Shearing is DONE!!! Check out the highlights from our alpaca awesome shearing day.
I was gone on military orders over SEVEN MONTHS in 2018.
I just got back in February of this year, and I’m writing this on a plane going for another couple weeks. We may have enough time to get through shearing before I have to leave again. Hopefully that’s the last one for 2019!
I am grateful to still be able to serve as an Air Force Reservist. I enjoy working with a team again to get the mission done. There is a part of my soul fulfilled by it. That, or I have split-personality disorder.
However the rest of my soul is restored and fulfilled by my family and my farm.
It has been a challenging year discovering just how much I can live in both worlds. I have a little (okay, more than a little) anxiety and excitement for the future as our family has several opportunities which may cause big changes. Some of which are outside of our control. I’m trying not to dwell on the uncertainties and just cross that bridge when we get there.
For now, one thing is for certain: I could not have been gone a fraction of that time without being blessed with amazing people taking care of the ranch. One of the top most awesome things to happen to the ranch is our new Office Manager and Communications Director: Serena. (Side note: ideas for less stuffy staff titles are totally welcome). If you have liked our social media feeds, website changes, and newsletters, it’s all thanks to this incredible woman. If you ordered something from us online, she was the one that shipped it to you. She kept the business going while my husband kept the animals alive. Her smiling face was joined by Jill and Shannon at Lexington Farmers’ Market where you wonderful people continued your support by taking home some alpaca awesomeness. We had a fantastic first intern, Gracie, that I sadly only had a couple days with before I had to leave. We opened our “PR department” with my friend Jennifer. And our longest “staff” family member, Ranch Hand and Ranch Camp Counselor extraordinaire, Anna, watched over the ranch so my family could actually enjoy a vacation together.
People used to assume I had staff (because what crazy person would do all this alpaca ranching-entrepreneur-artisan-stay-at-home mom thing all by themselves?! <insert crazy-lady laugh here>). Despite unfruitful (desperate) searching in the past for the right people to help grow the ranch, this year God not only threw me a bone, but a freakin five-star champagne dinner! I have PEOPLE! That can get in touch with YOUR PEOPLE! WHAT??!!!
Even more than the much needed help, I am so grateful these ladies believe in the purpose behind our Ranch. They also find restoration and fulfillment here. Which reaffirms that purpose in my heart as well. My husband and I created this ranch because we wanted a life with this purpose for our family. Those blessed friends that have come to help further this purpose have also become family.
So with this big dose of encouragement, we have applications open (click here to apply) for Farmers’ Market, Ranch Camp Counselor, and YOGA INSTRUCTOR (we FINALLY have 2 applicants for the last one!!! Stay tuned via the newsletter, Facebook, and Instagram for Alpaca Vinyasa dates!!!)
I am grateful to still be a part of my Air Force family. But I am super giddy to be growing our River Hill family! We still have a lot of growing to do! (Hopefully not growing up though. Totally overrated ;)
I used to think Valentine’s Day was a commercialized holiday. You shouldn’t need a special day of the year to show someone you love them. While cut flowers are nice, I preferred a potted plant I could put in the ground so its beauty would last instead of die. Gifted sweets when I just got back on the wagon from holiday binge eating was not appreciated. Plus pink and red are not my favorites.
Fast forward to my mid-life awakening, I still don’t attach expectations to Valentine’s Day, but I appreciate it.
After a couple years of ranching full time now, I have settled into full appreciation of living with the seasons. While the alpacas (goats, cats, dogs, and chickens) still need care through the cold, winter is a time to let our lives and the grass rest. February is typically the worst of winter weather, so I was not surprised to learn Valentine’s Day may have had origins in a pagan festival of fertility; this weather is good for cuddling up! It is also when we begin to look ahead to spring: buying seed for planting and planning the growing season.
But the short days remind me there is still time for rest and allow for my personal growth. I am grateful for the luxury of heated waterers and for good hay farmers that make it possible for coffee on the couch watching the bird feeder and cozy evenings sipping hot toddies in front of the fireplace. (For those who don’t know a good hot toddy, google it. Be sure to use bourbon. You’re welcome.)
My husband makes the best hot toddy. He also makes, and then brings me that coffee in bed before I even make it to the couch. I am incredibly spoiled. We just celebrated our 12th year of marriage and our lives are full of routine, laughs, stress, demands, apologies, and love. My husband is an incredible balance of strength and compassion. I too often forget to consider his feelings in my emotionally driven barrage of stressed responses to my day. As a work-at-home-mom, he is my daily adult interaction and I unfairly expect him to handle all of my emotional support. As my best friend, he is there for me through all of it.
But as my husband, some of that crap is unfairly directed at him as if it’s his fault. And I need a reminder to put my needs aside and put him at the center of my attention. So in that regard, I will take a commercially driven holiday as a welcome slap in the face to remind me to get over myself and love him. Because good men need to feel their masculinity and love appreciated. Men that support women because of our strengths and despite all our flaws need to be celebrated. I’ll take Valentine’s Day as a reminder to celebrate that love.
After being a weaver for years now, this is the first winter I wove a scarf for him. As my daughter and I worked on it together, I thought about the life my husband and I have woven together. Focusing on what is important in life is hard to do through the distractions of the day to day. But it is worth it. I am choosing this year to focus on controlling my emotional response so that I may respect and honor the man that loves me. I am focusing on responding with love.
I tell our visitors we are grass farmers and ask if they’re excited to look at my grass today…(uncomfortable laughter)…You should see their awkward faces.
You see, the alpacas are fairly easy to care for (see Alpaca Herd Management Routine). It’s the grass I have to be concerned with. Our alpacas’ health and productivity rely on the nutrients we provide them with every day of their lives. Without high quality forage, minerals, and water, our alpacas would not be able to produce low micron (read: soft) fiber, or healthy offspring.
So therefore, grass farming! Alpacas require 80% of their diet to be forage: either pasture or hay. We practice intensive rotational grazing techniques, frequently moving portable fences to fresh pasture so our herd can always have access to fresh forage. We spread compost on the fields to keep the grasses healthy and rich in nutrients. In the wintertime, we keep the alpacas fenced near the barn and allow our pastures to “rest” for next spring. During this time, we feed our alpacas hay.
Every fall, before we purchase hay from our favorite local farmers, we have the hay tested in a lab. We bring bales to our county’s Extension Office, where our super awesome Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, Brandon Sears, helps us drill a core sample from each bale. Brandon explains it is best to bring more than one hay bale from a cutting to test (3 or more are ideal) so that you can see if they are uniform throughout. Sometimes you can get a different quality of hay cut from the top of a hill than you would from the hay cut down by a ravine, which receives a different amount of sunlight and moisture. We dump the contents of the corer into separate labeled bags, and send them off for testing using SCIENCE!
Around two weeks later, I receive an email from the lab with the results. Y’all, I have to pore over these tests figuring out which is the best…then I have to pour me a beer because my head hurts. Hay is the single biggest purchase for our farm every year so I stress over getting it right.
Hay in our area that is generally best for alpacas is an Orchard grass mix or alfalfa mix (although too much alfalfa can cause some health problems such as obesity or skin problems). As an alpaca owner, it is vital for me to study and learn everything I can about the best care practices for alpacas. According to Norman Evans’ Alpaca Field Manual (an invaluable resource for any alpaca owner), the ideal hay should be dust free, mold free, green, and dry. The most important nutrients to be tested in our hay are Calcium, Phosphorus, Selenium and Zinc, as well as Vitamins A, D, and E. The ideal hay should also have a protein level of 9-12% and TDN (total digestible nutrient) of 55-58% for palatability. Yes, palatability: alpacas are picky sometimes and will turn up their nose at “stem-y” hay (usually caused by the hay being cut late in the grass’ maturity resulting in thicker seed stems). If the hay is nutritionally deficient or if it contains too much of certain vitamins or minerals, this can cause health issues.
So we grow grass & buy quality hay to allow our alpacas to thrive so they can grow the highest quality fiber. It takes hard work, time, money, research, testing and care to keep on top of these practices, but we take pride in the health of our herd so we can offer you fine products. There is so much more to alpaca farming than some fuzzy animals munching grass. The next time you hold a locally grown alpaca fiber product and feel its incredible softness on your skin, remember the hard work and dedication that went into caring for the animal that grew it. Just wait ‘till I tell you about the exciting SOIL farming we do!!! (Seriously, it is AWESOME.)
Today I’d like to showcase one of our favorite alpaca awesome items, the felted alpaca vest. The vest is eye catching to say the least, having an intricate and detailed design which was professionally printed onto a silk fabric base, and then carefully felted over with vibrantly dyed alpaca fiber. The fineness and sheerness of the super soft alpaca allows the beautiful designs to shine through.
Not only is it incredibly soft and comfortable to wear, it is one our most versatile pieces of sustainable clothing. Being completely reversible, with over ten (and counting) ways to wear this vest, the only limit is your imagination and unique expression of style. To help give our customers an idea of how to style your vest, I’ve compiled some examples for you on this blog. I hope you gain some inspiration and enjoy wearing your alpaca awesome vest!
Find our alpaca awesome vests and more sustainable alpaca products in our online shop.
Slow. A while back my amazing freelance writer friend sent me a pitch for an article on our ranch centered on the word “slow.” It was a sweet illustration of how I envisioned my country life with my family: a slow paced, purpose-filled, joyful collection of moments while growing slow clothes. It made my heart hurt and my stomach turn. The reality of running a small business, keeping a herd of livestock thriving, trying to figure out how to make stuff from our fiber harvest, and being a stay-at-home mom felt everything but slow (just scroll down and read the 2015 blog post). I told her she couldn’t pitch it. It was just a lie. I felt like a total fraud.
But this year something awesome happened: Clarity. The heavens opened and the angels sang, “This is it! This is what you’re supposed to be doing!” (I’m sure God had a face palm moment that it took me so long to get it.)
Just like anyone’s life, this journey hasn’t always made complete sense (if yours has, 1. I highly suspect you’re full of it and 2. You should write a book and make millions). I knew I wanted to be available to my kids, but build something that would give me purpose in addition to being a mom (yes, I made this decision prior to birthing my children; yes, I know how stupid that sounds). Of course the purpose of my journey got blurred by the reality that poop happens and most days feeling blessed by the mess is just effing hard. I put some wall words in my bedroom that say “Find Joy in the Journey.” Ironically they were a royal P.I.T.A. to put on straight and a corner of one of the words still flops over like a dog’s ear, mocking my inner demands for perfection (I am a Virgo, married to a Virgo…). But each illogical step has led me closer to this beautifully imperfect perfection.
Thanks to some insight gained in Accelerating Appalachia, an entrepreneur accelerator program, we shifted focus to our agritourism experiences. Thanks to my mother for setting the example years ago with her business focused on experiences for children, we decided to do just that. And Ranch Camp was born.
The first summer of Ranch Camp was the arrival of slow. Yes, we were still crazy busy and my son was still a wild toddler, but for the first time I allowed myself to live in the moment. We climbed trees, picked berries, dug in the dirt, chased butterflies, and wove wall tapestries while weaving moments of laughter and awe of God’s creation. And when my toddler starting pitching a fit, my amazing farm hand would swoop in and save me.
And God continued to encourage me through the voices of the parents when they returned the next morning: “They have not stopped talking about how much fun they’re having!”, “This is so wonderful to give them a real summer”, “Are you going to do an overnight camp?” (!!!) Umm….we’re just starting slow…
BUT, since it was so successful and fulfilling, we are doubling the number of sessions offered! We also learned a ton last year to make this year even better.
“Do you have Ranch Camp for grown-ups?!” We always offer our Alpaca Awesome Ranch Tour by appointment which can be personalized by taking on chores, making a craft with fiber, or adventuring around our beautiful rolling hills and forest.
But because y’all keep askin’ we’re expanding our calendar of experiences starting this summer! How does sunrise yoga in the pasture sound? Alpaca Grill Class? Sunday Funday Woodland Weaving? We’re also considering offering children’s experiences at the same time as our adult classes so the whole family can enjoy time out here while giving the parents a break. We’d like to hear your ideas too, so please comment below with your interest!
Which leads me to our biggest announcement: we’re giving ourselves time for slow. River Hill Ranch will be closing our gates to the public from Janurary 1st, 2018 through our Grand Re-Opening on June 1st, 2018. This will allow me time to devote to my military service, our ranch, and my family. In future years we probably won’t close for so long, but this year it’s necessary.
So that means if you’ve been thinking about coming out for a visit, there’s still time. Some of our most fun experiences are these crisp, sunny winter days when the herd is munching hay around the barn instead of out in the pasture. If you have family in town for the holidays, we invite you to bring them and enjoy some slow moments together.
If you don’t already, please sign-up for our email newsletter to receive announcements on our excited news ahead as tickets to our events will be limited. We will also continue to post pictures of the antics of our animals on Facebook and Instagram.
Thank you to all for your ongoing support. We pray you are blessed and can live a life slow.
THANK YOU!!!! Thank you so much to all our customers & supporters.
Thank you to Kentucky State University and the Kentucky Ag Development Board for enabling us to purchase our own fiber processing equipment and a trailer to support our meat business. Thank you Kentucky Center for Ag & Rural Development for your stellar services. Thank you Downtown Richmond Farmers Market for another great year. Thank you Lexington Farmers Market for allowing me to become a member. And my favorite: thank you to all our customers, new and especially returning, for making this dream possible!
Because of you and some prayers answered, we have so much alpaca awesomeness in store for 2017! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates!
First big announcement: RANCH CAMP! Would you like to learn how to grow clothes? Have a grade school-er that would have a blast getting their hands dirty, making friends with a chicken, and exploring the countryside? Dates are set for June 12-15 and July 10-13, 9:00 - 12:00. Open as a day camp for grade school, kids over 18 years old, and preschoolers (ages 3-4) with a paying adult camper. Daily and week rates as well as discounts for multiple family campers will be offered. Registration & more info will be released in March!
Our event calendar is starting to fill up! Starting this week with our first event of 2017:
Jan. 27-28: We'll be set up at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference in Lexington
Feb. 4: Offering Alpaca Awesome Chili for Sampling Saturday @ Good Foods Co-op! Come get a taste & the simple crock pot recipe or just grab some ground alpaca for sweet nachos on game day.
Feb. 18: Alvina will be at the Univ. of KY Small Ruminant Grazing Conference in Elizabethtown (registration required)
Feb. 23: Presentation on Animal Textile Fiber Production at the Eastern KY Farmer Conference (registration required)
Apr. 1: Alvina will be presenting to the Indiana Alpaca Association's Spring Fling
Apr. 6: We will be bringing the alpacas to Lexington! Join us at the Living Arts & Science Center 6-8 p.m.
Phew! And that's just the beginning!
River Hill Ranch has been awarded the USDA Value Added Producer Grant to expand our meat production and develop our own fashion line! Another shout out to KCARD for suffering through the grant writing process with me! Our first pieces made of alpaca woven fabric, felt, leather, and fur with be released in a FASHION SHOW & Release Party!!! Stay tuned!!
Dear President Trump,
Sir, first and foremost, thank you for your commitment to serve our country.
This is the first time I’ve actually written to an elected official. I am a moderate libertarian. By moderate I mean I support minimal government programs to help everyone gain access to basic needs, and to intervene when some take liberties which infringe on the liberties of others.
Of course I have many opinions, but here are my top two.
I have a deep concern for our consumerism, especially regarding its impact on our environment. Damage to our planet cannot always be reversed. I respectfully ask you to hold the future health of our air, water, and soil in context when making your decisions.
As you are privy to a mountain of information more than we are on the complexities of the problems facing our nation, you know they cannot be reduced to slogans and sound bites. And yet our society continues to do so, making it seem that each side doesn’t understand the opposing perspective. Or worse, leading people to believe that the problem truly is encapsulated in 140 characters. So I also ask you to acknowledge the differing perspectives openly as you go forward. I pray through your genuine willingness to seek understanding and publicly consider these complexities, it will disarm the hateful rhetoric that consumed this election.
Thank you for your time and consideration. May God be with you.
A stay-at-home mom. A business owner. A military veteran. A farmer. A law enforcement officer. A close friend to an Arab immigrant. A grandchild of a Latino man who stopped speaking Spanish because of racism. A child of divorced parents. A woman who used services at Planned Parenthood as a teenager. A child who benefited from reduced lunch in grade school. A person who only had $2,000 to go to college, so I sought options that didn’t require a loan. A woman with a masters degree. A land owner. A pioneer of an industry. A small town resident with an appreciation for the big cities. A Methodist married to a Catholic with Jewish and Muslim friends (I just don't know anyone from other faiths, but look forward to meeting them one day). A lover of our already great country despite our flaws.
UPDATE: We are ecstatic to now be a member of the Lexington Farmers' Market in addition to our 3rd year in the Downtown Richmond Farmers' Market! Even better: other farmers have told me that after sending this post to markets they had been denied from, they were granted access!!! It makes me so happy to know these words have opened doors for others!
This little ditty is part rant, part appeal to those in charge of farmers' markets, and mostly to educate our customers on what it takes to grow sustainable, quality, high-performance clothing.
Back in the day, farmers' markets had no rules. You hauled your harvest to town and tried to sell it. OR you peeled stickers off someone else's harvest that you bought at a produce auction. No rules. Patrons could buy the exact same imported tomato from the grocery store for half as much, while actual local farmers watched silently, losing sales, taking the high road by not bad mouthing their neighbors.
Times have changed, and farmers' markets are now organized entities with a board and rules to support real local farmers. Some markets even go to the extent of making site visits to validate applicants are actually growing what they say they are growing. We think that's wonderful! Market patrons can know with certainty they are supporting real local farmers.
But with the rules come unintended consequences. I am a fiber farmer. I grow clothes. A tomato is picked, washed, brought to market, and sold to you. What I do is different. Let me take you on a summarized journey of how clothes are made:
I shear the fiber off the animal, then its sorted, picked (picking out poop, hay, burrs,...), washed, carded (brushed), spun into yarn, washed, then knit, crochet, or woven into a garment (and that is a super simplified explanation). While I can do all this myself, it would take me around 26 hours to make ONE pair of socks from start to finish. So assuming I only paid myself $8/hr, I would have to price those socks at least $208. PS: do you know how long it would take me to go through 80 alpacas' worth of fiber?
But wait! That doesn't include how much it cost me to CARE FOR THE ANIMAL! Of coarse each alpaca grows more than one pair of socks worth of fiber, so if I divide out one year's worth of caring for an alpaca (assuming they don't get sick or otherwise need vet care), that adds another $10. So $218 minimum price tag for a pair of socks. Alpaca socks are pretty amazing, but that's outrageous.
My next option: pay a manufacturer to make my fiber into clothes. However, here's another kicker: in order to achieve economy of scale, I need 500 POUNDS of the same lot. That means I need at least 100 alpacas that are the same color and grade, growing fiber that is the same length. Alpacas come in at least 5 color lots, 6 grades, and length varies from 3" to 8". I have 80 alpacas...I don't come close to meeting that minimum. Farmers' markets are meant to support small farms. The only farms that can compete at that scale are commercial farms. I cannot grow to that level if I'm not given an opportunity to sell at market while I'm the little guy.
I can still pay a manufacturer to make socks, but I have to pay for that service up front (& I don't have that kind of money) then sell you socks for at least $50/pair. AND I wouldn't get those socks back to sell to you for ONE YEAR AFTER MY HARVEST.
Why does it take so long you ask? You know how when you brush your hair, hair comes out onto the brush? You know how before using the same brush on someone else, you're supposed to clean it? Textile manufacturing equipment works the same way. Every time you send a different lot through, you have to clean the entire line. Except instead of a hairbrush, its an entire manufacturing facility.
So: one year for the animals to grow fiber, then one year to make the socks. I don't know about you, but I definitely don't have the money to pay to keep the animals & my family alive for TWO YEARS with no possibility of making money. Still outrageous.
So how do I solve this? I sell raw fiber to manufacturing companies that use economy of scale to produce socks MUCH more efficiently. Then I buy socks and other products back from them to sell to you at a reasonable price. In addition, they are professionally manufactured with quality assurance. I cannot say every pair of socks I sell has MY fiber in it. Because I'm honest. BUT because it is someone else's company that manufactures the socks, some farmers' markets don't understand why I have to do it this way and refuse to let me sell at their market.
However, do you know what they will allow? They'll allow someone who knits, or crochets to go buy cheap, import acrylic (read: plastic) yarn at <insert big box store name here>, make something, and sell at farmers' market. THEY'RE NOT EVEN A FARMER! And because they only paid $5 for enough yarn to make a sweater, they can afford to sell you a pair of gloves for $10. Sidenote: this is also why I don't have prices on our products. Because crafters can do what I explain above, the only way I can compete is if you come over and feel the difference. Once you feel alpaca verses acrylic, the difference is obvious. But if you saw the price first, you'd wonder why I'm charging more "for the same thing.").
Another work around: private label. I basically do the same as peeling the stickers off of produce by putting my own label on the manufacturers' products. This is completely legal if the deal is worked out with the manufacturing company. They would be the exact same socks I'm selling now, just with our ranch name on them. If that's what it comes down to, I guess that's what I'll do. However I don't feel that's the most transparent method.
I'm not hating on the people making the rules. I fully understand and support the spirit of why the rule exists! But its time for farmers' markets to assess how they can massage the rules to support small fiber farms and still operate under the initial spirit of the rule.
So to the board members of the markets that have turned my fiber products down, here's an open invite: Come visit my farm. Come learn what it takes to grow sustainable clothing. I normally charge for the tour, but for you it's on me. Sustainable agriculture is about more than food. It is a system approach and our clothing is part of that system. Please give us an opportunity to provide locally grown clothes!
To our local supporters, please email your farmers' market to ask what their policy is. If it sounds like what I've described above, please ask them to appeal it! In the meantime, come learn for yourself by taking our tour; while we might not be at your market yet, our gift shop is just 5 minutes off I-75 ;)
SPECIAL THANKS TO THE DOWNTOWN RICHMOND FARMERS' MARKET!!! If it wasn't for the support of DRFM and our customers there, we wouldn't have made it this far!!!
Yesterday was a good day to do some side-by-side field testing of the Altera Prevail sock and Kentucky Royalty Adventure sock. Here’s what I discovered:
Both socks are awesome. My feet stayed warm. As I heated up working in the barn, my feet didn’t sweat. When I spilled water from a bucket right on the only part of my boots where it could’ve possibly found its way inside, my feet stayed warm even when wet.
My personal favorite is the Adventure sock for this reason alone: cushion. The terry loop construction has a little more loft, making it more like having mini clouds in your shoes. The Prevail sock is slimmer, giving it the advantage of fitting well from sneakers to fashion boots to hiking boots. Note: fit is what makes your socks work, so no squeezing your foot into a tight shoe!
BUT, Prevail comes in knee high (Altera calls it “Over Calf”). I do love having the extra warmth on my legs when my thermals are in the wash.
One disadvantage the Adventure sock has is piling. Piling is when tiny fibers work out of the yarn and end up balling up inside your sock. This started with my pair after TWO YEARS of wear. Solution? Pull them off and throw them away. Because I’ve had three pairs for five years and they haven’t worn out yet. Why do I have three pairs? I suck at keeping up with laundry.
Another difference depending on which way you see it: natural verses dyed colors. The Adventure sock comes in a natural tweed verses the Prevail comes in a couple colors (including pink).
So which sock wins? It depends on you! My preference is the Adventure, but my husband’s is the Prevail. Both perform #AlpacaAwesome.
The auger. The livestock scale. The truck. Wheelbarrow. Chainsaw. Stock tank heater. The truck. The Square reader. My iPhone!!! Chainsaw. THE TRUCK.
And when I replaced the battery in my car, I couldn’t find the radio code. Anyone that knows me, knows my personal therapy is driving my manual Accord like it’s an Audi with the sunroof back and radio blasting (especially to drown out any screaming from the backseat).
And the screaming got worse. The kind of high pitch squeal scream that stabs your ears like an ice pick. Sean screams when he wants something, when’s he’s excited, when he’s in pain, when he doesn’t like something…but like all children he’s just cute enough the rest of the time to stop you from killing him. That and he’s the only grandson on the Maynard side, so I feel extra pressure to ensure his survival. And so I’ve spent the majority of my days for at least the last six months stopping myself from killing him and stopping him from killing himself.
Then there was the parasites. Normally we have a hot, dry July that kills parasite eggs by burning them. That never came this year. What would have made a difference is if we could have caught up with fencing to permit more pasture rotation. But that time was instead spent going through the entire herd, checking eyelids and agonizing over the look of their poop then giving dewormers again only to still lose some. And the ones we lost were some of the best.
To quote The Dancing Outlaw: “There’s love in it. There’s also sorrow, hatred, and madness.” He was talking about marriage, but that pretty much describes farming. And parenting. And being a business owner.
I’ll spare you the details of my multiple meltdowns. Some of those closest to me were viciously and senselessly attacked as I held a defensive position in my weakness. I’m so sorry. Thank you for your forgiving love.
When I was an Air Force investigator, folks would ask how I liked the job. My response was, “Just like any job, ours has highs and lows. It’s just ours are much more extreme than most.” I guess I’m drawn to that kind of life. Because the highs out here are straight up amazing.
TONS of awesome things happened this year. I am so grateful to all of you for your support. Because of all the good and what we learned from the bad in 2015, awesome things are already set in motion for 2016. This year we will expand to Lexington markets (don’t worry Richmond: we’re not leaving you!). We’re going to the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville!! I’ve gotten good enough at my tri-loom weaving that I’m proud to start showing it off. The Kentucky Alpaca Association is totally revamping our annual event & I’m super excited about it. I will learn how to spin fiber into yarn. We might actually go on a family vacation (to an alpaca show of course). And my garden will be epic.
2015: thanks for all the great life lessons. But I’m not going to say I’m sad to see you go. 2016 and I are running away together. With a little less bourbon this time.
While we don't carry ugly Christmas sweaters (yet!), we have plenty of gift options for all those on your gift list. I don't know any person with feet that wouldn't love a pair of alpaca socks. All kinds of socks, hats, scarves, shawls, boot insoles, gloves, alpaca snack sticks & jerky, plus our newest items: saddle pads, lapel pins, and art yarn jewelry. We are open THIS SATURDAY (Nov. 28, 2015) for Shop Small from 9 a.m. 'till 5 p.m. FREE ADMISSION. Come get an alpaca selfie & some alpaca awesomeness.
I’ve gotten my share of scrunched and turned up noses. I have chuckled at the handful of highly dramatic and/or ignorant comments on my Facebook page (my favorite: “I would rather eat my children!” Yup. No joke. She must have real jackass kids…)
But thankfully most folks have been simply surprised, saying “I didn’t know you could eat alpacas.”
So this blog is for you. Here are all the many reasons why I eat alpacas:
1. It’s delicious. Just look at that picture. I know your mouth is watering. This wasn’t my number one reason when I started eating it, but it sure is now! With the smooth texture of a tuna steak but an amazing flavor similar to beef only sweeter, the only meat I’ve found comparable is elk. No, alpaca does not have a game flavor. But don’t take my word for it; go ask the chefs and customers at Table Three Ten, Smithtown Seafood, Game, National Provisions, Marksbury Farm, and Good Foods Co-op…
2. People have been eating them for centuries. Alpacas have been a domestic livestock species for 6,000 years for meat and fiber. The Incas didn’t have cattle; they had llamas and alpacas. And they have continued to be on menus across Peru, Chile, and Bolivia ever since. (Native Americans didn’t have cattle either…they had bison…we ate most of those…or wastefully left the meat to rot after skinning their hides) Like jerky? Fun fact: the first known jerky was alpaca and llama; it was originally called “charqui.”
3. It’s healthy. Lean, low in cholesterol, yet high in protein and iron. Only thing that beats it is emu. I’ve had emu; I’ll take the alpaca.
4. I know what’s in it. I personally keep the health records on these animals. I understand why the meat industry started using antibiotics to the extent that it does, I would just prefer to keep that out of my body. I only give antibiotics when someone is sick. I ensure they get fresh pasture grass in the summer and tested, quality hay in the winter. I only give grain if someone is struggling to keep weight on. I’m not hating on other farmers; I just chose to do things differently.
5. It’s good for the Earth. Pound for pound, alpacas are 25% more efficient than cattle. That means it takes 25% less land, 25% less food to grow a burger made from alpaca verses beef. Alpacas are also easier on the soil: as lighter animals, they don’t cause soil compaction and their padded feet don’t cut into the soil like hooves do.
6. It’s good for the alpaca fiber industry. At a certain point, most alpacas’ fiber takes a turn for the brillo pad. So if I only have enough land for 20 alpacas and all they give me is scratchy scarves, what can I do? Send a few on to freezer camp so we can have babies to make ahhh-mazing-alpaca good scarves again.
7. I can’t afford to have a herd of pets. Given the above scenario, if I kept the 20 brillo pads around, it would get awful expensive. Generally it costs about the same to feed, house, and care for a brillo pad alpaca as an ahhh-mazing one. Except the amazing one will actually make money with the fiber harvest. The most I’m getting out of the brillo pad is a lawn mowing service (which is cool if you have two…not 20).
And as a sidenote here: heritage breed meat animals became endangered because our food system supports max weight production as opposed to max nutrition. Eat endangered to give farmers an incentive to continue to breed heritage breeds.
8. It’s humane. I have seen alpacas wither away. There’s been a few I’ve tried so hard to keep going, but just couldn’t. Because they are livestock and not pets, I feel much better knowing their lives were full of rolling hills of lush pasture and sunshine as opposed to pain. When touring my processor for the first time, without me asking they proudly informed me their entire facility was built according to Temple Grandin’s specifications. I have an autographed copy of her book I purchased the year before our first meat harvest. I have stayed with those big, beautiful eyes to the very end to make sure they are respected and cared for even in death. It is hard. But it is important to me.
So after reading this you still tell me “It’s just not my thing” after you still haven’t tried it, it's cool. I’ll just respectfully say “Ok. Are you a vegetarian?”
River Hill Ranch is seeking up to three interns driven to learn about small business ownership, managing a farm operation, product development, fiber/textiles, meat production, and of course alpacas. This will start as a barter employment position for the first 6 months, but can convert into a paid position running a booth at the Richmond, Lexington, or Louisville Farmers Markets and/or giving tours on the ranch after successful completion of training. There is no obligation to continue after the training.
We run anywhere from 60 to 100 alpacas throughout the year. Our interns will learn what it takes to keep these critters happy & healthy. Sometimes this involves needles, blood, puss, and various other body fluids. It always involves poop. But it also includes rubbing a newborn cria (baby alpaca) dry and standing back to watch it take its first steps and try to find its mother’s milk. It means watching the animals’ hilarious antics while you’re out there with them so you find yourself laughing while pushing a wheelbarrow full of that poop. Being an alpaca rancher also means we are grass farmers, so you’ll learn about responsible pasture management and helping manage our program efficiently.
However, spending time with the alpacas is the least demanding part of the job. Making sales calls, managing social media, the website and other marketing, taking product pictures & writing descriptions to post online, making products to sell, sorting the fiber & shipping it to various buyers…I could use help doing some or all of these tasks. We would also be researching/writing grant proposals then hopefully managing grant projects, doing market research, product development for textiles and items like fur. Finally, there are tours. We enjoy sharing and educating our community about alpacas as well as the Slow Clothes movement, showing how clothes are created in a sustainable fashion.
We do not expect anyone to tackle learning off of these tasks at once. We will start by doing a little of everything to find what your particular interests and gifts are.
There is not much money in small family farming. We enjoy a simple life filled with quality over quantity, do the best we can to be self-sufficient, I cannot describe how alive you feel being so close to the highs and lows of God’s creation. It is hard work that tests and pushes you while feeding your soul.
Our goal is to find someone with grit and passionate about serving our community through agriculture. Applicants need to have a reliable vehicle that can transport the necessary amount of equipment and inventory for a farmers’ market booth.
To apply, email RiverHillRanch@rocketmail.com with your name & contact information to set up an interview. Extra consideration will be given to veterans.
Odd, sometimes twisted connections are made when you’re both military law enforcement and an alpaca rancher. Watching the public reaction to the Michael Brown shooting made me think about llamas. Yes, llamas.
Lt Col (ret.) David Grossman is an expert in the field of understanding violence. One of his books, “On Killing,” is required or recommended reading for several law enforcement and military organizations (fun fact: this book was the first gift my husband gave me. Romantic, right?).
In one of his books, he illustrates a metaphor about Sheep, Wolves, & Sheepdogs:
“If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed…
As a shepherd to alpacas, I cannot always be there to protect our herd, so I researched options for guard animals to do the job in my absence. One of the cons in “hiring” a dog to protect a herd is a dog is still a carnivore and therefore instinctively seen as a predator by the herd, or as Grossman describes, the flock:
“The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence.”
Despite the fact that the sheepdog’s mission is to ensure no harm come to the sheep, “still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn't tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go, "Baa." (Which might be why so many livestock guardian dog breeds are white, but I digress).
While his teaching using this metaphor continues and is valuable, the metaphor itself ends there. The issue of the flock’s fear and distrust of the sheepdog persists.
Allow me to continue this metaphor further by introducing guard llamas. Because llamas are also prey animals, the flock or herd does not see the llama as a threat. They have similar social behavior so the flock readily listens to their commands without coercion. They do not cause stress or uneasiness because they see the llama as one of their own.
The presence of guard llamas does not replace the need for sheepdogs as a llama is not equipped to fight off a pack of wolves. However, they have a substantial presence, are alert to potential danger, and have a decent capacity for violence if the situation calls for it.
Who are the guard llamas in our communities? What would they look like?
A quick run down of basic required care for alpacas:
Spring/Summer/Fall: Fill water buckets, check hay bunks (we fill ‘em around every 3 days), spray their bellies if it’s too hot, see if anyone’s in labor, make sure everyone is still alive & healthy, scoop poop.
Winter: Same as the rest of the year, but NO SCOOPING POOP! WAHOO! Throw down straw instead (we do deep bedding). Lock them in the barn if it’s below zero wind chill. Blanket anyone that looks cold.
Check body condition, de-wormer shot to ward off Meningeal Worm, check toenails (some need trimming every 3 months, some annually), trim bangs, check ears, nose, armpits, & ankles for mites. We can do about 25 animals in a hour with 2 people. It can be done with just 1 person depending on how calm all the alpacas are during the process (or using a chute, but that takes longer ‘cause you have to strap them in).
Shear (our pro shearer takes 3-5 min per paca), check fighting teeth/trim if needed, vaccination shots
That’s it! What takes the most time is when one gets sick or gives birth. Otherwise, they’re super easy keepers.
Want to know more? Here’s a video series posted by the Alpaca Owners Association discussing parasite management, handling, and other basic need-to-know for alpaca owners: https://www.arilist.com/academy/camelid-education-videos/parasite-control
Want to know a lot more? Here are some references we keep on hand:
Llama and Alpaca Care http://www.amazon.com/Llama-Alpaca-Care-Reproduction-Nutrition/dp/1437723527
Alpaca Field Manual http://www.lightlivestockequipment.com/evansmanual.php
Neonatal Care for Camelids http://www.lightlivestockequipment.com/proddetail.php?prod=NEONATALCARE
I just finished knitting a pair of hot pink fingerless gloves made with yarn from our 2013 fiber harvest. Aidyn (our 3-year-old daughter) is actually taking a nap, so I’m caught in a moment with just enough time to sit and think. I think this is the first time this year this moment has happened!
I am amazed at how much God has permitted us to accomplish this year. For posterity, here are some of the highlights & some of what I’ve learned:
Our herd has doubled since last year to 50 Suri alpacas.
Our 2-man family crew has put up around a mile’s worth of fence in 5 pastures on around 12 acres, drove countless t-posts, wired the barn for power, installed 2 waterers, built 3 hay feeders…in their “spare time.” I’m watching them finish the equipment shed right now.
I learned how to tie a skein of yarn so that when dyed, it turns into a lovely, gigantic knot that would keep us up until midnight for entire week before a craft fair trying to untie and re-skein. We still have 5 left to untie if anyone’s bored.
We cried, yelled, and laughed our way through learning how to properly care for our animals and laughed more watching their antics.
Our alpacas were cover models?? BG Magazine thought we were just cool & weird enough to make the cover story.
We learned the proper way to tell an alpaca to back down is to spit in its face. If that fails, punching in the face should work.
We got official with a logo, biz cards, website, Facebook page, a marketing plan, even a banner & shirts.
Our first batch of yarn went to a yarn shop on consignment & we started getting paid for our yarn!
I naively volunteered to secure $10k to fund, then produce a 4 hour educational video for the Suri Network. I have a new-found appreciation for non-profit volunteers. I am proud of what we’ve done & have been blessed in many ways through the process…I will be elated to get this project off my plate. Check out SuriNetwork.org for more info on “Pasture to Process, Product to Profit: Getting the Most Out of Your Suri Alpaca Fiber.”
Despite my self-doubt & the rain, my first fiber festival was very successful!
We experienced the excitement of new life, became “those people” nursing a preemie cria in the corner of our bedroom, and took great joy in watching the healthy little ones play in the summer pasture.
Returned to Estes Park for another wonderfully progressive Suri Network Summer Symposium.
We had our first taste of alpaca. I learned that even taking the butthole brothers that did nothing but pick fights was still tough. They sure were delicious though.
Attended two highly coveted Fiber Sorting & Grading Course from Suri Network's Donna Rudd & Olds College in Canada. It’s nice to actually understand fiber when raising fiber animals!
Our first public event thankfully had bad weather. I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t eat until it approached 2 o’clock & potentially passing out. Will be seeking volunteers to help next year!
Went to “Farm School”: the Kentucky Farm Start Program. Thought about becoming a chicken farmer. Still thinking about it.
I’m still learning that it doesn’t have to be perfect. The red metal on the equipment shed going up doesn’t match the main barn. It would be silly to pay to paint it to match, right?...
Had a conference shake my soul as I learned what other women veteran farmers have overcome & how they continue to serve their country by farming.
The goals for 2014 are currently spinning in my head…we’re just getting started.
A million thanks to the following folks who helped me to learn, grow, & survive our first year:
The big man upstairs
Mentor/Sounding Board Alpaca Farms: Dos Donas Alpaca Farm, Akuna Matada Alpacas, Little Gidding Farm, Susan Tellez, Seldom Scene Farm, Wombat Farm, Barnett’s Creek Farm, Rivendell Meadows Alpacas & Angoras, Long Hollow Suri Alpacas, Luna Sea Alpaca Farm, Sweetheart Suris Alpaca Farm, Twisted Suri Alpaca Ranch, Kinney Valley Alpacas, Northern Rocky Mountain Alpacas, & a special thanks to all those I’ve never met on Paca This!
Fiber Artist Mentors & Partners: Donna Rudd, Bluebonnets & Bluegrass Alpaca Farm, R.A.D. Fibers, Fiber Frenzy, Southville Spitters, Colors to Dye For, Forest Room Art Yarn, New Era Fiber, Star Weaver Farm & American Alpaca Textiles, Odelia, ReBelle, Alpaca Fiber Solutions, Olds College, A Tangled Yarn & Luna Bud Knits, Simply Natural Clothing
Business & Ag Mentors: Ag Credit Richmond Branch, Madison County UK Ag Extension Office, KCARD, UK Ag Econ, Kentucky Dept. of Ag, Farmer Veteran Coalition, Growing Warriors, Kentucky Farm Bureau, Park Community Credit Union Richmond Branch, Baldwin Farms, Marksbury Farm Foods
The Suri Network & Kentucky Alpaca Associations Boards
Dr. Patrick Reister, Boonsboro Animal Clinic
Wholesale Suppliers: Kentucky Royalty & Altera Alpaca, Classic Alpaca
Awesome Neighbors: Four Sisters Farm, The Howells, Vaughans, Jacks, & Brenda Evans
Marketing: Two Rivers Strategies, BG Magazine, Three Little Birds Designs, Liz Thomas Photography, First Gear, Ag Credit Leader, Openherd
First Cut Shearing
J & V Slaughterhouse
Kentucky Sheep & Fiber Festival
Faith & Fancy
I discovered the supposed 11 month gestation for alpacas isn’t even an average; it’s more like the beginning of the window. There is actually a 40 day window where they can possibly give birth to a normal cria. Talk about a waiting game!
Luna has resembled a bloated Shetland pony for some time and is 11 days overdue. I put Aidyn down for a "rest break" (because she now refuses to take a nap for me) and head to the barn to make sure everyone's ok. Halfway there, I notice a red and gray blob on the other side of the pasture. Scan, scan, CRIA! But for whatever reason she is in the run, with her mom nervously pacing on the pasture side. Somehow the cria has managed to get through not one, but two panel gates.
I run to the barn to grab a towel and the iodine and get to the cria. I scoop her up, but she's already pretty dry and breathing just fine. YAY!!
Flashback about a month, our best herdsire, Backstage, was super skinny, had an infection, mites, & probably allergies. To help get him up to breeding health, we put him in the maternity ward. He's done very well & is back to being his full macho self.
Back to today, while I'm on the other side of the fence two gates over, Backstage realizes Luna is no longer pregnant and wants to now prove just how macho he is. I am now towel snapping his orgling face as he's trying to mount her. Ruth is doing her best to help by madly barking and jumping at him.
I somehow open two gates without letting the rest of the herd through while carrying the cria (they are ALL pressed up against it tying to sniff the new arrival or show Backstage they are also available). I put the cria down in the correct pasture, put Backstage in a full nelson and drag all 200 pounds of him back through those two gates, past the flirting maidens, and lock him in the run.
Now back to the cria. She's already pronking! She's running up to the fence and saying hi to everyone, looking up at Purple Martin aerial combat, and trying to figure out what the white poof ball creature is making all the noise in the other pasture. Shoot; I forgot to figure out what to put the iodine in to dip the umbilical cord...baggies! There's a slew of baggies for histogram and poop samples.
Ok, that's done, now what? Well you know by now that she’s a she, but I didn’t think to check until just now. Wahoo! It’s a girl! Has she nursed? She's trying to nurse the wire fence. Maybe if I get her and Luna together in the barn she'll have better luck.
So I was reminded of something I'd read after I did that: the cria will instinctively go to the darkest place, which on a normal, sunny day is under mom. In our barn, it's the corner by the waterer. She's now trying to nurse the waterer. Awesome. Back out to the pasture with you.
After holding my breath for what seemed like hours, she finally starts to nurse. Good, because I really didn't want to get up on a 12' ladder to find Aidyn's bottles from two years ago. Aidyn & I sit in camp chairs to watch the funny active girl explore her new world. A hawk flies low over her & I'm certain the raptor is going to scoop her up as his next meal, but he just cries a welcome to her.
Of course at this point the sky is darkening. No I don't mean dusk, I mean sirens are soon blaring and I'm certain we will be struck by lightning right there in our metal camp chairs.
Thank God; hubby's home. The certified weather watcher (yes, he has a card to prove it) announces its time to go to the basement. But not before he's going back up to the barn to lock the cria & mom in their stall. I see animals sprinting everywhere; he's also putting Backstage up on the porch. I see lightning hit the ground what seems like right behind him while he's holding a metal gate. Somehow he makes it alive back to the house and we go down to the basement.
Upon arrival, we see the brand new trampoline Mom bought Aidyn for her birthday go floating by several feet above the ground. Of course I flip at my hubby for not anchoring it right. The storm passes and the trampoline is somehow lodged in the corner of our fencing with only minor tears. I apologize for flipping out. He re-anchors the trampoline and I go check on the cria.
Luna looks hungry. It would probably do her some good to give her some grain. She inhales it. Literally. She’s now choking and vomiting and stumbling about so horrifically that I’m certain she’s going to die. Crap. Can you milk a dead alpaca?? Can I somehow get Estrella (who hasn’t delivered yet) to adopt the cria?? I’m madly searching the internet on my phone to see what I should do. Estrella is very concerned about her mom (she’s Luna’s daughter from some years back) and is humming nervously following Luna around. Luna is apparently going to live because she bites Estrella’s ear to tell her to leave her alone and get out of her way. She heaves violently for 20 minutes before finally settling down.
She immediately turns back to her baby and tries to call her, but her throat is still upset so it sounds pitifully gargled. I’m sure during all that hurling, she was even more stressed asking “who would take care of her baby if she didn’t fight through this?” As a mom, I could see the relief on her face not for the restoration of her own safety, but for the sake of her cria.
I stay and watch into the twilight. I lift up a celebratory prayer when I see the cria nurse again, then pee for a full minute. I laugh thinking of all the things you celebrate as a new parent (we cheered together when Aidyn finally took a dump in the middle of church at a couple days old). I had been questioning whether I was ready to go back there again. As the fireflies came out around us, a wave of comfort and relief washes over me with the cool summer breeze. I stayed up most of the night worried about that little girl out in the wet grass. But I didn't mind. I was ready for a baby. And I didn’t mind as much now that all that puking from Luna had made me throw up a little…
Cria = baby alpaca
Herdsire = alpaca stud
Orgling = the sound a courting male alpaca makes
Maiden = female alpaca that has not been breed
Pronking = a way alpacas run when they’re playing
Purple Martin = a species of bird that swoops after flying insects
On a perfect shearing day, the following happens:
1. The shearer shows up on time...not a day late (not his fault; stuff just happens).
2. The alpacas calmly all walk to the barn to wait their turn...instead of madly dashing everywhere in the pasture because they know it's not their feeding time so we must be trying to eat them.
3. The alpacas politely poop and pee out in the pasture before entering the barn...instead of creating a pee poop butter they then spread all over the barn floor.
4. No one gets spit on...instead of several people getting it in the face...up the nose...with mouth open.
5. All animals calmly walk from the stall to the mat...instead of barreling right through a full grown man and the metal stall gate with such force that it bends the gate eye bolt screwed into a post (Tom amazingly fell onto the mat and was uninjured).
6. Once on the mat, all alpacas calmly lay down...instead of screaming, thrashing wildly, and needing to be lowered by two men in what looks like a slow motion double-double-leg wrestling take-down.
7. The weather is partly cloudy, 55-65 degrees, dry, with a slight breeze...not 80, humid, then turn into 30 mph hour winds with thunder, lightning, and driving rain.
8. It wouldn't rain on a perfect shearing day...no alpacas would escape from the barn before shearing to get soaking wet and needing to be chased back into the barn in the driving rain.
9. The barn wouldn't flood right next to all the power cords for the shears and needing to be dug out with a shovel outside in a lightning storm.
10. All bags of fiber would get properly labeled, then placed in a dry place to air out...and not have the barn cats think they just scored play toy heaven by batting the open bags around, splilling out the fiber.
But even on a perfect shearing day, the alpacas still end up looking like 4-legged aliens!
We didn't have a perfect shearing day, but we're so grateful for our professional shearer conducting a proper fiber harvest and leaving our animals uninjured, the tremendous amount we learned throughout the experience, and the laughs we had through it all!