Tag Archives: moving to the country

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. All have 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 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.