BELFAST, Maine — Rainey, the newest resident of the Blue Alpaca Ranch on the outskirts of Belfast, is a big-eyed, inquisitive, long-legged little guy who loves chasing chickens and looks a little like a stuffed animal.
He’d probably be soft to touch, too, but he’s a little skittish and won’t let just anybody come near him for a pat. That’s because Rainey is a three-week-old cria, or baby alpaca, and he’s still not sure what to make of people. Ben Cowan and Michele Hutchins, the owners of the alpaca farm, said that it’s normal for alpacas to be a little skittish around humans — they’re not known to be the cuddliest of creatures — but that doesn’t dampen the love they have for their herd. In fact, a few lawn chairs are positioned so that the couple can comfortably indulge in one of their favorite down-time activities: watching the alpacas whenever they can.
“They’re just quiet, peaceful animals,” Cowan, 33, said. “They’re really calm and peaceful.”
Cowan’s interest in alpacas began several years ago, when he and his father, artist Ron Cowan of Belfast, took a trip to the Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity to get a load of manure for the garden. They saw the alpacas and something clicked, Ben Cowan said.
“We fell in love with the animals,” he said.
The alpaca is a domesticated member of the camel family, and is native to the Andes region of South America. It is a herd animal and is considered non-aggressive, intelligent, inquisitive and highly adaptable, according to Peruvian Link, a wholesale alpaca fiber company headquartered in Amherst, Maine. Most of the world’s alpacas are found in the Peruvian mountains, where they comfortably live in altitudes up to 16,000 feet. Alpaca fleece, called “hair” or “fiber” instead of wool, is naturally hypoallergenic and warmer, softer and lighter weight than sheep’s wool. The animals like cold weather and do fine in Maine. They spit, like their relatives the llama and the camel, but not, perhaps, as aggressively as those animals do.
Coming home from Unity, Ben Cowan told Hutchins, his life partner, how cute the alpacas were and proposed that maybe the couple should get some of their own.
“What? Why would we do this?” the 33-year-old Hutchins remembered thinking. “We know nothing about alpacas. Nope. Nope. No. This is a pipe dream.”
It seemed impossible to be an alpaca farmer. They both had retail jobs that kept them busy — he at Hannaford supermarket, where he was an assistant manager, and she at Rite Aid pharmacy, where she was a pharmacist technician. Hutchins, who loved reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books when she was growing up, admits she had always wanted to do something with the land. But she had never given a thought to raising alpacas.
“I wanted nothing to do with it at first,” Hutchins said.
But Cowan started to spend a lot of his spare time doing research and putting business plans together to convince her it wasn’t just a pipe dream. Eventually, he won her over, and they purchased their first six alpacas from Northern Solstice four years ago. It was a good move, the couple said.
“We were ready to do something for ourselves,” he said. “To do something outside, and something we both enjoy.”
That doesn’t mean that it always has been smooth sailing. First, they had to ready the land — owned by Cowan’s parents — for the alpacas, digging trenches mostly by hand to bring electricity to the wooden shelters they built. Then, there was the learning curve that is part of figuring out any unique species. At first, Cowan said, they didn’t know that the crias need to have their fleece shorn soon after birth. He and Hutchins have been bringing their herd to an alpaca show every year in Springfield, Massachusetts. The first time a cria was born at the Blue Alpaca Ranch, they proudly brought him to show him off, but noticed a striking difference with the other babies. Their cria’s fleece looked long and matted, a big contrast to the soft, shorn fleeces of the other crias there.
“What a difference,” he said ruefully.
But they are figuring it out. Now, they do a herd health check every month, trimming the alpacas’ nails and giving them a shot so that they don’t get brainworm. They hire a shearer to come to the farm every year to free the alpacas of their fleeces, generating three big, soft bags of fleece per animal. They send the fiber to Aroostook Fiberworks, a small mill in Ashland that processes raw alpaca, angora, wool and mohair into yarns. And they sell the finished yarn along with mittens and other pieces knit from the yarn and lots of socks, sweaters and other alpaca creations knit from the fiber of other alpacas. They have a small shop at the farm, another that opened recently on the Belfast waterfront, and last Christmas, they also sold their goods at a kiosk at the Bangor Mall.
It’s been slow but steady growth, they said, and they have both been able to quit their day jobs to devote all their time to the farm.
“We’re trying to build the business without incurring a lot of debt,” Cowan said. “It’s slow going, but it helps us be sustainable.”
They also offer tours of their farm and have started to grow vegetables for sale there, too.
“We hope to really be kind of a destination and a fun, family place,” he said. “Where the alpacas are the main attraction.”
There is something special about the alpacas. Maize, who was born on the farm, is a golden, friendly alpaca who spent a lot of time with Hutchins as a cria and who seems to believe that the human is actually an alpaca, too. Last year, after a busy holiday stretch working at the retail kiosk in Bangor, Maize hadn’t seen Hutchins in three weeks.
“When she finally saw Michele, her tail started wagging,” Cowan said.
That is one of the things that makes her new life as a farmer so special for Hutchins.
“My favorite part is probably having a relationship with each animal,” she said. “Even though some of them don’t want to have relationships.”
For Cowan, the best part is being able to spend his days outside with the animals and growing a business with Hutchins.
“It’s really priceless to me,” he said. “Being able to work for something that’s ours and that we can grow — it’s still really exciting.”