“They’re supposed to be a business, but I get attached to them,” says Debbi Merrill, who owns Blackberry Hill Alpacas with her husband, Hank. “I mean, just look at those faces.”
As Merrill walks through the back field, the alpacas appear inconspicuous, lazily chewing grass. When she’s not looking, though, they begin to graze along behind her, carefully keeping pace. They’ll soon be meeting with the public, as National Alpaca Farm Days, a nationwide open house day at participating farms, is Saturday, Sept. 28. Blackberry Hill will welcome visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. that day, during which guests can meet the animals and get a closer look at them.
Fortunately Merrill is used to showing animals to the public. She used to handle show horses, but when she and Hank bought their property near Saks, they wanted to try something new. Alpacas are smaller, cleaner and more reserved than larger livestock, and they aren’t as forceful, stubborn or smelly as other farm animals. Because of Blackberry Hill’s small size, it’s easy to form relationships with the alpacas — and it doesn’t hurt they are full of personality.
Hershey’s father, Chocolate Marshmallow, for instance, has had to be sequestered from the other animals. The alpacas are bred deliberately, but the headstrong Chocolate managed to creep into the females’ pen and sire Hershey, marking him as a troublemaker. But Chocolate Marshmallow was the first alpaca born at the farm, and he’s still Merrill’s baby in spite of his mischief.
Breeding and caring for alpacas is nothing new, with roots stretching back thousands of years to the high altitudes of Peru, but the animals have only been in the United States for about 30 years.
According to Alpaca Registry Inc., the central registry for U.S. alpaca farmers, the animals are still rare, with less than 225,000 registered in the last 30 years. And though the animals are cute, they are really prized for their fleece, which is sheared like a sheep’s. Each animal only produces about five pounds of fiber a year, so the material is scarce, and its properties make for an even higher demand.
Alpaca fleece keeps temperatures moderate, according to Linda Boozer, who owns the Jacksonville alpaca farm HomePlace Farm and co-owns Yarns by HPF with Diane Peden.
“Everybody thinks their fleece will be hot. People are usually shocked at how cool it is,” said Boozer. The same blanket that keeps her customers warm in chilly weather can be enjoyable even on hot nights, she said.
“Their fleece wicks sweat,” explained Merrill, noting that the alpaca socks she sells are most popular with hunters, who spend hours in their boots and want to keep their feet dry.
And unlike sheep’s wool, alpaca fiber won’t cause allergic reactions because it’s hypoallergenic, says Peden. “Alpacas don’t have lanolin in their fibers.”
Alpaca fleece is something akin to a miracle fiber for knitters and crocheters. According to Merrill, ancient Peruvian commoners who were found wearing the fiber, which was reserved for the nobility, faced punishment, including death.
Meanwhile, Hershey wears his fleece without a clue as to its value or the ancient Peruvian laws it inspired. He is content to bask in the sunshine on his grassy patch of field — it’s a good time to be an alpaca.
The store at Blackberry Hill Alpacas opens Saturday, Sept. 28, with an open house from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors can meet the alpacas and pick up fleece from the farm’s animals. The store will be open through February. Give them a call at 256-453-4147.