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.

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. … Read more

Chapter 3

Goatterdammerung!

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. … Read more

Chapter 4

The Storm Comes

“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. … Read more

Chapter 5

Alpaca Research Rant

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.… Read more

Chapter 6

The Hand of Fate

“Why breed alpacas?” This is the question that you will have to answer over and over if you own alpacas. In the U.S. the answer will invariably be, “For their valuable fleece.” or “They’re luxury fiber producers.” Every breeder I talked to said this, every alpaca website and magazine I looked at gave this answer, this was, and still is, the only acceptable answer in the U.S. alpaca industry. Since it was all about the fleece, it seemed obvious to me that my next research step should be hand spinning lessons. If we were really going to buy and breed animals whose main value is in their fleeces, I should know how to use my own product. How else could I correctly judge the quality of fleeces we were producing?

Turns out, this simple idea of using your own product, to gain experience with it, was not as much of a no-brainer to most other alpaca breeders as I imagined. The majority of them were not interested in learning to shear or spin, knit or weave. I was one of the weirdos in this regard, a position that is comfortably familiar to me.

I can admit that it wasn’t exactly a sacrifice for me to get into hand spinning. I’d been dying to try it for years, ever since my first visit to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds. Seeing hundreds of women spinning, in public, on spinning wheels and drop spindles, at an event that was all about wool and other spinnable fibers caused a sudden, sharp revelation from deep within me.… Read more

Chapter 7

The Stud the Bred and the Cuddly or:

Mother Nature does not do politically correct.

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.… Read more

Chapter 8

Tractors and Tiaras

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.  … Read more

Chapter 9

Spit Happens!

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.… Read more

New Alpaca Baby Born!

Well, yesterday I had my gross operation for the ganglion cyst in my wrist. Typing left-handed is not fun! but I had to brag about Cassy‘s new female cria born around 12 noon today. 20 lbs. female and all black with 1 tiny white spot behind the left front foot. What a beauty!

Mom & Baby doing fine. Cria nursed within 1 hour and got lots of milk. My hand hurts from filming when I shouldn’t have been but I’m so excited! A new little life on this Earth. We are so lucky to be part of it and witness it. Good news for Nickleby too. He’s now produced 2 girls, a gray & a black. This ought to help him find a buyer!

These little miracles make it all worthwhile.… Read more

Alpaca Cria Babies

Well my boy Valentino has a new cria ( alpaca baby ) on the ground as of about 9:30 this morning – Go Valentino – you are the man! The dam, Sable, belongs to my friend Helen from Red Barn Alpacas in Sykesville and she was kind enough to send me a photo right away. I HATE it when people buy alpacas or breedings and turn out not to be the type who can figure out how to e-mail a photo of the new baby! so Thank God Helen is not one of those because I do need photos of all of my “grandchildren” as soon as possible.

Sable, was a little bratty during the breeding last year and decided that she was going to go down for Valentino then breed for 10 minutes or so and then just went, “oops I did it again” and decided she didn’t want to finish breeding after all, she then jumped up and said Hey, Let’s just be friends.” Val went bonkers and I was trying to boot him out of her pen but he wasn’t budging so I tried to let Sable out instead. She wouldn’t leave either! Meanwhile, another male, Campion, got in and then, while both guys were in there, Little Ms. Sable decided, “Hey, maybe I DO want to be bred after all.” or maybe she’s just into weird stuff but, she cushed back down instead of leaving the pen and acted ready to breed again.

Campion tried to jump right on her and HE WASN’T THE ONE WHO WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE THE JOB!!!!… Read more