The English Farm, the French Army, and Succotash
By C.G. Wolfe
There’s something about alpacas that make you giggle. With their long necks, Lyle Lovett hair-dos, and perpetual grins, these gentle, humming, Dr. Seuss-like creatures just make you feel kind of silly inside.
Around three-feet high at the shoulder and weighing between 100 – 175 pounds, alpacas are the smaller, more timid relatives of the fearless llama, and are domesticated versions of vicῦnas, wild ruminants that live high up in the mountains of the South American Andes. Prized for their soft, luxurious fleece, known as “the fiber of the Gods,” the Inca began herding and keeping alpacas as livestock around 6,000 year ago. Peru, Bolivia, and Chile are still home to the majority of alpacas, but these evolutionary descendants of the Hemiauchenia, camelids that once roamed North America 3-million years ago, began finding their way back north in the mid-1980s.
Seen as the next big thing in agriculture, alpaca farms sprang up across the US, sending the population soaring from a couple of thousand animals in 1991 to almost 100,000, just fifteen years later, when the alpaca bubble burst. Today, those who endured after the crash, and those who have decided to start up their own operations despite it, are finding creative ways to stay profitable and enjoy this unique livestock. Humorous, good-natured, and full of personality, alpacas are the ideal farm animal to share with the public, and many farmers like Nick Villa of Bluebird Farms, in Peapack, New Jersey, are turning to agri-tourism and education; inviting folks to come on out and meet his herd, shop for unique products and gifts at the farm store, and learn more about the animals they love.
“We think of ourselves as an educational Farm,” said Villa, who hosts an Alpaca Academy, a two-hour class customized for students “6 – 96,” covering topics such as alpaca vital statistics, types and personalities of alpacas, care and diet of alpacas, and alpaca fiber. A fiber craft is included and of course, the alpacas are too.
When the Villa’s decided to put 11-acres of their property to pasture in 2012, they toyed with the idea of sheep, but when their 8 and 10 year-old daughters discovered that their lambs may end up as an accompaniment to mint jelly, they put an end to the discussion. So, after doing their research, the Villa’s decided on alpacas. “We name them and we don’t eat them,” said Nick. Nestled between hay fields and pastures, down a picturesque lane in New Jersey horse country, Bluebird Farm offers visitors a fun, laid-back, hands-on experience. Our initial glimpse of the alpacas was a mother in a pasture humming to her baby, called a cria. Alpacas have a variety of vocalizations including humming. They will hum for a variety of reasons, usually having to do with being concerned or curious, but new mothers will click and hum serenely to their new crias.
After letting the scene, scents, and sounds wash over us for a moment or two, we met up with Nick’s wife and partner, Marta, who gave us a small cup of feed and sent us out to meet the herd. Other families and couples from as far away as Sussex and Westfield were already there, feeding, photographing, and even romping with the alpacas. Two eager young females approached us immediately. It was a bit startling, since they are at eye-level, but mere seconds after they peered at us with cocked heads, through those long lashes and big, puppy eyes, we were smitten. A common reaction is to want to throw your arms around the alpaca’s fleecy neck and give it a cuddly embrace, but you should probably fight those urges when encountering an alpaca you are not on hugging terms with yet. Alpacas are generally stand-offish at first. Those who keep three or four as pets (alpacas are very social and three is considered the minimum for ownership) will often tell you that they are more like a cat than a dog, wanting attention on their own terms. They are curious, however, and apt to draw near - even nose to nose. But once they get to know you, they certainly don’t mind some gentle stroking on the neck or back, especially if a treat is involved. Many of the alpacas at Bluebird Farm are used to visitors and some approach freely, looking for a little love.
“They’re very friendly, but some are very skiddish and they will run away from you and hide,” said 11- year old, Abbie Villa. “Some will come up to you and want to be petted. They will nudge you ‘come pet me.’ Some will push very hard at your palm when they eat, and others are sooo… gentle.”
Alpacas never bite but like llamas, they do spit, although they generally just spit at each other and usually only when they are competing for food or dominance. “Unlike Llamas, they do not spit unprovoked,” Nick assured us. “They have conversations amongst themselves that you do not necessarily want to be a party to,” he said, “usually over grain or something, but they don’t really spit at you.”
Intuitive by nature, alpacas seem to sense what kind of humor you’re in and react appropriately. “If you’re calm around them, they’re perfectly calm. If you’re jumpy or excited than they are going to be jumpy and excited,” Nick told us. “One of the biggest compliments that they can pay you, is if you come into the pasture when they’re all ‘cooshed’ which is when they are lying down on all fours. If nobody gets up, that means that you’re probably in a very good mood that day and not at all threatening. If I’m a little grumpy or something, they know. There is some sort of karma or something with these guys.”
With all the love and fuzzy feelings it easy to lose sight of the fact that alpacas do have a practical appeal as well – their fleece, called fiber. As soft and even smoother than cashmere, alpaca fiber comes in 22 natural color shades ranging from black to silver and rose gray and white, from mahogany brown to light fawn and champagne. It’s strong and elastic, non-flammable, and not only water resistant, but also wicks away moisture. Alpacas are sheared once a year and the fiber at Bluebird Farm is sent out to be milled in West Virginia. It comes back in skeins of yarn that are given to local knitters and craftspeople, who are employed to create the handmade products sold online and at the farm.
“We convert the fiber into all the wonderful products you see in the store,” Nick said. “Alpaca fiber doesn’t have Lanolin, so it’s much cleaner than sheep’s wool and doesn’t require harsh chemicals. It’s also hypoallergenic, so people who are allergic to wool can wear this, no problem. The fibers have a hollow core, so they have a great insulation value and it’s soft, not itchy. So is she,” he said, as he reached over to pet a milky-hued female alpaca fittingly named “Au lait,” who nuzzled up against me. “She’s really being good today,” he said like a proud father.
The Villa’s are joined at their farm by manager, Stacie Miller. Stacie started at Bluebird farm in 2015, bringing retail, social media and marketing savvy, combined with her educational experience as a 4-H leader and her love of animals. Besides the day-to-day duties of taking care of the animals, she designed and manages the farm store, and is responsible for their special events which now include, private birthday parties at the farm, a weekly story hour for toddlers, knitting classes for children and adults, a Ladies Night Out, small team building for businesses and corporations, and the “Sip and Spit” wine tasting, an event held to benefit Barnyard Sanctuary in Blairstown. “The alpacas came in, walked around the hors douvre table, and walked right out the barn,” said Stacie.
A Ladies Night Out or wine tasting with a herd of alpacas may sound like a far-fetched concept, though probably not quite as zany as the hotel in Japan that will rent a bowtie-wearing alpaca to be a witness at your wedding, but there’s something about these lovable livestock that just make you want to spend more time among them. Everyone we asked at the farm about this phenomenon seemed to have the same answer – they just make you happy. I may suggest another use for the alpacas of Bluebird farm – therapy animal. Because no matter what kind of sad or bad mood you may be in, just visit an alpaca farm at dusk (pronking time) and watch the herd seemingly jump for joy and you’re going to smile.
Bluebird Farm Alpacas is located at 44 Willow Ave, Peapack, NJ 07977 For more information, visit bluebirdfarmalpacas.com or call (908) 625-4110
Bluebird Farm Alpacas
You're Going to Smile
By Lee & Chris Wolfe
Photos Courtesy of Bluebird Farm Alpacas
(This article originally ran in the Fall 2016 issue of The BRJ)
The English Farm in Liberty Corner, NJ
ON THE FARM