Throughout the weekend of Sept. 27-28, alpaca farms nationwide will be inviting visitors to experience various aspects of raising alpacas. There are several local opportunities to meet these gentle animals, understand the unique warmth of their fleece, and learn about the prosperous agribusiness of alpacas. One such place is Cardinal Acre Alpacas, owned and operated by Sue Hornberger, in Little Valley, NY. What began with just three alpacas as pets in September of 2009 became a herd of 23 alpacas ranging in color from brown, to white, to black, and many shades in between. “There are more than 20 natural colors of alpacas, with about 15 variations,” Hornberger explained, which is important when it comes to breeding alpacas for their fleece. Although white fleece is most common among alpacas, gray fleece is rare and highly sought after, according to Paul Mager of Mager Mountain Alpacas, also located in Little Valley.
After spring shearing, the fleece is sent to one of several American fiber mills for cleaning and processing so it can then be spun and made into a variety of beautiful and useful goods. Although there are fewer fiber mills in the U.S. than in South America, where alpacas originate, there is undoubtedly a great demand for alpaca fleece products nationwide. According to Sue Mager of Mager Mountain Alpacas, machine-knit alpaca blend socks are hugely popular among her customers - from moisture-wicking athletic socks to insulating boot socks, alpaca offers warmth and breathability whether you’re hunting, hiking, skiing, or simply enjoying a cozy evening inside!
Finding it hard to believe that alpaca garments are ideal year round? “Alpaca is naturally hypo-allergenic,” says Hornberger, a fact that is confirmed by fiber-experts worldwide. “It doesn’t contain the lanolin [natural oil] of sheep’s wool and doesn’t hold in the irritating allergens that wool does, which are usually what people are sensitive to.” Just a walk through her gift shop at Cardinal Acre Alpacas shows that alpaca fleece creates lightweight warmth for just about everything from cardigans to bright orange hunting hats to fingerless gloves.
In addition to its usefulness in clothing, Sue Bean of A Slice of Heaven Alpacas and Simply Natural Alpaca Gift Shop in Randolph, NY notes that alpaca fleece makes beautiful household items and gifts. Luxurious blankets and throws made from 100% alpaca fleece are popular among her customers as wedding gifts and can be monogrammed. Other favorite items include felted soap and nesting ornaments, which are stuffed with fleece and hung outdoors to provide birds with warm material for nest-building.
In addition to providing soft ready-made garments, alpaca fleece is ideal for spinners, knitters, crocheters, and weavers. Hornberger, Bean, and the Magers all carry alpaca yarn spun from the fleece of their herds and other alpacas nationwide. Those who are interested in learning how to spin fleece into yarn can take advantage of Bean’s spinning wheel demonstrations and lessons at A Slice of Heaven Alpacas.
Although there is much to be appreciated in alpaca garments/goods, raising alpacas provides much joy for all involved. For Paul and Sue Mager, raising alpacas began as a retirement venture, an agribusiness that was affordable and profitable, but also family-friendly. Started 14 years ago, Mager Mountain Alpacas was the first alpaca farm to appear in Western New York, and according to Paul Mager, was a true learn-as-you-go venture. “We had no prior experience in agribusiness,” explained Paul, “but we try to use what we’ve learned along the way to help others get started and become successful with their alpaca farms.”
What defines success in alpaca farming? From a business perspective, raising alpacas is ideal, as upkeep is affordable (less than $300 annually, per animal) and nearly all aspects of raising alpaca - from stables to feed - are tax deductible. The fleece is in demand and having a diverse herd affords many opportunities to breed for different fleece colors. However, success can be defined in other ways too. Walk into Hornberger’s gift shop and you will see an array of colorful ribbons that are a testament to the fiber quality and pedigree of Cardinal Acre’s alpacas. Indeed, showing alpacas at various competitions nationwide is also a joy for the Magers’ granddaughters who share their grandparents’ love for these gentle animals. But even more evident of success than profitability and awards is the shared appreciation among alpaca farm owners for the animals themselves. Read any brochure from these Cattaraugus County alpaca farms, and you are guaranteed to read the words “gentle,” “docile,” and “sweet,” as descriptors of alpacas. Unlike their spitting, moodier cousin, the camel, alpacas are sometimes shy but usually receptive to visitors’ curious strokes. Both the playful young alpacas and the sweet-tempered adults are sure to charm everyone they meet.
In fact, you never know what aspect of alpacas’ lives you may witness on your visit, be it the happy “pronking” (running on their toes) in the evening or the distinctive wooing song of the males courting the females. From late August through the first part of October, the Magers are anticipating the birth of seven more babies, or “crias.” They encourage visitors to stop by and witness one being born!
For more information on these alpaca farms, including visiting/gift shop hours, please visit their websites: cardinalacrealpacas.com, www.magermountainalpacas.com, and asliceofheavenalpacas.com.