Since alpacas’ native climate is cool, but usually consistent, in temperature, they need a measure of climate control in Louisiana, provided here by shady, fan-filled barns and the sprinklers.
Apparently, there was a modest alpaca “boom” in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, part of the same exotic farming craze that led to my being charged by my great-uncle’s emu when I was about eight. During that time, a lot of people invested heavily in alpacas—at well over market value—and were completely unprepared for the realities of farming this exotic animal: alpacas take nearly a year to gestate; require special food supplements if the soil is too sandy or thin to produce high-protein grass; and will, like most livestock, occasionally fall over dead.
As you might have surmised from the absence of a large class of alpaca millionaires, the bottom fell out of the alpaca bubble when speculators realized that all the people willing to pay over $10,000 for a sweet and useful, but not particularly rare, animal had already done so. But this boom did capture the attention of a smaller, but better-equipped, number of farmers who now cultivate alpacas for their warm, soft hair and their company.
Several years ago, alpacas came to Stringer, Mississippi, a small town outside Laurel and not very far from Jackson, where I recently had the thrill of visiting A Stroka Gene-Us Alpacas farm. Mary Ann Stroka and Terry Andress, originally from upstate New York, moved to Mississippi after their son fell in love with and married a local woman he met serving catfish. (Well-prepared catfish can make anyone ready to fall in love.) They loaded their thirty-plus alpacas into a specially made trailer designed to keep them upright (alpacas wisely sit down when they feel motion but can’t drink or relieve themselves in that position) and struck out for the South.
When I pulled up to the farm, Stroka was waiting for me in the shade of her garage. She sent her husband ahead to turn on the hose—“you’ll see what I mean”—and walked with me across a broad yard toward a big red barn. As we approached, small garden sprinklers came on, and out came the alpacas. Very susceptible to cute animals, I was immediately won over when the alpacas gathered around the sprinklers and took turns seating themselves over the water to cool their bellies.
Alpacas, along with their cousins llamas, guanacos, and vicuñas, make up the American branch of the wider camel family. All the American “camels” are native to the high, dry Andes Mountains, where they have been central to the lives of local people for millennia. The Inca ate, milked, and harvested fiber from them and also used them in sacrificial offerings to their gods. They were used as pack animals too—llamas and their kin are so well suited to traveling in mountainous terrain that no Andean culture ever invented the wheel. Internal combustion engines, Christianity, and changing farming practices have taken some of the heat off; but alpacas are still widely farmed in their native range and elsewhere.
“So here are the alpacas,” Stroka said. “These are the females; we keep the males on the other side to control breeding. When we give tours, we give people some alpaca chow to feed them …”
“I would like to feed them some alpaca chow, please,” I interrupted. What I actually wanted was to coerce one into my un-air-conditioned Buick, teach it some tricks, and travel the country as a one-man one-alpaca variety act; but I was willing to settle for feeding them. Small bucket of chow in hand, I was reassured that they wouldn’t bite; not only are they fairly docile, but they also naturally lack the top incisors that would let them give a really solid nip. One grumpy alpaca frothed up some startlingly green cud—“she probably won’t spit, but that’s what that is, cud”—but I made friends with most of the rest of the herd. As an especially friendly one named Hermione slurped pellets out of my hand, Stroka gave me a fluent rundown on the nuts and bolts of alpaca farming.
As prey animals, they’ve evolved to avoid showing symptoms that might attract a predator’s notice, but this same stoicism means that it can be hard to tell when an alpaca needs help until the situation is urgent. Since their native climate is cool, but usually consistent, in temperature, they need a measure of climate control, which Stroka provides with shady, fan-filled barns and the sprinklers. They must also be guarded, since without upper teeth or sharp hooves, their only defense is their cuteness, which does not work on coyotes. Stroka’s flock is ably tended by four sleepy, but intimidating, Great Pyrenees dogs and a rescue llama who came to the farm after the passing of her original owner. Bigger and badder than the small, gentle alpacas, llamas will gladly chase off an intruder.
The alpacas aren’t quite pets, but they’re certainly companionable; Stroka told me that when she has a bad day, she goes and sits in the barn where the alpacas will come to check on her. But they do serve an economic purpose. Alpaca hair is soft, warm, natural, and hypoallergenic, and Stroka harvests and processes the fibers into finished yarn and other products for sale. An alpaca is sheared once a year by professional shearers who travel the country on a circuit and who can give a full-grown alpaca a breezy summer clip in five minutes, give or take. (If any readers are television producers, please develop a reality show about the lives of traveling alpaca shearers.) An adult will produce four to eight pounds of usable hair—more if it’s a younger animal—enough to produce several skeins of yarn, depending on factors like the presence of other fibers or the thickness of the yarn.
They must also be guarded, since without upper teeth or sharp hooves, their only defense is their cuteness, which does not work on coyotes.
Stroka demonstrated the processing procedure to me. She pulled a handful of hair out of a bag, gingerly picking out a few burrs and seeds. “You used to have to card this by hand, but we have an electric carder now,” she said, as she turned on a little tabletop machine. A toothed cylinder began to turn, and she fed the clump of alpaca fiber into it. This machine aligns the fibers so that they can more easily be made into yarn; and if any other fibers are to be blended in, this is when they’re added. Silk, angora, and bamboo fibers are all options, as are bright, shimmery synthetics that add a little glimmer to the finished product.
Stroka then took the aligned hairs and spun them into yarn using a foot-powered spindle, carefully feeding the fibers onto the wheel at an even pace to keep the gauge consistent. If you’re interested, she gives lessons—apparently it only takes three to four hours to learn, the trick being to manage the foot movements that control the spindle. Completed yarn is then wound up into a skein, labeled with the name of the alpaca or alpacas who produced it, and sold to enterprising knitters.
I loaded up on souvenirs—the first time I’ve spent money during research for a Misadventure column beyond lunch and gas, but well worth it. In addition to alpaca products, both made on-site and imported from Peru, the shop also sells soap made by Stroka’s daughter from the milk her goats produce; a few teas, herbs, and supplements for people who don’t want to trek to Jackson for a specialty store; and fresh eggs from the farm’s chickens. I took home and ate three dozen; now the picture of health, I am waiting for fall to really get going so I can wear my new alpaca fiber scarf.
You can contact the farm to set up a tour, or you can visit during the farm’s annual Alpaca Festival. Meet the alpacas, see fiber arts demonstrations, browse crafts (both alpaca-related and not), and enjoy some refreshments. All free and scheduled for November 19, 2016