru, but also from Chile and Bolivia, and blood typing for DNA registration in the U.S. began in 1988.

Some alpaca breeders were fighting to close the registry to newly imported alpacas, making the alpaca herds already in the U.S. the only breeding stock available to new buyers. Scarcity of a product is key to keeping the prices high, and alpaca prices were very high in the beginning of the business. They ranged from $18,000 to $40,000 for a bred female, and even more for a beautiful male “herd sire.” Some breeders felt that the size of the U.S. alpaca herd did not contain enough genetic diversity.   Others claimed that it already had too much diversity. I was not qualified to have an opinion on this topic in 1998, but I did see many alpacas that looked more like llamas during my early years of alpaca farming. In any case, the registration of newly imported alpacas would be closed in 1999, effectively ending alpaca importation.

 

Alpaca DNA registration card
Alpaca DNA registration kit with 3 drops of blood

I liked what I had found out so far, so I went to a couple of “Alpaca 101” seminars at nearby alpaca farms. The first was run by “Breeder A.”[4], a female, ex-horse breeder.   I would meet many of these during my alpaca farm years. Horses and alpacas seem to appeal to women far more often than men, and a person who is comfortable controlling 1,000 pounds of horse will find a 140 pound alpaca very easy to handle. Horse breeders usually pay a veterinarian to find out when their mare is about to ovulate.   Alpacas are induced ovulators, meaning an open female should ovulate when she is bred. That is a very useful trait, and not one that is found in most mammals. Compared to horse breeding, alpaca breeding is far easier and much cheaper.

 

Breeder A shows us how alpaca breeders use a male to “test” the females that they want to breed, usually by penning up the female inside the barn, and bringing the male to her on a halter and lead rope. The male will get excited, begin to make a loud noise called “orgling”, and then try to mount the female. If she crouches down, bending all four knees, or “cushes” for him, she is open and ready to breed. If she refuses, she may already be bred. This refusal is not very ladylike. The female spits on the male, and what she spits is not saliva but partially digested cud from one of her stomachs. It’s green, gooey and smells like vomit. Adding insult to injury, many breeders use gelded males to test several females in a row.

Each of the females that cush may be bred to a different male; one that is carefully chosen to compliment the female’s phenotype and genetic background. Stud males should, ideally, have some name recognition from a famous bloodline and/or show ribbons and, of course, not be gelded.   The fact that the unlucky, testing gelding never refuses to try to breed females, even after he is either harshly refused, or yanked off the willing female, every single time, is a powerful testament to the strength of the breeding urge in mammals. This poor guy never gets the memo that he can’t really have the job.

It is at this seminar that I am allowed to give my first worming shot to an alpaca. Nervous about breaking off the needle, I stick it in too hard. People nearby wince and I feel like a monster. I do much better at trimming the toenails, since they are very similar to those of my goats. Breeder A. impresses upon us the absolute importance of monthly worming, especially for the Meningeal Worm.

This terrible parasite is adapted to the body of the white-tailed deer. The adult worms live in the lining of the deer’s brains and spinal chords, usually without harming them. The larvae are shed in the deer’s droppings and subsequently take up residence in snails and slugs. If alpacas or llamas accidentally eat these snails or slugs in their pastures, the result is paralysis and a lingering, miserable death. Unfortunately, we had many white tailed deer in our area of Maryland.

 

I tried to pay attention to all of this vital information but the fact that it was my first time being near live alpacas made it very difficult. They are absolutely gorgeous up close. The heads of the tallest ones are still a few inches below my own height of 5’5”. The body seems to be about the size of a female deer’s but the neck is much longer and thinner.   The fluffy Huacayas look like long-legged, long necked Teddy Bears. The Suris have shiny, silky locks rather than the springy fleecy coats of the Huacayas. Their eyes are large and luminous. Their faces range from grave to serene to comical, depending on their temperament and coloring. Many are white, but some are fawn-colored, black, brown or a dappled gray. One is a brown and white pinto.

 

They seem nervous of the crowd of people there, but curious as well. Some let out an alarmed squeak when they are touched. Of course I stick my hand into a couple of alpaca fleeces when I hope no one is looking. They are so soft! There is no lanolin-type oil on the fleece, nothing but a bit of dust. There is a very faint but pleasant smell to their skin. They are nearly irresistible. It’s very hard not to buy one on the spot. Breeder A. knows this of course. That is the point of “educating” would-be alpaca owners, getting them to visit and buy from your alpaca farm first.

 

Surprisingly, a couple of hours of this seminar are dedicated to a talk by our host’s accountant. I learn about pass through entity tax write-offs, limited liability corporations, farm building depreciation, and how not to be labeled a “hobby farm”. The pass through entity was not a dangerous alien life form, but a way to reduce our income tax payments.   As Tom was keeping his job at the FDA, we would be able to write off farm equipment, barn building, fencing and other expenditures against his income, unless we ended up earning the dreaded hobby farm label!

 

If the IRS decides that a person is pretending to have a farm business, but is not really trying to make money, this business is labeled a “hobby farm.” The IRS will refuse any tax write-offs, and levy their usual financial penalties against the owners of the farm. Apparently, many people who want to own horses, cattle, open fields, orchards, grape arbors, alpacas, emus and the like, also feel that they should be subsidized in this lifestyle by having reduced taxes. They want the life of the “gentlemen farmer,” but they would also like to be able to write off some of their expenses and reduce their tax burden as if they were a real farmer. Why not breed that horse once or twice, or sell a couple of cows, and get a big tax break?

Answer: because the IRS does not agree that hobby farms are businesses. In fact, the accountant warned us that the IRS is likely to audit any small farm business that does not make a profit in two out of five years, especially those containing “exotic” livestock.

 

The funniest part of the day happens when Breeder A. discusses the size and firmness of the male alpaca’s testicles as indicators of fertility, and demonstrates this by lifting the tail of one of her males and cupping his testicles in her hand. I am in awe of her aplomb. I try imagining myself doing something similar without laughing nervously but I can’t.   Catholic school has ruined my chances of being a serious-minded livestock breeder.

 

Whilst I read, visit, and read some more, Tom is doing his own research about fencing, pasture-seeding and management, barn building, livestock trailers, tractor accessories and vaccination shots. If you have to vaccinate livestock, it is very helpful to have a pharmacist in the family so he can figure out the dosages. Tom invites the county agricultural extension agent to our farm to test and discuss our soil. He later takes some soil management classes from the Agricultural Extension Office. He talks to anyone who might know something about farming, our neighbors, random guys at the Southern States Co-op, the veterinarian who cares for the goats, and the dairy farmer who rents one of our fields for a dollar per year.

 

Of course our farm research included our local agricultural fair. Since moving to Frederick County, we had always attended the Great Frederick Fair. And this fair was great in every sense. It was not a county fair, but a huge regional fair lasting almost two weeks, and including participants from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware, as well as Maryland. In 1998 the fair was in its 136th year, and a new llama and alpaca show had been added to the multitude of livestock shows offered. We were eager to attend. Llamas having gained popularity in the U.S. before alpacas, there were four classes of llama handling and only one class of alpaca handling that year.

 

The alpaca class turned out to contain only one entry. We didn’t learn much about alpaca handling, but this indicated that the local market was not yet saturated, and also that this large fair was willing to change with the times and add livestock that some other farmers dismissively called “exotic” to their fair schedule. In fact, we were doubly blessed in our location because, not only did we live very near to one of the largest and most important agricultural fairs in the U.S., we also lived 30 minutes away from the largest fleece and wool show in North America, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Frederick County and Mount Airy seemed like a perfect spot for would-be alpaca breeders and fleece sellers.

 

Children showing llamas at The Great Frederick Fair 1998
Llama Show at The Great Frederick Fair 1998

Even if you do research your plans thoroughly, and have a good idea of how you can succeed, you will still have the doomsayers trying to drag you down. People buy into the idea that only those who follow the socially accepted paths to success will be rewarded, and all others will be a failure. If people refused to work endless overtime, drive in 2 or more hours of traffic per day, and rarely see their own children, all while doing a job they didn’t even love, what would happen to our society?   It’s an interesting question.

In Washington D.C. and its environs, these were just the kind of working conditions that most “professionals” put up with throughout their working lives. I wanted out of that system. I think a lot of other people did too, but it’s frightening to take the risk. If I do it, if I am allowed to give up a well-paying career to go and play with fluffy animals and keep my kids home with me, instead of at daycare, AND it turns out that I make good money, and my family has a fun adventure together, that wouldn’t seem fair to all those who stayed on the corporate treadmill. But life isn’t fair. Taking a chance sometimes pays off in a whole lot more than just money.

[2] Later editions of this book would have a much higher page count as our knowledge of alpacas grew.

[3] The ILR maintained the alpaca registration database before the existence of the Alpaca Registry.

[4] I have mostly avoided naming other alpaca breeders and, in some cases, have even changed inconsequential facts so as to hide their true identity due to the tendency of some breeders to be litigious.

Chapter 2

The incredible duck caper

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that persons possessing a small farm must be in want of free livestock.

ducks2

If you recognize the paraphrased first line of a famous novel above, please thank your English teacher.  (Thanks Dr. Ruth Sharp!)   Aside from the fact that I have always wanted to paraphrase that particular bit of genius, I feel it is rather fitting for our small farm situation.

There really are loads of people who feel that anyone with a cute farm will be thrilled to have their cast off ducklings, their child’s incubated chicks/science project, their unwanted cats, and even a goat or two.  We ended up with all of the above.

By 1996, we not only have the two children, but we also have an abandoned, white cat named Caspar, and a perpetually revolving cast of unwanted chickens and ducks.  I say, “revolving” because it turns out that chickens and ducks are quite difficult to keep alive on the farm.

Most of our ducks have come to us from the Southern States farm store, by way of my own sister, Beth, who suffered from a lifelong duck obsession.  Beth had moved from New Jersey to the town of Mount Airy a few years after Tom and I moved to our farm.  As she had recently divorced, and was raising three children alone, it made sense for her to move nearer to her family.

Our mother was a duck feeder.  She often took us children, to various ponds or parks to feed the ducks stale bread, but Beth was the only one of the 5 kids who would try to grab and hold the ducks.  She was often duck bill-pinched, but remained undeterred by these painful rejections of her adoration.

Having never lived in a rural setting – yet, years would pass before Beth realized that one could buy live ducklings.  After moving to Mount Airy, she began to do just that.  Beth would raise these in her bathtub, in her house in town, and dump them in our pond when they outgrew her place.

She did not ask permission for these duck relocation projects.  In fact, she was wont to show up when we were not at home so that her ducks could just appear in the pond, as if they had flown down for a stopover during their yearly migration.  This might have been credible if the ducks had not been Pekin Ducks.  Domesticated ducks do not migrate without the help of irresponsible, former duckling owners – with bathtubs that need a good scrubbing.

Pekin ducks are quite tame, and they will follow your children around nipping at their fingers and ankles on a regular basis.   I can say, from personal experience, that once human-fed – they will allow little girls to hold them and carry them about without too much fuss.  They will happily swim with your toddlers in their kiddie pool.

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However, they will also want to breed. Ducks are loud and rambunctious breeders.  The male flaps across the surface of the pond, loudly honking, in pursuit of the female.  She, is either completely unwilling, or really playing hard to get.  This behavior can go on for half an hour or more, several times per day, for many days.    This will occasion uncomfortable questions from your small children.  It is also advisable to caution your small children not to discuss this duck behavior in public.

Sadly, where there is breeding, there will, inevitably, be brooding.  The female duck will want to make a nest in which to lay her eggs and care for them.  Will she make this nest in a place where she can easily escape from predators?  No, she will not.  Duck after duck chose the same spot under the back porch.  This is a spot that makes sense only to a duck’s brain.  It is far easier for a fox or a raccoon to crawl under a porch quickly than it is for a duck.  This point was proven time and again and punctuated with the tears and sobs of small children.

By the time she is in first grade, Casey will write a memorable school essay that ends with the bitter, misspelled sentence,

 

“The fox alredy ate my duck.”[1]

 

Tom will try to build a floating raft for the ducks to take refuge upon when nighttime predators threaten them.  The ducks will, of course, shun this alien contraption.  One thing they will not shun is the overflow  drain at the far end of the pond.

Our pond was filled on one side by 3 underground springs, and it drained into a creek on the other side.  The drain was an overflow pipe that protruded slightly from the surface of the pond, and went straight down for a few feet.  It then made a right angle turn and continued about 12 feet underground before emptying into a nearby stream.

One chilly morning, I am walking down by the pond.  I have just put the children on the school bus.  The air is crisp, and I enjoy the peaceful sound of my boots crunching on the frosty grass until I hear a faint “quack quack.”  Where is this sound coming from?  All of the ducks are paddling around at the other end of the pond.

The quack quack sound repeats. It is surely coming from much closer to me than any of those ducks on the other side of the pond, but still I see no duck nearby.  At this point, its source seems almost next to me.  What else is next to me?  No!  I refuse to entertain my next thought.  “Quack quack!” Is the sound a little more urgent now?  It is coming from inside the overflow pipe a few feet away.

The pipe is too long for me to reach down into it.  It is too narrow for the duck to raise its wings and fly out of.  Is it likely that the duck brain will say, “The only way out of here is to walk down this long, dark tunnel and see what is at the end?”  No, it is not.  Will I be able to sleep at night, knowing that the duck is slowly dying in the pond drain?  Could I shoot the duck?

I run up the hill to my house and phone my sister Beth.  Soon after, I am standing hip-deep in my pond, frantically pouring bucketfuls of water through the drain while Beth waits near the spot where the pond drains into the stream.  We will attempt to fire hose the duck out of the drain.  The duck quacks louder than ever, not wanting to be washed into the dark unknown.

I pour and frantically refill my bucket and pour again.  I am cold and wet and cranky.  I keep pouring but the quack quack noise is as close as ever.  I am about to give up when the duck finally loses its footing.  It flies out of the pipe and plops into the creek with an undignified splash.  Beth is jubilant.  We have rescued her duck!  I am still cold and wet, but amazed that our Wile E. Coyote-style solution actually worked.

The lucky duck doesn’t seem aware of its dramatic salvation.  It waddles off as though nothing unusual happened.  When Tom comes home, he covers the pond drain with a small tire from a discarded wheelbarrow.

Ducks will continue to die, but some will not die before Tom and I get to doctor them a few times.  This is important to my narrative as – I feel – it reawakens a long-dormant desire in Tom to play veterinarian.

Dr. Tom always gets to clean the duck wounds and suture them.  I, nurse Kate, am supposed to hold the duck as still as possible.  This is often difficult due to the maggots that will crawl out of the wound and over my arms.  I KNOW they are not dangerous, but my brain cannot accept this without silently shrieking.  Maggots!

This could be an inspiring story of duckly devotion, but none of these ducks will end up surviving long, sutures or no.  That fox or raccoon will be back to finish the job.  Cute as they may be, animals that have been bred for food are not really smart enough to survive on their own.  Real farmers know this, and faux farmers learn it the hard way.

Will this keep us from taking on more discarded livestock? Of course it won’t.  The ducks were merely a gateway drug in the acquisition of livestock.  Next we will agree to take on a troubled goat named Heidi. Our slide down the slippery livestock slope begins to accelerate.

A few years later, my sister Beth will find herself trapped in a dark hole of sorts.  She will not be able to see the exit.  No amount of pouring on my part will be sufficient to wash her out into the sunlit, fresh air. This will turn out to be one of my last happy adventures with Beth. She will soon descend into a desperate depression and slowly, inch by dreadful inch, kill herself with alcohol. She will drink until her brain is damaged and her life is ruined. She will lose her job, the love of her children, her ability to walk and yet she will keep drinking until her heart just stops.

Think about Beth and the duck if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. The exit was there for both of them, but the choice to walk through the darkness into the unknown felt more terrifying than staying trapped in the hole. The duck was lucky enough to be forced to move through the darkness, enter the terrifying unknown, and find a miracle on the other side. Forcing another person to do the same is pretty close to impossible.

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[1] This situation will only be complicated by repeated readings of the Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.  

Chapter 1

photo spring house on farm
spring house with vine

Be careful what you wish for

 

It began with the farm. A lot of us dream of moving out to the country to live in a more picturesque, slower-paced setting, with cows and trees, and fields of corn blowing gracefully in the wind. We hunger for a place where our kids can run free with their friends and their dogs, far from any traffic or dangerous people. I was one of those dreamers. Having been raised in large cities, military bases and one “planned community”, I wasn’t sure the places of my dreams still existed.

When I was expecting my second child, my husband Tom and I began to look for a new house. I have to admit, it was my idea. We had a nice house in a very urban neighborhood, close to both Washington D.C. and Baltimore. The restaurants and shopping were good, the traffic and schools were not. So far, my tale is boringly normal. You can dismissively call it “cocooning”, label it a “white picket fence fantasy”, or blame it for the evils of suburban sprawl, but so many of us want it just the same. And, what we can’t always justify for ourselves, we want even more for our children.

We had no particular town in mind, but we thought we would look further North and West from D.C. Tom began checking the Want Ads in the Washington Post for houses we could look at. I began to look at the places my friends lived, and evaluate each one in turn. One of my friends lived in Mount Airy, Maryland. It was quite far from Tom’s work at the FDA in Rockville, Maryland and even farther from my former employer in Bethesda, but it had a uniquely charming feel to it without the price tag of the charming locales closer to D.C.

Everyone knows someone who bought a strange, questionable house because they fell in love with it. Turns out we WERE those people, the ones other people use as a cautionary tale. And it would only get weirder as the story went on.

We cluelessly told our friends, “Were not ready to move, we’re just going to start looking.” We planned to look at many different houses and neighborhoods, and comparison shop. We planned to have lists and maps and pros and cons. We would do this methodically, logically. As John Lennon once wrote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I think some of our friends might still be laughing at us.

The first house we looked at was the one listed in the Washington Post. It had four bedrooms, was all brick, and was located in Mount Airy, Maryland. The size of the lot was not mentioned in this advertisement. The F-word (farm) was certainly not mentioned in this advertisement. One can only admire the cunning of a person who would list a 25-acre farm with a 100+ year-old house as, simply, “all brick house” in a real estate ad. He knows the land all around the house is lovely. There is a cute pond with overhanging trees, a bouncy brook full of small fish and bright stones, fields of golden hay, apple trees, and a paddock with a real cow in it. It’s like a postcard from Amish country. Why not make people drive out and see it before they cross it off their list?

While I was the one who wanted this quieter life for the children, I was not looking for a place like this. As I was imagining getting up the long, curving, steep driveway in winter, Tom was imagining the tractor he would “have to” buy. While I tried to drive thoughts of small children floating face down in ponds from my head, Tom was entertaining thoughts of the monstrous garden he could have in the spring. As I walked here and there, shaking my head at the thought of a well, Tom was asking the owner how many “outbuildings” were allowed. I was pregnant with child number 2, warily looking at a house with no closets, air conditioning, dryer or nearby neighbors. Tom was falling in love. We moved in the weekend before Halloween in 1993.

Living on a beautiful property in the country was more amazing than I could have imagined, but a lot harder as well.

Picture us a few years later. We now have two children, a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. We have added a clothing dryer to the house and an air conditioning system that kind of works. We still have no closets. We realized AFTER we moved into this old farmhouse that there was no trash pickup. I am driving with two small children to the dump once a week. It makes me feel guilty to see that huge mountain of trash at the landfill and know that I am contaminating the earth with my trash. It was easier when the trash magically disappeared in a truck from the end of my driveway.

Our television receives one channel, and only if it is not windy. This explains the tall, ugly, metal towers that loom over so many pretty, white farmhouses. A regular antenna is not going to do the job way out here. We have dial-up Internet, but the speed is so slow that it almost doesn’t feel worth it. There is no cable out this far from town, and Satellite Dish Internet is prohibitively expensive.

Move a plant and you can usually expect it to suffer and struggle to grow again, sometimes for a couple of years. That is often the case with people too. It’s silly to expect to feel “at home” when you change homes, even if you have moved many times before. It gets harder as the years go on. I know I am lucky to have a solid roof over my head and a lovely place where my children can be free to run, play, yell, throw rocks, pick dandelions and splash in the creek, but living in the country is an adjustment.

Tom still goes to work at the same job he had before he had children. I am the one whose life is now lived out on this farm, in this town, where everyone else seems to have friends and family nearby. I believe that living here, in this quaint town, on this pretty farm, is right for my children, but it doesn’t always feel right for me. I miss having a job with a salary and a title. I felt smart and important then. When we signed the contract on the farm, I had to write “housewife” on the documents; “mother” is not a job title as far as our legal system is concerned. I’m terrified that I will be unemployable when I finally try to return to work. I’m terrified that my marriage will break up and I will have to work at Burger King for the rest of my life. My children will be embarrassed by me and ask me why I didn’t “work” like their friends’ mothers.

These fears are something I cannot share with others. I will only sound spoiled to those who had no choice, or judgmental of those who made a different choice. So I share this only for the sake of those who chose the same path as me. Doing what is right for yourself and doing what is right for your children are two different things. If no one else in your whole world appreciates the sacrifice you made, just know that one other person does.

Casey and Nick are thriving here though. They can run and play as much as they want. They nap when they are tired, eat when they are hungry, talk when they want to, even yell and scream – outside. They are not yet trapped in a schedule where outside time is doled out in tiny increments called “recess.” They have no interest in watching television or going to the mall.

We are surrounded by wildflowers. I have a wildflower guide that I can use to identify some of them, but others are more mysterious. I quickly learn not to ask the locals, “What flower is this?” The answer is, invariably, “That’s a weed.” Apparently real farmers do not believe in the concept of wildflowers. That only leads to Disney-like naiveté regarding nature. Next comes the Bambification of deer, which are like large, furry rodents to real farmers. They eat your corn. Enough said. Wildflower guides are for yuppies.

In any case, my children are in love with wildflowers. They pick them for hours a day, often to bring to their appreciative mother. How nice it is to have an endless supply of beautiful gifts all around us! Of course this leads to problems when we visit people who have proper gardens. It is hard to understand why those flowers cannot be picked at will. A few years later I will attend a pasture lecture at the Agricultural Extension’s demonstration farm site. When no one is looking, I will take small pieces of two plants marked “WEEDS” on signs with angry red lettering. I will re-plant these on purpose when I get home. One is a Japanese Honeysuckle vine; I planted it along the fence line for its divine fragrance. The other is a Trumpet Vine. It will grow right up the brick face of the house to Casey’s room on the second floor, and, from her bedroom window, she will see the hummingbirds feed from the red flowers.

But, for now, Casey and Nick are still outside, picking flowers, throwing rocks and whacking things with sticks. This last behavior will elicit shocked outcries from other mothers when my kids are invited for a party or sleepover. People whose children are allowed to watch violent movies and television shows will wonder at my terrible mothering choices. Sticks and rocks! Why can I not see how dangerous they are? Remarkably, no living creature is ever harmed by this lapse in judgment on my part; or, almost none. Nick and his cousin Tommy will decide, a few years later, to see what happens when they whack the nest of some paper wasps with a stick. Nick will then learn that older cousins, even adored ones, are not necessarily smarter than paper wasps.

As of yet, we had no plans to go into the alpaca business. We had no plans to have a real farm at all. (See John Lennon quotation above.) I blame this change of plans on two things. One of these I call “the slippery livestock slope.” The other was a personal tragedy.