Investment puts couple in `pacadise'

Alpacas: Pennsylvania farm owners make a business out of breeding the animals, which they find to be `shear' fun.

April 25, 2004|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DELTA, Pa. - Amid rolling hills here, there lives a hardy herd - descendants of the huacaya and suri alpacas that were once hidden from the Spanish conquistadores in the high Andes by the Incas.

The new residents - long-necked creatures - are romping on about 30 acres at a farm called Alpacas of Willow Spring. Nicola Roth and Christopher Neumann own Mr. Scott, Black Jack O'Rourke (BJ) and Chocolate, who are herd sires to the "dams" (female alpacas): Dreamer, Pilgrim, Desiree and a few others. The flock also includes babies Emma, Tristana and Gerry.

In all, there are 13 alpacas on the farm.

The land has a hayfield, an open barn and new fencing. Most of the alpacas are self-sufficient, says Roth, a former addictions counselor. But they may still buy heaters to keep the water from freezing in winter and a big fan or two for hot summers.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article about the alpacas of Willow Spring Farm in Delta, Pa., published in some editions April 25, Aldo Figueroa's name was misspelled.

The are 50,000 alpacas and 3,800 alpaca owners and breeders in the United States, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. There are 62 association members in Maryland.

Alpacas have a soft fleece that comes in 22 natural colors. Alpaca fiber is strong, warm, lighter than other wools, hypo-allergenic and contains no lanolin like sheep fiber does.

An adult alpaca can produce enough fleece for five sweaters a season. The raw fleece can be used for hats; the fibers for fly fishing. And the animals are easy to train, owners say.

When Roth and Neumann bought their scenic 30 acres in 1988 with a log cabin on Kilgore Road, each had a job and a long commute to Washington from the La Plata area of Charles County.

Neumann, a native Marylander from Timonium, took a job as a transportation planner for the Lancaster County Planning Commission in 1988.

In 1997, they went to the Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds and considered raising sheep.

A sheepish no

"We were very sad to find out that when you are raising sheep ... any kind of sheep, you have to slaughter, because there is a market for the females, because they can be bred, but not for the males," Neumann said.

Literature from Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association inspired them. They paid a visit to a farm south of Annapolis, and then to the farm of Tilly Dorsey on Black Rock Road in Butler, Baltimore County.

They were stunned at the $15,000 price tag for a registered, pregnant alpaca female. Prices vary from $200 for a pet-quality animal up to a reported $265,000 for a prize-winning sire. They took out a loan to buy their first alpacas.

Now they have 13 brown and sable alpacas with topknots flapping over their eyes, lining up to wind their way when called back to the lean-to shed.

Looking out at the maze of fencing, Neumann smiles.

"They're hard to catch when they don't want to be caught. That's why we try to design our pastures and our corridors, so we can herd them into a tight space, which is what I did out there," he said.

The new fencing was put up by a neighboring Amish family's eldest son. Amish-owned builders in the area will soon put up a new bank barn with room overhead for a loom and spinning area for Roth to make the wool into sweaters, hats and gloves.

Bigger operation

Breeding the animals is the investment part of the operation. The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, a nonprofit Colorado-based organization supporting alpaca owners, keeps the registry to ensure value for those bred, with papers similar to horses or dogs.

As for judging events, there are many from which to choose.

Ruth Inglefield, owner of Alpacaria in White Hall with a herd of 80 developed in the last eight years, has learned a lot about breeding and judging.

"All certified alpaca judges work currently in terms of 50 percent conformation and 50 percent fiber for both huacayas and suris," Inglefield said.

Personality and color are not factors in a winning alpaca, she said. It is the crimp of the huacaya and the lock structure and luster of the suris that are checked for fineness, density, consistency and handle, she said.

For breeders, the female is the most valuable commodity.

Sometimes breeding does not bring females to the herd of a new investor, Roth said. "We had three boys in a row, and the girls are very valuable." She named one "Grateful" when she was born on Thanksgiving after a string of males.

"We shear them in May, once a year. They'll have short coats all the summer and by fall, the fiber is starting to come in and get thick for winter," Neumann said.

The alpaca is a herd-oriented animal that requires about 15 minutes a day of care, Roth said.

"Being a horse person and not an alpaca person, I didn't know anything about it," said Leslie Cody, who lives in Norrisville with four alpacas and "Maria," a guard llama three times the size of an alpaca. Alpacas don't need fencing to stay together, but to keep predators out. They have softly padded feet and no defenses other than running.

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