SANFORD – As temperatures drop and sweaters make their way out of the closet, local farms like Duham’s Namaste Alpaca Farm, Gray’s Carrageen Farms, Sanford’s Abenaqui Alpacas and Shapleigh’s Oak Hill Alpacas are opening their barn doors to the public Saturday and Sunday for National Alpaca Farm Days.
Steve and Karrie Myer of Abenaqui Alpacas in Sanford will hold a “coming-out party” for their farm, which they have been building since 2006. The Myers will show visitors their herd and welcome them to the farm store, where they sell yarn, spinning and knitting supplies and rugs, garments and household items made from alpaca fiber.
In nearby Shapleigh, meanwhile, Donna Ferrera of Oak Hill Alpacas will invite visitors, as she does at other times of the year, to tour the farm and the two-story farm store filled with alpaca products. Visitors can “meet the animal and meet the scarf. It’s kind of cool,” Ferrera said.
Ferrera, who has been raising alpacas in Shapleigh since 2001, said she chose the South American animal because they’re “very gentle, very luxurious, and very easy to care for.”
Alpacas, which are related to llamas and camels, have existed for thousands of years in South America, but were first imported into the U.S. for commercial use in 1982. Before that, concerns over diseases such as foot and mouth prevented the import, said Jerry Forstner of Magical Farms in Ohio, which is the largest alpaca farm in the country, with 1,600 animals.
The animals were originally found in lowland areas of South America, Karrie Myer said, but when the Spanish arrived and began raising merino sheep, many indigenous people were pushed to the Altiplano with their herds. Today, the animals there roam free for much of the year, and are brought in for shearing and health maintenance, she said.
Alpacas are efficient eaters, requiring relatively little food for their size, and the sale of their fiber pays for much of their upkeep. They are also low impact on the land they graze, Myer said – an added plus.
Cindy Berman of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, a national group, agreed.
“They’re great on the environment. That draws a lot of people to them,” she said.
Their soft-padded feet, like dog paws, are “delicate on the terrain,” said Berman, and because they don’t have upper teeth, they cut the grass instead of pulling it from the root, which means they “don’t turn a field into dirt like some livestock do.”
Berman said that alpaca farming has seen “steady growth since [the animals] first came to the U.S. commercially.” Alpacas are no longer imported from South America, but are bred domestically.
Myer said the growing interest in the animals in Maine is due in part to the increased interest in sustainable agriculture in the state. Alpacas “adapt well to this climate,” Myer said, adding, “They’re wearing the sweaters that we buy to keep warm.”
The Myers shear their animals in the spring and send most of the fiber to a mill in New Hampshire for processing. Karrie Myer also knits, spins and dyes some of the fiber, which is sold at a premium because it is considered a luxury product, comparable to cashmere, she said.
During the farm days, the Myers will show sheep and alpaca fiber side by side so visitors can compare the two. Alpaca, Myer said, “is the kind of fiber you’re going to want to put up against your skin.” The fleece is hollow, which means it insulates well, and it repels water. As Ferrera explained, alpaca fiber is lighter but warmer than sheep’s wool, and it’s naturally hypoallergenic.
At this weekend’s event, the Myers will offer farm tours and explain the different stages of an alpaca’s life. Visitors will be invited to vote on a name for an alpaca born recently, and there will be raffles and giveaways.
Alpacas are “very friendly” Ferrera said, and visitors can hand feed the animals and take them for walks.
At the Oak Hill farm store, visitors can sift through two floors of coats, blankets, sweaters and more- Ferrera believes she has the biggest alpaca product selection in New England. Her farm is also home to the largest alpaca in the U.S., she said, who is aptly named Big Chief. When she brings him to shows, Ferrera said, people take one look and ask: “What is that?”
And visitors needn’t worry about spitting animals. Alpacas and llamas spit when they get into fights with each other.
“The only time you get hit is when you’re in the crossfire,” she said.
Ferrera said her favorite part of farming is “when we go to shear [the animals] and put the fiber in the bags. I love the feel of it.”
Ferrera sends most of her fiber to another Maine farmer who processes it, taking it through the various washing, carding and spinning steps before it lands on a shelf as yarn.
Like Karrie Myer, Ferrera keeps some of the fiber to process herself.
“I like to spin,” she said.
The National Alpaca Farm Days, in its sixth year, is “one of the premier events” for the owners and breeders association, and offers a chance to see the animals up close. “You can’t imagine what a gentle, sweet and beautiful animal they are until you see them yourself,” Berman said.
Steve Myer nuzzles a young alpaca at Abenaqui Alpacas, which is among one of the farms participating this weekend in National Alpaca Farm Days.
There’s much to like about alpacas, animals described as “sweet and beautiful.” Karrie and Steve Myer of Abenaqui Alpacas own this pair.
These alpacas owned by Karrie and Steve Myer will be ready to greet local visitors this weekend as part of a national farm day.