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. I wasn’t expecting the agricultural community to welcome me with open arms, but I didn’t expect quite this level of hostility either.
Tom’s efforts at farming didn’t help our reputation any. If most of the farm world is separated into “real” farmers and tractor and tiara farmers, Tom would fall into a third category that I call “funny farmer.” He loved his tractor and other farm machinery a little too much and was as happy as I have ever seen him when doing manual labor, but he always took his projects a little too far.
Take Tom’s love of ditch witching for example. The first time I heard about ditch witching I thought the conversation was about someone trying to locate underground water with a magical forked stick. I soon found out that there is an actual machine called a “Ditch Witch”, and it is used to dig trenches. The official logo of the Ditch Witch Company is somewhat confusing. The silhouetted witch appears to be wearing a very tight-fitting shirt with flowing sleeves but has somehow forgotten to put on either pants or a skirt. She is pictured riding a shovel rather than a broom, and she is riding it in a way that is very sexually suggestive. This is the logo of a company that is not worried about offending female customers. They clearly don’t have any. Men, on the other hand, love this machine and Tom was no exception. He ditches witched trenches for water and electric lines to our 3 barns, and still couldn’t stop ditch witching. He ditch witched a line from our house, down the hill to a tree by the pond so that he could put an electric socket and a spotlight in the tree, “just in case we decide to have a party in the back yard.” Our lawn was ditch witched so thoroughly and so often that our neighbors began relentlessly teasing us about our severe groundhog problem.
Tom’s ideas about fencing were equally funny. Gentlemen farmers buy fencing, usually white, three-board, horse fence, and they pay someone else to install it. Real farmers buy posts, dig the holes themselves with a posthole digger and a tractor auger, and run a high tensile wire from post to post. This can be barbed wire or un-barbed, electrified wire. This is not nearly as beautiful as a whiteboard, but it gets the job done economically, and requires far less upkeep. Tom decided to build our fence with posts and wire too, but couldn’t resist adding his own crazy “improvement.”
Since the meningeal worm is the most disastrous of the parasites that can affect alpacas and its natural host is the white-tailed deer, Tom decided that he could devise a fence too high for the deer to jump over. White-tailed deer can easily jump a standard 5-foot fence, but what about a 7-foot fence? The obvious problem with this plan is that fence posts are not manufactured to be 7 feet high. Tom, however, had a plan for this. He had heard of a local, pick-your-own-pumpkin operation that needed tractoring help during the pumpkin harvest. This pumpkin farm had a deal with the local utility company that allowed the utility company to discard old telephone poles on the pumpkin farm property rather than having to haul them to the trash dump. Tom arranged for the owner of this pumpkin farm to pay him in telephone poles for helping with the pumpkin harvest. When the neighbors saw that Tom was erecting a 7-foot high fence using telephone poles as fence posts, we were in for another round of teasing, this time about “gorilla farms” and Jurassic Park.
Another eccentric farmer, our beloved neighbor, Alden Rogers, aided Tom’s progress on the funny farm fence. Al was certainly no stranger to hard work or crazy schemes. You may remember that he sent us a child’s sled with diesel tractor fuel tied to it during the blizzard. During another heavy snowstorm, this old gentlemen hiked the half mile from his farm to ours wearing snowshoes to see if WE were okay. Despite having a brilliant mind, Al had once made the tragic error of cutting a strand of barbed wire on his own farm fence without using eye protection. A piece of wire under tension that is suddenly cut will move with astonishing speed. Al didn’t have time to move or close his eyes before being struck. Al sometimes wore a fake eye, but more often wore a black eye patch. He kept right on working on his fence and those of his daughters and neighbors well into his 80s.
If the weather were warm Al would often drive his golf cart over to our place wearing his trademark white undershirt, baggy shorts, and huge mud boots. There is something so beautiful in one neighbor casually joining in on another’s farm labor without even being asked. We were lucky enough to experience that many times, and often dropped in on the Rogers and pitched in on their farm work as well. It saddens me to think that most people in our society no longer have the time or inclination to form these kinds of relationships with their neighbors.
Al is not the only farm guy in this story who was prone to accidents. Tom hurt himself badly and often but always refused proper medical treatment unless absolutely forced to do so. This was all part of the fun of having a farm to him, but not so much to his long-suffering wife. In one such incident, I was standing on a playing field in town, coaching our son’s soccer team when Al’s wife Mary appeared and asked me, “How’s Tom?” (Her grandson was a member of the opposing soccer team.) “He’s fine, I think?” I trailed off uncertainly. “Is there some reason you are asking?” “Well Al said he offered to take Tom to the hospital after he cut his head open with the post hole digger, but Tom said you were home and could take him,” replied Mary, looking at me quizzically, due to the fact that I was clearly NOT home. Of course, I rushed home to find Tom alone, the huge lump and gash on the top of his head covered pathetically by a napkin. This was one of many incidents that cemented our close friendship with Rogers. Mary and Al thought that Tom’s accident and subsequent lie were hilarious and they teased him about everyone knowing your business in our small town.
But Tom’s overzealousness could also be very useful. He was smart enough to think through the placement of our main barn and each of its 6 entrances so that we could have 5 separate fields, each with an entrance into a penned off interior section of the barn. When we got to the point where we owned breeding females, breeding males, younger males, and maiden females, we would be able to keep each group in separate fields, and separate pens inside the barn. We even had a small quarantine area for new arrivals. We had noted that large farms such as Lanark kept their animals separated in this way. It is obvious why un-bred females and breeding males cannot be left in the same field without indiscriminate breeding occurring, but many new alpaca owners find out the hard way that it can be just as disastrous to keep young male alpacas in the same field with breeding males.
Despite looking like fluffy teddy bears, male alpacas can badly hurt or even crudely geld their perceived reproductive rivals. A fully grown, un-gelded, male alpaca knows that a 6 month old male will be a threat to his position one day, and he will not hesitate to bully or hurt the young male. While fighting, male alpacas will try to bite their rivals either on the tendon of the back leg, below the hock, or on the testicles. Sometimes they will charge the other male, hitting chest-to-chest and damaging the younger male’s shoulder, or they may try to mount the younger male as a sign of dominance. It is important to keep young male alpacas out of the range of older, un-gelded male alpacas. Young males will still fight one another, but they will be less likely to do actual damage to each other. They will not have the size disadvantage with one another that they will have with larger, stronger males, and their dangerously sharp “fighting teeth” will not have erupted yet. Older males should always have their fighting teeth blunted by an O.B. wire, a file, or other method. They will continue to fight one another from time to time, especially when one of them is allowed to breed a female but, without fighting teeth or a size advantage, they should wear each other out without causing real damage. Male alpacas that are gelded early are generally very docile and disinclined to fight.
Our main barn was 60 x 40 and two stories, and was built by an actual barn builder with Tom “helping” the work crew as much he was able. When the job was finished, there was enough leftover material for Tom to make an additional small barn further out in our main field, using his beloved telephone poles as part of the supporting structure. It was these two barns, along with the old “goat palace,” that were furnished with water and electricity during Tom’s ditch witching frenzy. Since the foreman on the barn job offered me a choice of colors for the siding, I chose sky blue rather than the traditional red, again amusing the neighbors. I never regretted flouting tradition. I loved my sky blue barn! That barn was the heart of our farm and would soon be the home of our alpaca herd. Before we accepted delivery of our first alpacas, we drove to Lanark farm one last time. Part of our deal in buying the alpacas was that we would be able to work as farmhands during Lanark’s monthly herd health day. Most alpaca farms do monthly worming, toenail trimming, weighing, and vaccination of their herds. By aiding Lanark farm’s employees in this effort, we would be getting hands-on training in how to care for our own alpacas. As we worked our way through the herd, Amanda and I chatted like old friends. At some point, she told me a harrowing story about drawing blood from a young alpaca cria’s jugular vein for a DNA test and slicing the vein instead. She knew immediately that the cria was bleeding internally and clamped the fingers of one hand tightly on the neck to stanch the flow, even as she frantically dialed the veterinarian with a cellphone using her other hand. Some skillful suturing on the part of the veterinarian saved the cria’s life. Years later, this story would be remembered during a more tragic occurrence on our own farm.