I Work With Animals: My Life With Alpacas
Val Newell was happy — married and raising her daughter — yet she dreamed of something more. But how many of us yearn for fulfillment through yurts and alpacas?
In 2003, the Newells — Val, husband Gary and daughter Annie — established Crown Point Alpaca Farm at The Green Alpaca in Strafford, N.H., where they raise Muscovy ducks (for eggs), have close encounters with snapping turtles, offer guests the chance to slumber in a yurt, and raise a variety of alpaca breeds.
Now the only thing Val yearns for is the occasional vacation. We asked her to share with us what it's really like to spend your days tending to a pack of alpacas.
Q. What inspired you to move to an alpaca farm?
A. Newell: "I had a small house, with very little land, and I was raising my little girl. As I watched her play in our tiny yard, I longed to see her enjoy farm life, collecting eggs and being around animals. I believe we can learn much from the stability that comes from caring and interacting with animals.
What appealed to me about alpaca farming, in particular, would have to be that these were animals who gave fiber as a product, instead of meat. I personally did not want to be involved with that aspect of farming."
Q. Which came first — the alpacas or the yurt?
A. "That's a funny question! I actually had pictures of yurts up years before I got the alpacas. I always said, 'Someday, I want a yurt.' I did purchase the alpacas first, and then I put the topping on the cake, so to speak, by adding the yurt. I thought, 'What better way to actually experience firsthand how good it feels to spend time on a farm with these gentle animals than to include a yurt to stay in!' ”
Q. What qualities are important for successful alpaca farming?
A. "Patience is required to understand their makeup. Alpacas need firm but gentle leadership. Although they're not obedient to their owners, I would say that alpacas are compliant. Once they know what you want them to do, they want to do it — so you will go away and let them be already! Some alpacas can be bribed to do something by using a juicy carrot, but most 'decide' on their own to do what you want.
Diversification is also very important. Since alpacas are fiber animals, learning about fiber qualities and how to use and make products from the fiber is just as important as knowing what to do with eggs or tomatoes. As far as raising the animals, they are very hardy, ask for very little and expect nearly nothing — but you need a keen eye for normal behavior. You need to know when they are not acting 'right' because they typically don't show symptoms of illness until they are very, very sick."
Q. What else can you tell us about alpaca personalities?
A. "They are simply amazing. I would say that alpacas are highly intelligent, curious, self-sufficient and herd-oriented. Alpacas are known to show extreme gentleness toward children and challenged individuals. People who visit and share time with the alpacas will often say that they feel peaceful when the alpacas are around. I don’t really question why because I feel it too. It's one of my favorite things about them.
There's a fallacy that was promoted in the alpaca industry for many years that 'alpacas are a huggable investment.' For the most part, alpacas do not like to be hugged, even if you want to hug them! They are very cute, their eyes are huge and they do have a way of looking into people instead of at you. They display affection by gently bringing their noses to you — and they may briefly kiss or nuzzle certain people. They enjoy their herd, and family members stay close. In fact, alpacas can remember herd mates whom they haven't seen for many years."
Q. How do alpaca farmers make their living?
A. "I like to say that you can make a life with alpacas, especially if you have something else that makes your living! If a person can develop a diverse view of farming, incorporating innovative ideas, that farmer can be profitable — but it does require effort and forethought. There are wonderful alpaca organizations, like CIABA, dedicated to supporting sustainable fiber farming. Shearing season is in May and some of our fiber is processed into yarn, some of it we sell to artisans and some to commercial companies developing alpaca fiber products, such as fabric."
Q. Can people who stay in the yurt also pitch in with the alpacas?
A. "We ask people to help us feed the alpacas, put out hay and even clean poop! We have a large compost facility, where the manure is turned, and we show them how that is done. We also offer people the chance to take alpacas for walks up to the yurt, to see what alpacas are like to handle."
Q. What do you miss, if anything, about your former lifestyle?
A. "Farmers spend so much of their time outdoors, experiencing the joy of new life and new growth but also loss and disappointment. It contributes to an understanding and acceptance of daily life as it comes. So it's hard to say that I miss anything, except maybe a vacation!"
Q. Any great alpaca anecdotes?
A. "One of my favorites would have to be about a little alpaca named Chicory. I call this one 'There is a monster in my pasture!'
Alpacas make a high-pitched alarm call when they're frightened, to warn the rest of the herd. I was in my grain room when I heard the call. Suddenly, peering right over the half door was Chicory, sounding the alarm right in my face. Then she started stamping the ground, like she was killing a snake.
I came out of the room, and she ran in the direction of the pasture. I followed, and the herd followed. Chicory faced toward this one area in the pasture where the alpacas have a roll area (they love to take dust baths). My daughter, Annie, went to check out what was wrong, and Chicory started jumping up and down, stamping the ground and sounding the alarm call. The farther Annie got, the more Chicory became frantic.
All of a sudden, Annie screamed and started crawling back on her hands and knees. A large snapping turtle was laying her eggs in the roll pile. The turtle had apparently either nipped or snapped at Chicory as she was enjoying her daily roll, and she had come to tell me that there was a monster in her pasture!"
For more tales of what it's like to work with animals, check out these other Vetstreet-exclusive stories.