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Raising alpacas can be an enriching experience

Posted May 21, 2013, at 4:11 p.m.
Robin Fowler of Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity cuddles with Riata at the farm.
Ardeana Hamlin
Robin Fowler of Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity cuddles with Riata at the farm.
Corry Pratt of Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity shows Space Cowboy, a prize-winning male alpaca, during the 2009 MAPACA Jubilee.
Photographer: Pamela Wells
Corry Pratt of Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity shows Space Cowboy, a prize-winning male alpaca, during the 2009 MAPACA Jubilee.

UNITY — Alpaca heads turn to stare with long-lashed dark eyes when visitors drive into the farmyard at Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm on Crosby Brook Road. The long-necked animals with thick fluffy coats freeze in place and stare intently.

The alpacas’ air of quiet vigilance and Zen-like demeanor quickly arouse one’s curiosity. First-time visitors to the farm will discover that alpacas communicate by humming, a sound deeply organic and oddly human.

Visitors also are greeted by a self-appointed welcoming committee: the Guinea fowl Kevyn and Surry.

The farm, established in 2006 and owned by Robin Fowler and Corry Pratt, consists of six and one half acres and is home to 28 alpacas.

“The Incas of Peru viewed alpacas as a gift from the gods,” Fowler said. That alpacas are a gift is an idea Fowler and Pratt embrace with enthusiasm, evident in the farm’s clean, orderly and well-managed appearance.

Each of the animals in Fowler’s and Pratt’s  care has a name and answers to it, especially at feeding time. In the warmer months, alpacas graze on grass, but in winter they eat hay. There is Salsa, the matriarch of the flock and one of the first three alpacas Fowler owned; Calypso, who produces 10 pounds of silky, luxurious fiber each year; and Savannah, Riata, Champagne Sandy, Emma’s Revolution and Sweet Pandemonium, the daughters of the farm’s prize winning male alpaca, Space Cowboy.

The other alpacas are the males, not used for breeding purposes: Archimedes, Hamilton, Eclipse, Murphy, Ludicrous, Annikin, Maestro and Paxson; and females Sumitra, Aria, Posie, Mary Lou, Effie Mae, Lady Arwen, Denali Star, Sonata, Daisy Mae, Laelia, Sugar Magnolia and Splenda.

“Alpaca fiber is high in demand and low in availability,” Fowler said. “It’s a superior product that has been around for thousands of years. It’s soft, warm, non-allergenic and low-cost to produce.”

On average, an alpaca will produce six to 10 pounds of fiber each year. An individual strand of alpaca fiber measures approximately 18-19 microns. By comparison, a human hair measures approximately 100 microns.

Alpacas, Fowler said, live for 20 years, have one baby a year and are very clean. They come in 22 natural colors ranging from white to gray to buff to dark brown to black with many shades in between. They produce small amounts of odorless manure which Fowler makes available to local farmers on a bartering basis, in return for produce or anything else grown with the manure, including Christmas trees, maple syrup, vegetables and jars of pickles.

The cost to buy an alpaca, depending on bloodlines, averages $500 to $6,000.

Fowler, who gave up a successful career in corporate America to become an alpaca farmer, said her goals were, and continue to be, “to raise healthy, happy animals to grow a lovely product, and to share the animals with the community through education.”

The first thing she did after she retired from her job to pursue her dream of raising alpacas was to take classes on raising and nurturing animals —  and learning as much as she could from those who already were in the business of alpaca farming. She visited farms throughout the United States to learn about the best practices of alpaca farming.

The next thing she did, in 2004, was call on some of her friends — six women and one man, none of whom had ever built anything before — to help her build a barn. Then in 2006 she purchased three alpacas.

From that beginning, the farm and its animals are now recognized at national shows, mostly recently in Harrisburg, Pa., where Space Cowboy’s daughters came home with five ribbons: a second place, a third place and three fourth place spots.

Two years ago Northern Solstice opened its store, Fibers of Unity, at the farm. The store is stocked with handspun and mill spun alpaca yarn, rovings, hand knit and commercially made hats, gloves, mittens, socks, boot liners and other clothing made with alpaca fiber, or blends that include merino wool or bamboo. One unique product is fishing flies tied with alpaca fiber and made by a local artisan. Some of the products are made by family-owned businesses in Peru. Shoppers will find a wealth of items in the store suitable for all members of the family regardless of age or gender, including a book the farm sponsored, “Zadie and Plain Vanilla, The Rainbow Alpaca” by Barbara Blount Ziek. “I can’t think of a better way to educate children about alpacas,” Fowler said. For information about Fibers of Unity, go to fibersofunity.com.

Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm, 141 Crosby Brook Road, is open to visitors 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The farm receives approximately 1,000 visitors each year, Fowler said.

The farm also offers internships to Unity College students.

Raising alpacas, Fowler said, is “meaningful, authentic and enriching.”

For information about the farm email northernsolstice@unitnets.net or go to northernsolsticealpaca.com.

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