The alpaca appeal - `they're just adorable'

Westminster farm raises the South American animals for show, fun and profit

July 30, 2006|By LAURA MCCANDLISH | LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTER

After owning and driving school buses for 35 years, Charlene Johns needed a change. A move to a Westminster-area farm offered a less-stressful way of life, but what would she raise?

Once she touched the mop-topped, downy creatures at a fair last fall, she was sold. Alpacas. Now she owns 33 and breeds them all.

"They're just adorable," said Johns, 53, who had tried to raise a few pigs, goats and steer. "Once you go alpaca, there's nothing else."

Johns' two grandsons and other area kids form the Alpaca Posse, which just started training on the farm in mid-April. Yet they made up half of the 18 mostly middle school-age students showing alpacas at the 109th Carroll County 4-H & FFA Fair at the Agriculture Center in Westminster yesterday.

Among the plentiful livestock exhibits, hundreds each of pigs, cattle, goats and rabbits will be showcased. Alpacas are still rare - but gaining among niche farmers.

"This is our biggest year in the last six years," alpaca superintendent Sandy Moore said. "When my two kids first started showing, we leased them. They got so attached, we decided to purchase a couple."

It's easy to see how alpaca lovers become hooked. These fluffy, South American cousins of camels are shy but allow you to snuggle up and pet them.

They don't bite - but beware. When threatened, they spit violently. Instead of baa-ing like sheep, alpacas hum, which can sound like they're crying.

To prepare for the fair, Johns had her 4-H kids practice every evening last week until sundown. With a lead and halter, the students coached their alpacas through an obstacle course set up in one pasture.

They coaxed the animals around boxed-up bales of hay, through hula hoops and across tires. When they were done, the alpacas dipped in plastic kiddie pools. They become impatient or lazy in the heat.

"He listens on cold days, but not when it's hot," Jacob Roderick, 13, said of Victor, who has a dark chocolate coat. Victor comes from the teddy bear-like Huacaya breed, said Jacob, Johns' grandson who lives across the street.

All of the females at Alpacatopia - Johns' farm on Jasontown Road - are either pregnant or have recently given birth. Some babies are due in October.

"You have to be really gentle with the females," said Jacob Wenhold, 8. "If you're really rough with them, they won't have their babies. They'll `absorb' them."

The younger Jacob, who used to ride Johns' bus, showed a brown beauty named Belle yesterday. Except for her shaggy boots and diminutive head, Belle was naked, like most of the alpacas, who were recently shorn to prepare for the fair.

The young alpacas love to bounce in the air. Babies such as Winston, who is two weeks old and totters on spindly legs, could pass for lanky, little lambs. Of the valuable Suri breed, Winston has long, white strands of pencil-point hair.

Even full grown, the alpacas are about the size of skinny sheep.

This is the first 4-H experience for most kids in the Alpaca Posse. Growing up, Johns never had a chance to join the club. "I wish we could have bought it [the farm] 30 years ago so my children could have grown up on it," she said. "At least the grandchildren can."

Fenced away from the females, the male alpacas are rowdier and huskier. All the alpacas love to gallop up the rugged, hilly terrain leading to the barns. It resembles their natural habitat.

Two hefty, horse-size llamas, with long cream-and-slate-gray hair, guard the flock. The llamas scare away anything that attacks the alpacas, be it wild foxes or dogs.

As herd animals, the kids said, the alpacas weren't easy to train at first.

"He's not really calm, so I have to work with him," Rachael Barcklow, 13, said of Prairie Lightning, whom she calls Corky. "He's a kicker and a spitter, but once you get to know him, he's really sweet."

The 4-H'ers also took written tests Friday to demonstrate their knowledge of alpacas. They learned facts such as why alpaca fiber is velvety and itch-free. Unlike sheep's wool, the fiber lacks lanolin, which causes allergies.

From hot, soapy alpaca fiber, Moore's students made felt that they exhibited at the craft fair Thursday.

The Alpaca Posse kids will learn to spin, weave and knit the fiber in the fall. Sweaters, scarves, mittens and the raw fiber are available on Johns' Web site (www.alpacatopia.net).

The site also lists animals that are for sale, but they're not cheap. Johns sells females for as much as $14,000 a piece.

Luckily, she got a deal on hers. After starting with eight alpacas, she bought a whole herd ( about 20) from a Baltimore County man who offered a generous price.

"It's a lot of work," Johns said. "But the kids have fun and really help us with the animals. In return, we can do something for them."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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