Tag Archives: farm

Chapter 11

 

Gifts and Trials of Winter on the Farm

 

 

Cher and Latte continue to bond, and Cher is nursing well and growing. I could go on, but that’s the thing about the alpaca farm. You imagine yourself caring for the animals, feeding them, training them, admiring them as they prance through the field, but most of your time will be spent taking care of other things on the farm, like winter.

 

Winter is an annoyance when you live in a neighborhood. You might have to put on a heavy coat. You may have to shovel your driveway (all 20 feet of it), you might have to brush off the top of your snowy car now and then with a broom, but winter on a farm is like a living thing. It can be a delicate, lightly snowy, chilly charmer, or it can be like a huge dog that has you firmly in its teeth. Every now and then it shakes you hard just to remind you that it can. The winter Cher came will be one of those.

 

It snows every few days and the temperature refuses to climb above the mid 30s. I am trudging up the hill to the barn to check on the alpacas several times during the day and evening, and I am also driving up and down the driveway to drop off and pick up children from the school bus twice a day, when I CAN drive it. Tom plows it in the evening but half the time the wind blows the snow across the fields all night, filling the driveway back in by morning. If it’s not passable, I hike up and down the driveway along with the kids.

 

Tom is also hiking in the snow. He leaves his small commuter car at the top of the driveway and trudges up to it each morning before driving to work.

 

I have given up on dressing in normal clothing. Every day I wear my winter farm lady uniform. This consists of a pair of blaze orange, camouflage overalls from the L.L. Bean outlet and an old, red parka over a pair of long johns. The overalls are designed for hunters; they are insulated and lined with polar fleece. Most importantly, they had been marked down from $120 to $20 dollars at the L.L. Bean outlet. But they are so very ugly. The camo print is not even nice leaves, but something called “Predator” which features jagged, thorny-looking branches. The blinding orange color is supposed to prevent me from being shot by another hunter.

 

On my feet are military-issue, “Mickey” boots, so called because they are huge and made of shiny black rubber so that your feet seem enormous in relation to your legs, like those of Mickey Mouse. Sometimes I top the whole ensemble off with a “mad bomber” style hat lined with rabbit fur. While inside the house, I remove the outer layers and walk around in the long johns. I am warm but very strange looking all day, every day.

 

making an ice bridge in the snow
Casey makes the ice bridge

 

One morning, when I drive up to the bus stop, our driveway seems especially snowy and slick at the top. I don’t want the kids to slip and get hurt, so I pull out and drive down our street a little way, to the entrance of a housing development. Casey and Nick can wait there on the plowed, paved road for the bus, along with the kids from the neighborhood.

 

This is nice. I am thinking that I might start taking the kids here every school morning, but then one of the parents, gets out of his car, walks up to my window and knocks on it. When I roll it down, he says, “You have a big gray bird on the top of your van.”

 

At this point, I have to interrupt myself and add that Tom and I had not stopped acquiring farm animals just because we had decided to run an alpaca farm. Animal cast-offs continued to find us, including various chickens and a small flock of guinea hens.

 

The guinea hens are said to eat their own body weight in ticks each day. They also sound like a loud, rusty gate when they squawk, and they squawk constantly. We have provided them with some nice barrels filled with straw to roost in, and placed these on their sides, against a hill, out of the wind, but the Guinea hens wander about and sleep wherever they like, sometimes on the porch chairs.

 

So now I am in an actual neighborhood, looking around at these parents, who all know each other, and are all wearing normal clothing, and I want to say, “Hey, I don’t know what that bird is doing up there.” But I DO know what that damn bird is doing there. One of the Guinea hens must have flown into the garage sometime yesterday and perched on top of my van, still warm from one of its many trips up and down the driveway. Whether trapped in the garage, or just too happy to move, the guinea hen had spent the night on top of my van, and she had probably been too startled to fly off it when I drove up our driveway and down the street to the neighborhood. She was, literally, along for the ride.

 

After a moment’s thought, I decide that the best thing to do is to leave the bird where it is and hope it stays on the van roof until I get back to our driveway. The school bus pulls up and the driver puts out his red stop sign to stop the traffic. Casey and Nick are enjoying the thrill of boarding the bus with the other kids; just one of the crowd, but that is about to change. It is at this very moment that the stupid guinea hen chooses to fly off of my van roof. It flaps around confusedly, and then lands on top of an expensive-looking Jeep that is stopped directly facing the school bus.

 

Children, parents and motorists all stop to look at this large gray bird that has flown down and perched in their midst. People start pointing and laughing. The bus driver, Mr. Hurley, has to speak sharply to the children to force them to finish getting on the bus. No one wants to miss the impromptu bird show. The Jeep’s driver gets out. He is wearing a business suit. He is not happy.

 

I force myself to climb out of my van wearing my awful, winter, farm lady uniform. The Jeep’s driver looks from the bird to me as though demanding that I do something. He is on his way to work at some important job. I am a woman in scruffy hunting attire that drives around with large birds on her vehicle. Over the excited shouts of the children, I feel like I can hear Casey inside the school bus saying, “What? No, that’s not my mother! That’s some lady who gave me a ride to the bus.”

 

More vehicles continue to pull up to the stopped school bus, so there is now a small traffic jam worth of commuters watching. I walk half-heartedly toward the Jeep, having no idea of what I am supposed to do. I can’t reach high enough to grab the bird. Should I shoo it? Just as I get near her, the guinea hen flies off again, this time landing on a neighbor’s roof. The spell is broken.

 

The school bus starts to pull away and traffic resumes, leaving in its wake the normal folks from the development, and me, the blaze orange, Mickey boot-footed, crazy bird lady. Words fail me. I climb back in the van and drive home.

 

The next day the driveway is impassible again. The kids and I trudge up the driveway. There are snowdrifts 4 and 5 feet tall that have blown into it during the night, so we try to find the lowest spots to walk in. The kids are so bundled up that they move like awkward, fat mummies. We wait and wait in the cold.   The bus is one hour late, but it feels like 10 hours to us. The kids finally get on and I turn around to head back to the house. We have not even gotten through January yet.

 

Maybe Tom should plow the driveway, pull the van up it with the tractor, (and me steering the van) and we can leave it at the top along with his car. We could use our expensive 4-wheel drive van as a bus shelter where we could sit out of the wind while waiting for the school bus.

 

The first week of February has passed and snow continues to fall every couple of days. The alpacas seem as crabby as I am. The Altiplano, their ancestral home in the high Andes mountain range, is a desert. It gets very cold, but it does not get humid. There is rarely a significant snowfall there, and it is blessed with plentiful sunshine. While the alpacas are fine with the cold, they’re not willing to walk through foot deep snow. Nor can they graze. They are making do with hay and grain and precious little sunshine.

 

Cher is the exception of course. Her joy at being alive is keeping us all from despair. As soon as I come up to the barn to feed the alpacas and rake up their manure, Cher begins rocketing around her small outside enclosure. She kicks up her back legs like a horse bucking. Sometimes she has trouble stopping and bonks into her mother, but Latte no longer seems to mind. Seeing Cher so quick and strong makes it hard to believe that 2 weeks ago she was still inside her dam.  Seeing her makes me laugh and appreciate my farm life.

 

kids playing in the snow
kids playing in the snow

 

One day, my friend Lois calls to tell me that she will drive over to the farm for a cheer up visit. I try to warn her off of our slick, snowy driveway, but she has a brand new 4-wheel drive Blazer truck and feels certain she can get in and out with no difficulty. I’m so starved for company that I can’t wait for her to arrive. We talk and have lunch together like normal people. We take cute photos of the alpacas with her new digital camera. All too soon, it is time for her to leave, and me to pick up the kids.

 

I have barely finished waving goodbye to Lois when I begin to hear a strange noise. It is like the screeching of metal on metal. It seems to be coming from the wire fence. I follow the sound up the hill and see that Lois and her new truck have somehow slid off the driveway backwards and through the wire fence into the field. Her left wheels are outside the fence line and her right wheels are inside it. Fence wires are running across the top of her truck and under it from the front to the back. Her brand new truck is stuck and getting scratched.

 

With no time to stop, I slog up the hill to get the kids. The bus is, mercifully, on time. I stop where Lois is stuck and send Casey and Nick down to the house. They are mildly curious about the truck but, being children, do not understand the predicament we are in. I try stepping on the bottom wires of the fence, near the truck, and holding the top wires above my head while Lois guns the engine, but the truck does not move. We try digging out some of the snow under the wheels, and then we try pouring cracked corn (duck food) on the ground for traction. We try sticking flattened cardboard boxes under the wheels. We do this for a couple of hours. Nothing works.

 

Lois is embarrassed about the fence. I’m feeling terrible about the scratches on her brand new truck. Both of us are dreading the moment when Tom comes home and catches the two of us in our humiliating Lucy and Ethel moment. Soon enough, he does just that. He does not laugh, but looks at us with a less than charitable expression on his face. He goes to the barn for the tractor while I check on the kids. Then he maneuvers the tractor in front of the truck and hooks a chain to the bumper. I am once again standing on some of the fence wires while holding the rest above my head. Tom backs up. Lois tries to follow Tom’s shouted steering directions. Nothing happens.

 

After 4 tries pulling with the tractor, Tom walks stiffly over to Lois and says, “You do have the 4-wheel drive on don’t you?” Poor Lois realizes that she does not. She thought she knew how the new truck worked, but she misunderstood its 4-wheel drive system. It had not been engaged at all, and neither of us had thought to check it the entire time we’d been frantically trying to free the truck. Tom switches on the 4-wheel drive and stomps back over to the tractor. He reattaches the chain and backs the tractor up again. The truck finally slides free. Tom climbs into the tractor and roars off.

 

I feel terrible that Lois drove all the way out here to visit me and now has to drive home and explain to her husband what happened to the new truck. She’s still concerned that Tom is mad about the fence. We’re both telling each other not to worry about that part of it. We finally hug and go our separate ways.

 

The weekend comes and Casey and Nick want to spend the time playing in the snow. Being children, they are not tired of it at all. Casey figures out all by herself that, if you dump enough snow in the cold stream behind our pond, and stomp on it with your boots, you can create an ice bridge. Nick joins in but is only allowed to be the helper, not a bridge engineer like his big sister. Even Sammie the dog is willing to traipse around in the snow for a little while, if it means sharing an adventure with the kids. My children have reminded me of something; trying to get through the snow is not the same as being in the snow. One is a chore, the other, a pleasure.

 

small dog in the snow
Sammie the dog in the snow

 

Though we may have come to see snow as an annoyance in our modern lives, real farmers love snowy winters. Snow acts as an insulating layer, a sort of chilly mulch that protects the bulbs and roots in the ground from freezing, and allows the nutrients from plant debris to be trapped and broken down more thoroughly. The moisture in snow is released slowly, in a way that won’t run off or cause erosion. Snow is like a blanket on the earth that allows it to rest peacefully so that it can wake up refreshed in the spring.

 

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 4

The Storm Comes

watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson
watercolor painting of Lewes Delaware by Tom Benson

“Why?”  This is the question on everyone’s mind when they find out that you will have, do have, or have had an alpaca farm.  How do a pharmacist and a computer programmer, neither of whom have ever lived on a farm, both of whom work for the Federal Government, decide to start an alpaca breeding farm?

I was currently living on a farm, with livestock,  and a husband who wanted to start a farm business.  Tom had been researching farm options even as I planned to go back to my safe, predictable life as a computer programmer.  He briefly researched vineyards, but we were already surrounded by boutique vineyards.  He looked into aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming, but I couldn’t share his excitement about fish.  Finally he started mentioning alpacas.  I found the idea of fluffy, pretty alpacas very tempting, but way too risky.  Investing hard-earned money and years of work while taking a chance on wasting it all?  I couldn’t see myself doing something crazy like that!  I didn’t know then that I was about to be hit with the cosmic two-by-four.

For the last few years I had been increasingly concerned about my father, Tom.  Since his name is the same as my husband’s I’ll call him Col. Tom.  He and my mother, Ruth, had retired to Lewes Delaware after a 30+ year military career.  Lewes was then an adorable little beach town with many Victorian houses, one main road, a few shops and restaurants, and a ferry terminal from which the ferries sailed to Cape May, New Jersey.  It was about two and a half hours from our farm, and I visited often with the kids.

Both of my parents grew up in the 1920’s,  during the Great Depression.  My dad had been working on the loading docks in Boston when World War II began.  He signed up to fight and was sent to Algiers in North Africa.  He sometimes remarked that, upon joining the Army, he had the experience of being able to eat as much as he wanted for the first time in his life.  

Despite being poor, my dad was an excellent student and very, very smart.  He was great at math, but he loved history, poetry and literature as well.  He was crazy about art, and dreamed of being a painter one day. He was excited to see the exotic scenery of Algeria and Tunisia, ride camels, and study the customs of the Arabs.  It was during the winding down of this campaign that my dad’s commanding officer informed him that he was nominating him to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  My dad was sent to Amherst College in Massachusetts to prepare.  The rest of his company moved on to Italy.  Most of them would die there.

No one in Col. Tom’s family had entertained the idea of going to college.  For these grandchildren of tough Irish immigrants, college was something only rich people did.  The war, and one commanding officer, changed the course of my father’s life.  He graduated from West Point with honors, and a degree in engineering.  The Army sent him to several more schools including the  famous Defense Language Institute in Monterey California.  Col. Tom ended up a PH.d.

He stayed in the Army and lived all over the world.  In addition to WWII, Col. Tom  served multiple tours in Vietnam. He had a messy dresser drawer full of commendation medals and award certificates.  During his long career he had been a paratrooper, a commanding officer, a professor at West Point, and a base commander.  He had lived in Germany, Morocco, Vietnam, Korea, Alaska, Michigan, Texas, San Francisco, Virginia, Brazil and New York.  He had traveled all over Europe, Asia, South America and other exotic locales, plunking down his easel in spare moments and painting whatever took his fancy.  He had painted canvases in Rome, Portugal, Paris and Madrid, often sporting a corny, Picasso-style beret.

Man in beret black and white
Col Tom with his corny beret looking dashing in postwar Germany

Now my dad was starting to seem confused, agitated, annoyed; a different person than the one I knew.  Both of my parents prided themselves on being proper New Englanders.  They controlled themselves in all situations, and outward shows of annoyance by either of them had been extremely rare.  Maybe most people get more cranky when they are old, but the change in my father was more dramatic.  

On my latest visit my dad had asked me several times how to work his own camera.  Each time I answered, he seemed satisfied, but later he asked the same question again.  He had recently bought his first computer but could not work it, even after I explained it to him.  This purchase especially frightened me.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that my father’s sudden desire to own a computer was because he thought it could be used to make sense of the information that his brain no longer processed correctly.  

Col. Tom’s mother had probably died of Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1970s. We did not witness her last years or her death. We were living in Asia then.   I’m not sure her type of dementia was ever officially diagnosed, but  we knew of erratic, confused behavior that required her to have a live in caretaker for several years.    By the time of my dad’s illness we knew that the tendency for Alzheimer’s Disease is partly inherited .  I hated the idea of being the one to bring up my father’s declining mental abilities.  I didn’t want to face what might be coming, but I couldn’t live with myself if I did nothing either.  I felt that there must be some treatment that could help him.  On the first week in January of 1996, I went to Delaware to pick up my parents and bring them back to stay at our farm.  

I had spent several months trying to get my father a neurology appointment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  The Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, near my parents’ house, no longer offered any medical treatment for retired military personnel.  Bethesda still offered care, but it took multiple phone calls, and weeks or months of waiting, to secure one appointment and only those who lived in the area were eligible.  We had to claim my parents as  dependents of my husband, who was then active duty U.S. Public Health Service.  This stuck in the craw of my parents, who had seen their country through two wars and had been promised health care by the government they trusted, but there was no way around it. 

 My father was not yet clear on the true reason for this appointment, I had let him think it was a follow-up from a previous urology appointment, but my mother knew what it was about, and she was angry and resentful.  She had loved and admired this man for so long that she couldn’t allow herself to acknowledge what might be happening.  I wasn’t sure I could stand to know the truth either.  I felt like Pandora with my hand on the lid of the box.

We arrived back in Mt. Airy on Friday afternoon.  The fateful appointment was set for Monday morning.  The Weather Service was forecasting a few inches of snow that weekend, but nothing our 4-wheel drive van couldn’t handle.  The atmosphere in the house was tense, but the kids were thrilled to see Grandma and Grandpa. 

The snow began falling hard on Saturday morning and kept on falling.  The storm began to look more and more serious.  The weather predictions about inches of snow became a foot and then more like two feet.  Tom climbed on his tractor and started to clear the driveway.  In a few hours the snow was too deep to push and he had to lift it up in the bucket of the tractor’s front loader and throw it off of the driveway.  Hours kept passing and snow kept falling.

Tom on the tractor in the snow
Tom on the tractor in the snow

I was starting to panic.  I had exhausted most of my personal courage in bullying my parents into coming home with me to attend an appointment where we might find out that what we most dreaded had come to pass.  What if we couldn’t make the appointment now?  Would I start the months of waiting and phone calls over again?  And, what if I couldn’t convince my parents to come home with me the next time?  Was the Universe just screwing with me now?   

I worried about my poor husband, out in the freezing wind and falling snow for what would turn out to be more than eight hours on the tractor.  He had never worked a marathon tractoring session like this before.  When I had spare worrying time, I worried about the goats.  How would they get to the brook to drink if there were two feet of snow in their paddock?  Who knew when we could get around to clearing a path to their barn to check on them?

This last fear turned out to be unfounded.  While my mother played with the children, Tom tractored snow, and my father and I shoveled pathways from the house to the garage, the goats were calmly engaging in their own survival plan.  They single-mindedly walked back and forth from the goat palace to the brook, over an over, all during the storm.  They would end up doing this for two full days.  In this way, they kept a snowy corridor to their drinking water open.  Once again, the goats had proven their superiority as a species. 

Tom finally came in, half-frozen and exhausted, just as night began to fall.  The tractor was out of diesel fuel.  The Weather Service informed us that another snowstorm was approaching rapidly.  Our situation was looking hopeless.  This was turning out to be a record-breaking storm and now we had no fuel for the tractor.

Sunday morning came.  Snow was falling again, but a small miracle had also happened.  The diesel fuel fairy had visited.  One of the Rogers, our wonderful, generous neighbors, had tied a large container of diesel fuel to an old-fashioned, runner sled and sent it sledding down our driveway.  We had not called them, they guessed that we had probably run out.  We had fuel!

Tom and I decided to move our van up to the top of the long, winding driveway, a few feet from the main road.   This is something we had learned to do when the driveway might be impassable for a while.  It is far easier to trudge up a snowy or icy driveway on foot than manage to drive most vehicles up it.  Tom attaches the van to the tractor with a chain and pulls it up while I nervously steer from inside the van, trying to keep it from sliding off the driveway.  

With the van parked safely at the top, I hike down through the lumpy snow and chilly air to the house where my parents and children wait.  Tom goes back to his lonely, cold, snow removal job.  He moves a few feet forward, lowers the bucket of the front loader, scoops up snow, lifts the bucket in the air, backs the tractor at an angle to one of the snowy walls on either side of him and dumps the snow over.  He does this for almost another full day.    Sometime in the afternoon he trudges back down the driveway to the house with more bad news.  The tractor’s axle has broken.  

We now have close to four feet of snow on the ground, but the storm is finally stopping, and most of the driveway is cleared.  We might be able to shovel the rest by hand.   Tom and I climb back up, lugging our snow shovels to the spot near the end of our driveway that is not yet cleared, and begin to dig.  It is miserable work.  I am sweaty and cold at the same time and my arms are aching from the effort of lifting the snow chest high to throw it high enough to clear the walls.  Sometimes I do it wrong and some of the snow plops back down on my head or slides down the neck of my parka.  Sometimes the wind blows it back into our faces.  We make progress, but soon the sun is setting and the cold is growing.  We are not going to make it.  We head back down before the dark overtakes us.  I try to be thankful that we have not lost our electricity or our roof.  Others have not been that lucky.  The news is full of stories of roofs caved in from the heavy snow.

Our driveway after snow removal
Our driveway after snow removal

Something makes us climb back up the hill early Monday morning to assess our hopeless situation.  Another miracle has occurred.  Someone has cleared the last part of our driveway of most of the snow, then hooked a chain to our van and yanked it out, adjacent to the road.  This time our guardian angel will turn out to be the Rogers’ son-in-law Ed, owner  of the auto repair garage in town.  Tom and I slip and slide excitedly down the driveway to the house to get my father.  We are going to keep our appointment!

We will reach the Naval Hospital an hour and a half later only to find it is officially closed.  The entire government has been shut down due to the record snowfall.  Only some of the lights are on inside, and there are hardly any people around.  The huge hospital feels like a ghost town, but we find out that there is a skeleton crew of doctors on duty.    Most of them have no patients to care for.  This results in my father getting all of the necessary tests in one day.  He is seen by the neurologist, X-rays are taken.  A CAT scan is performed.  Blood is drawn, tested and the results explained to us.  The tests last for almost 7 hours.  This seems like a very lucky break for us as these tests would normally be spread out over half a dozen appointments,  but the marathon of unfamiliar testing begins to seem sinister to my father.  He becomes paranoid and agitated as the day wears on. 

By the end of the day we have confirmation that Col. Tom has dementia and the neurologist does not think it is in the beginning stages either, but the middle.  My dad has been hiding it well, but now that he is exhausted and disoriented from the long hours of testing, it is all too obvious.  We have to talk him into going home with us.  He does not trust us, especially me.  He will later come to believe that his mental problems are my fault; that it began this day when I took him to people who experimented on his brain.  He will begin to hate and fear me, even as I continue to make him appointments and take him back to the same hospital, hoping for a treatment that can stop the progress of his disease.  Eventually, he will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease but they will not find a treatment that can slow it.  

My father’s descent into madness was not caused by the terrible storm, but the two things  are forever connected in my brain.  The feeling of being trapped, cold, helpless, while the snow keeps falling and falling merges with the dread of endless waiting in the empty, dark hospital for the confirmation of something I don’t want to know.  My dad, the brilliant, brave, artistic Colonel is gone.  

It feels unfair that all this effort will lead to nothing except him hating me and believing that I betrayed him.  During the next few years I will often hope for a  magical, T.V.-movie ending where my father has a moment of lucidity and tells me, “I know this wasn’t your fault.”  This being real life, that moment won’t come.

Slowly I will begin to understand certain things.  We do our best, but we are not in control, not of the weather, not of our own fate.  Playing it safe does not make us safe.  We are never really safe.  I knew these things on some level, but since the storm, I really know them.  I am ready to take a crazy chance.  I’m ready to live a braver life.  I am ready to breed alpacas for a living.

Man and child in snow storm
Col. Tom and his granddaughter brave the storm

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Goatterdammerung!

goat on playset
Heidi goat queen of Mount Airy

Judging by the frequency with which one sees their image represented on cozy, “country” décor, ducks and chickens can be seen as charming.  So cute in wallpaper motifs and ceramic kitchenware!  Goats are another story.  Once you have gone goat, there is no going back. Nothing screams “hillbilly” quite like owning a goat.  And, if you own a goat, don’t choose a billy!

 

Our goat came as a cast off from an NRA-hat-topped, tobacco pipe smoking, rodeo belt buckle-wearing neighbor.  He informed me that he had a goat he planned to shoot, if no one wanted her, because she was jealous of his kids and kept trying to kill them.  I know he planned this statement happily anticipating my confusion and resulting horror.  Good old boys are like that; they like to get a rise out of the “city folk.”

 

Of course the “kids” in question were of the newborn goat variety.  I realized that in time to avoid an embarrassing verbal outburst, but he did get the satisfaction of my momentarily horrified facial expression.  He also got the satisfaction of unloading an unwanted goat from the back of his pickup truck into our paddock and driving off into the proverbial sunset.

 

Heidi the goat was our first four-legged livestock acquisition.  A goat is neither dumb like a chicken, nor meek like a Pekin duck.  They are technically domesticated, but in no way are they lacking in wildness.  They will obey when they feel like it because they are very sociable.  If they don’t feel like it, good luck doing anything about it!

 

Heidi was white with large, irregular, brown spots on her fur, and she weighed about 60 pounds.  Her cutesy name turned out to be the only thing girly about her.  Heidi was no demure little lass. She had a beard and horns and a big, big attitude.  She was like a small, but powerful tornado, and she loved her new family very much.

 

Casey and Nick were anxious to play with Heidi, and she was equally excited about playing with them.  She trotted right over to them, lowered her head, and quickly butted each of them in turn.  She moved so fast that it was like watching a badly edited movie.  One minute the child was standing in one spot and a second later the child appeared a foot behind the previous spot.  No actual movement seemed to occur.

 

Heidi was not trying to hurt the children, she didn’t even knock them down; she just wanted them to understand that they were lower than her.  Goats have a simplified social order based on the fact that the animal who is higher up – literally – is the one in charge.

 

This was the last time that my kids would consent to be around Heidi if she was not on a leash.  They still liked her; they just didn’t trust her.  I, being considerably taller than Heidi, had no trouble with her unless I let her climb up something and get higher than me.  In fact, Heidi accepted me as her mother immediately, and would follow me around with or without a leash whenever I allowed her to.  She often rubbed the side of her face on my thigh, scent marking me as hers.    If I sat on the ground, she would plop down beside me and allow me to scratch her between the horns.

 

pet goat with children
Heidi with her family

While we set out to build a goat barn in the paddock previously occupied by the cow, I read two books on goat care from the local library.  Both books advised that goats must never be kept alone.  They are herd animals and suffer terribly when they have no herd. Poor Heidi was living alone in a large “dogloo” dog house with only the intermittent company of her human family.  We would need another goat.

 

Tom laid a foundation for the small barn and moved an old shack onto it with the help of my brother Kevin.  He then walled off half of the shack for hay and grain storage and added a hinged goat door that Heidi could walk through on her own.  We christened it “the goat palace.”

 

A few weeks later, I waltzed into the show goat barn at the Great Frederick Agricultural Fair and stupidly announced to the teenaged girls present that I wanted to purchase a goat as a companion animal.  Never do this!

 

I knew these goats were usually sold after the goat show, but failed to realize that they were being sold for meat.  What DID I think they were raised for?  Milk?  Fancy soap? Pulling a cart with granny in it like in a Heidi movie?  I don’t know.  I am a stupid person.

 

The typical goat here has been raised by a young girl as if it were a pet.  It is bottle fed, trained to walk on a lead, groomed and fussed over.  Many have fancy collars.  All have cute names.  They are loved as pets but sold as meat.

 

A crowd of desperately hopeful little girls rushes toward me.  Apparently goats are not perceived as livestock for guys, because there are none here, just sweet little girls and the goats they adore.  I feel like I am choosing who gets a reprieve from the gas chamber at Auschwitz, but I pick one goat, refusing all others, even if those with teary owners.    I am a terrible person.

 

Our new goat has markings that make him look like a miniature Holstein cow but he is reddish in some spots.  He is wearing a pink, rhinestone collar.  His name is Cinnamax, but we  will end up calling him Max.  He is sweet and hornless and does not butt the children, but he does butt Heidi right back when she goes after him.  They race around together joyfully.  They smack their foreheads together alarmingly.  We now have goats – plural.

goats with human family
Heidi and Max

 

The goat paddock is quite large, and it was mostly made up of very large weeds.  Its fence line encompassed part of our brook, so there was plenty of clean water to drink, but very little grass.  Looking at it closely, I wondered if the cow might have been a prop used by the wily former owners of this place to make it seem more bucolic.  One cow with very little grass and no shelter?

 

I needn’t have worried because it turned out that Heidi and Max did not like grass, but loved to eat weeds.  It is not true that goats will eat tin cans as they sometimes do in cartoons, but they will eat huge multiflora bushes with inch long thorns, and they will eat these right to the ground, killing them completely.  They will eat bull thistle, poison ivy and tree bark.

 

Goats are often used to clear underbrush and weedy lots, and they will do this better than a bush hog or any other machine.  As they will only eat grass as a last option and their manure is a very good fertilizer, the paddock would wind up looking like it was maintained by a high-end lawn service.

 

Heidi, and Max could often be seen perfectly balanced on the branches of the apple trees in their paddock, happily stripping the bark off with their teeth.  We lost two nice apple trees in this fashion.

 

When Heidi escaped from her enclosure, which she did regularly, she had several favorite pursuits.  One was to climb the steps of the children’s play set and slide down the slide standing up.  Another was to jump on top of any available car, truck or tractor and do a little tap dance of glee, gaily scratching the paint.  Then she would eat any available roses, race around the pond over and over as if she were a demented track star, and end up on the back porch looking into the sliding glass door trying to find her family.

 

If you have not seen a goat in action, it would be hard for you to believe just how well-coordinated and agile they are.  I have seen Heidi race through her paddock at top speed, leap into the air with all four hooves apart like a Kung Fu master and come to a dead stop on top of her slippery dogloo. I would not have believed this to be possible if I had not seen it more than once.

 

A friend told me about a goat of hers that would race across her lawn and leap onto the outside ledge of her living room window  to tease her dogs and make them bark frantically.  And the goat would do this over and over again, landing on a 4 inch ledge, next to a large glass window without ever touching the window itself, until the dogs were mad with frustration and rage.

 

Max was equally good at escaping.  He eventually taught himself to jump a five foot stock fence by ricocheting at an upward angle off of a nearby tree.  We saw him do this.  He grew to be larger than Heidi, but he remained her second in command.  His genteel upbringing and his gelding may have accounted for his slightly calmer behavior.  He was every bit as funny as Heidi, but far less manic.

 

Owning a goat will not only make you question the laws of physics, but also your Judeo-Christian upbringing. Goats are scary smart, while sheep are famously dumb.  Sheep are easily frightened and seem unable to act independently.   Goats are exuberant, funny, brave, and very independent.  They have big personalities.  Sheep can literally get stuck if they fall over and then die within hours because they cannot right themselves.  This is called being “cast.”  Goats are survivors.

 

Why are sheep the ideal biblical metaphor for God’s people while goats are so often portrayed as demonic or devilish?  Goats express a fierce joy in daily living and a will to survive that is incredibly inspiring.  They make us laugh and they love us .  Are they sometimes a little devilish?  Well, yes.  But I’d still rather be a goat than a sheep.

 

With the goats came worming, never-ending fence repairs and trips to the farm store for straw bales and sweet feed in 50 lb. bags.  The goat barn had to be mucked out and fresh straw put down.  The goats had to have their toenails trimmed.  Our lives were getting ever more farmy.  Our friends begin to include “They have goats!” as part of our introduction to other people.  We pose with the children and the goats for a Christmas card photo but find it too hard to control two excitable toddlers, two excited goats and one remote camera.  We use a photo of ourselves on the tractor instead.

 

 

Farm family on tractor
Christmas card