I have wanted to visit Spudland Alpacas ever since I noticed the sign on Route 1 just south of Mars Hill pointing to the farm and store on the Bubar Road. That would have been around 2003 when Richard Porter decided to add animals to his farm in Blaine.
A full-time potato farmer with 600 acres to tend, he wanted to expand his farming operation to include his children and grandchildren. He considered cows, having raised them before, but after a year of research, he just had to try alpacas.
“They are gentle and kid-friendly,” he said, as he and his daughter Tracey Milliard chatted with me this week, seated in the office space in the back of the store displaying a variety of alpaca products.
“They like children; they relate to kids,” added Tracey, recalling that her daughter was afraid of animals, but was hugging an alpaca by the time the family left the farm in southern Maine where they purchased the first animals for their herd. The whole family was involved in starting the new project, and everyone continues to participate — Dick and Polly Porter, daughters Tracey and Laura and their husbands, and five grandchildren.
“Alpacas fit easily into the Maine landscape,” Porter says on the farm’s website. Native to the Andes mountain region of Peru, alpacas are well suited to the climate of northern Maine. They like the cold.
“Aroostook County has a lot of similarities with the alpacas’ homeland. The climate, soil and rural population fit nicely with the growing needs of potatoes and alpacas.”
Porter applied his knowledge of soil in creating fertile pasture and fields of hay for the alpacas. He conducted a complete soil audit to assure proper minerals were present, the same process used for the farm’s potato and grain crops.
“Potatoes and alpacas go together, just as they did 500 years ago when the Spanish first came to Peru and discovered the potato.”
So as soon as potato planting is completed in the spring, the alpacas take center stage. June is a big month: All 50 animals are sheared, and the pregnant females start giving birth.
Shearing takes place on the first Sunday in June when Spudland Alpacas is on the calendar of a professional shearer from New Hampshire who begins in Florida and works his way north, traveling from farm to farm for the annual ritual.
“Everyone is here for the shearing,” including a few neighbors, Dick said. “It is great having the same crew. Shearing is a big day. We may have 20 people and some who come just to watch.”
The process begins at 8 a.m. and is concluded by mid-afternoon, with a break for lunch coordinated by Dick’s wife, Polly. As the fleece rolls smoothly off each animal, it is weighed and bagged, with separate bags for fleece from the body (the blanket) and from the neck and legs. A third bag holds a small sample of the fleece, and each bag bears the name of the animal from whom the fleece was taken. The samples are evaluated for qualities used in making breeding decisions.
Grandchildren help with tasks such as marking weights and hauling bags. Other helpers secure the animals to mats on the floor of the barn where they remain for about five minutes as they give up between 5 and 10 pounds of fleece apiece. The bags of fleece are shipped to a farm in southern Maine where the fiber is graded, washed and processed into yarn. Alpacas produce 22 different natural colors of fleece that varies in the degree of waviness or “crimp,” which creates the fluffiness of the animal’s thick coat.
Birthing season follows shearing. Tracey’s sister Laura plays a key role, and the children learn about life’s realities.
“They have seen death; they have seen birth,” Tracey said, agreeing with her father that, even though stressful, birthing is enjoyable and rewarding. While they have had as many as 12 births in a year, the herd produced six cria, or baby alpacas, in 2012.
Spring and fall are show times, and Dick may take between two and six Spudland alpacas to Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio and elsewhere to be judged primarily on fleece quality. One of his daughters and two grandchildren accompany him, and the kids keep track of when it is their turn to travel. The experience is an education they could not gain at school, and one supportive teacher was presented with a slideshow of photos taken by a Porter grandchild who had to miss school to attend the alpaca show.
Bloodlines determine the value of an animal, and as a breeder, Dick works to mate sires and dams that will produce cria with top quality fleece. Some females are bred on the farm and others sent away to mate. With an 11-month gestation period, breeding must occur before fall for the cria to be born in time to develop a warm coat for winter.
Each animal has a distinct personality, and some of them form strong bonds with family members.
“My wife never forgave me for selling Victor,” Dick recalled.
When I arrived at the farm this week, a long white trailer owned by a professional alpaca transporter who transports all over the U.S. had pulled into the dooryard. Dick and Tracey were saying goodbye to Queenie, a 3-year-old bred white female, and Outlaw, a 6-month-old rose gray cria. Outlaw was too small to see, but from time to time Queenie’s head appeared behind the grill of the windows in the trailer that would take her and her young companion to a new home in Illinois.
From one side of the van Queenie could see the relatives and friends she was leaving, as they gazed at her from the snow-covered field. From the opposite window she could see Tracey standing on the porch of the store with her camera, trying to capture this last view on film.
“It’s hard. You grow attached to them,” she said. Dick agreed: “Especially one as nice as Queenie.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.