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Twenty years ago, Rob Bruce was driving back to the Beechwoods from Jeffersonville when he came upon a road blocked by Dr. Seuss creatures: Small heads perched on long, slender necks, cylindrical fuzzy bodies packed together, long eyelashes.
Later, after he had helped round up the critters, “It seemed like everywhere we turned, there’s an alpaca… We became addicted,” Michele Armour, his wife, business- and alpaca-farm- partner, said.
Armour and Bruce are not alone. The alpaca has gone from just a curiosity to a farm and petting-zoo staple.
The odd-looking animal and its fleece (known as fiber) is here to stay on Sullivan County farms, offering a gentle temperament and luxury yarn as a possible antidote to declining overall farm numbers.
The U.S. has lost 100,000 farms total since 2007; there were 2.2 million in 2007 and 2.1 million in 2017, according to the U.S.D.A agricultural census and Farm Bureau numbers. In Sullivan County, small farms are actually growing. While the area has lost a few alpaca farms and alpacas in the same time period, the industry is still going strong. Just two local farms tally 270-plus alpacas.
“I almost bought an alpaca online,” Armour said. Instead, she and Bruce went to a show and bought an alpaca there.
That was back in the ‘90s, and that alpaca was the seed for Rosehaven Alpacas, which now boasts 120-plus animals at its Beechwoods farm, plus a fiber mill and shop in Bethel.
Over at Buck Brook Alpacas in Roscoe, the story is more steeped in Sullivan County farming, but is no less infused with the love of—and addiction to—alpacas.
Kara and Justin McElroy own Buck Brook Alpacas. Kara’s mom, Kathy Meckle, has been involved from the beginning. Meckle grew up on a poultry farm in the Beechwoods, so the transition to raising alpacas isn’t too strange. She remembers: “Kara had friends who had alpacas and they decided to downsize. They started with a few of [the friends’] animals and wound up with 30.” Buck Brook now has about 150 alpacas, some of which are boarded.
Buck Brook offers tours, has a 4-H group and runs a shop full of alpaca products.
Alpacas are camelids, related to dromedaries, Bactrian camels and llamas, with which they can get confused. (Llamas are taller and heavier, and have banana-shaped ears). They’re native to South America, but can now be found everywhere in the world except Antarctica. According to the the Alpaca Owners Association, they weigh 100 to 200 pounds, and live for 15 to 20 years. They’re herd animals and, like other camelids, do spit if they get annoyed or think you’re after their food.
Each alpaca produces five to eight pounds of fluffy, fleecy fiber per year.
The usual sound they make, a soft keening, is called “humming,” although they also whistle in warning.
People began importing alpacas to the U.S. in the 1980s. Seniors and parents liked them for their gentleness; alpacas became animals to raise in retirement, or on a small farm. In this region, alpacas may have arrived in the ‘90s to farms like the now-gone Quintessence Alpacas in Callicoon and the Double E in Bethel. A 2000 New York Times article cited 2,919 registered alpacas in the U.S.
The most recent agriculture census reports 121,904 alpacas nationwide.
At Rosehaven, farm manager Jair Trujillo and mill manager Holly Jacobs gently steered a herd of females and young alpacas over to visitors for petting purposes. Kneel down, Trujillo suggested, to be on a level with the yard-high animals, or “they feel threatened.”
How could anyone threaten something so adorable? The visitors scrunched down. The alpacas gave a polite sniff and regarded the visitors solemnly, the air full of humming.
Rosehaven’s alpacas regularly visit Bethel Woods.
At Buck Brook, you can visit the alpaca barn, pet the animals, or just listen to them hum. “There’s something very soothing about them,” Meckle said.
“We also offer tours,” she continued, “we see lots of families, we do a certain amount of community events, school field trips. We get really really busy in the summer. We want to promote the industry.”
A family-run farm, the Meckles are looking for student interns to help out this summer.
“Farm-to-table has made people aware of clothing,” said Armour.
Where to find local alpacas and their fiber:
Alpacas in Harmony,
483 County Rd 114 Cochecton 631/804-9418
Buck Brook Alpacas,
Pacatone Alpaca Farm,
821 Eighmy Rd, Honesdale,
2027 Rte 17B, Bethel.
To support a 4-H mom
and alpaca lover: GoFundMe for Grace Honigsberg, www.gofundme.com/rzdcs-hope-for-grace
Alpaca fiber is slow fashion, and the sweaters—as soft as cashmere—are selling for $600 each at Bergdorf Goodman. The yarn can be knitted, and the roving can be felted into artwork or turned into the softest of stuffed toys. “The real thing is the fiber and what it can make,” Armour said.
Rosehaven sells a multitude of alpaca products, from garments to toys to hand-dyed yarn. Many are made in Peru. Many of the hand-knits are made here in the area, by local knitters, creating jobs in a region that is still recovering from the financial crisis.
Over at Buck Brook, “Our primary goal is to raise them for their fiber. It’s hypoallergenic, warm and durable,” said Meckle. The farm sells blankets, rugs, sweaters, gloves, stuffed animals, and yarn and alpaca roving. “A lot of items are handmade [many in Peru]. We’re very interested in the fiber industry, exploring that end. We want to increase the variety of products we produce.”
The local shift to fiber isn’t unusual; Modern Farmer in 2015 noted that this was true of the industry as a whole. Rosehaven’s decision to open a fiber mill in Bethel, in a yellow garage-like building behind a yellow-and-white house (now the shop), was innovative.
Mill manager Holly Jacobs is also an award-winning fiber artist, and the front room of the mill is full of examples of her work, serving as inspiration for the people who drop off fiber to be processed or take the classes that are occasionally offered. “You have all these different colors you can use with alpacas,” she said. Officially there are 16—browns, greys, white and black—but there are many blends too. And Jacobs hand-dyes the roving and yarns.
The Mill handles only part of the fiber production, Jacobs explained. They have a picker, a carder and a felting machine, and can spin bulky rug yarn and superbulky, nubbly, PopCorn yarn. Armour said that finer weight yarns are spun elsewhere.
Jacobs will work with almost any fiber, including fox, camel, dog hair and sheep wool. “We have no minimum [orders] here. We take farms with two or three animals,” which would be charged more elsewhere. People interested in what the mill can do should get in touch, Jacobs said. “We’re in this to create the best product we can. We all want to work together.”
She paused before a fiber "painting" she created to raise money for Grace Honigsberg, a Rosehaven friend who was in a terrible accident and is still in a coma. In the painting, alpacas are graze peacefully under a tree. “When you’re having the worst day in the world,” Jacobs said, “you sit down with alpacas and they’re calming.”