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The sweet and soft treasures of the Painted Sky Alpaca Farm

Nov 01, 2016 02:08PM ● Published by Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

To enter the Painted Sky Alpaca Farm on Knight House Road in Earleville is to open yourself up to a welcomed kind of vulnerability, one most easily aligned with the feeling of being transported to a serene soundbooth of nature.
Your transformation occurs when you arrive, when the seemingly endless chain link of fencing throughout the 20 acres rattles by your vehicle like a series of dominoes tumbling, one by one. Then the alpacas magically appear. As of a recent October morning, there are 34 of them, pearl white and brown and black, all dotted across the meadows, arching their skinny necks in a dance of curiosity. They walk slowly in the direction of your vehicle.
You are timid at first, but not for long. The alpacas -- with names like Tink and Dusty and Cinnamon -- surround you in the docile act of connection. You reach out with your hand and run your fingers through their fleece, and you realize that you have never felt anything so soft and gentle.
You are mesmerized by their giant black eyes and, less than five minutes after you arrive, you know what Mitchell and Linda Dickinson, the owners of the Painted Sky Alpaca Farm, feel every day of their lives -- that the animals that populate their farm are four-legged therapists, in charge of slowing down time and allowing the white noise of life to dissipate.
For nearly five decades, the Dickinsons owned and operated Sheeran Direct, a well-respected fulfillment business in New Castle, Del., where they provided storing and shipping services for some of the largest companies in the world. They built the success of their company through the support of loyal employees and the old chestnut working model of "Our word is our bond."
Eventually, the Dickinsons witnessed a new corporate culture dawning, where it became less important to cultivate good working relationships and more important to save a nickel in procurement services. At the same time, their work schedules were chewing up whatever sense of life-work balance they had tried to build for themselves. Seventy-hour work weeks became the norm. They were always on call. They worked holidays.
"We would leave every morning and go to work to New Castle -- 45 minutes back and forth -- and get home late at night," Linda said. "At some point we said, 'We have a really great life, but we're not really living life.' We were in the fulfillment business, but we didn't feel like we were being fulfilled."
In 2002, they moved with their son Christopher to a 20-acre farm in Earleville, thinking that a change of pace -- and place -- would allow them more time with their four horses.
"Somebody told us that when you have your own farm, you won't ride anymore because you'll be spending your entire time taking care of the farm," Mitchell said. "They were right."
On a vacation to Martha's Vineyard one year, the Dickinsons saw their first alpacas and fell in love immediately. They began to pore through any literature they could find about how to start an alpaca farm, and in 2012, the entire family visited an alpaca farm in Denton, Md. They stayed there for what felt like ten hours.
The business plan ball began to roll quickly. They planned to purchase a starter herd of three, but that number quickly grew to eleven when they discovered that alpacas are the most color diversified livestock in the world -- coming in 22 natural colors. Linda's brother helped Mitchell build alpaca pens for both males and females, they merged their business with another company, and Mitchell retired. After continuing on with the new company for the next three years, Linda retired in 2015 to join Mitchell full time.
Today, the Dickinsons raise and sell huacaya alpacas (pronounced whah-kai-ah), as well as operate a gift store, located on the farm, that sells products made from alpaca fleece by local artisans. They also provide breeding and agisting services, taking into account the attributes of the farm's females and look for males with higher qualities to compliment the females -- such as physical conformation, fleece characteristics, color genetics and temperament.
What began as a smattering of passers-by to the farm quickly grew and now, seven days a week, people of all ages visit the farm to admire the beauty of the animals. Seniors on tour buses. Motorcycle groups. Schoolchildren. Parents and their young children. Adults with challenges.
"It's like 'Field of Dreams,' Linda said. "'If you build it, they will come.' At first, we were amazed at the number of people who came out. Once we saw the interest level from the people, and the rewarding feeling that we would get by seeing their enthusiasm, that's when we decided to open our farm to the public."
The next step for the Dickinsons may be their largest undertaking yet: They plan to open and operate an alpaca fiber mill on the farm. It's currently under construction, and is planned to open by the end of the year.
It's for a good reason: Alpacas are native to South America – from the high altitudes of the Andes of Chile, Peru and Bolivia – where they have been kept for their luxurious fleece for thousands of years. There's another reason: 95 percent of all alpaca fiber is produced in South America and is shipped to Asia. Consequently, only five percent is shipped to the United States. 
"Part of the problem is that you can't send your fibers to the big mills, who are processing wool and don't break down to process alpaca fiber," Linda said. "Alpaca farms have to send their fiber to specialty mills, and it takes as much as a year to 18 months to process and deliver that fiber back to the farmer."
Painted Sky Fiber Mill will be Maryland's only fiber mill dedicated to processing alpaca, alpaca blends and other exotic fibers. It will offer traditional fiber processing services turning raw fibers into yarns, rovings and batts. Eventually the Dickinsons hope to offer alpaca farms the option to have their yarns turned into hand knit or hand woven, ready-to-sell U.S.-made finished goods.
Eventually, the mill will provide alpaca owners with an option to have personalized garments and accessories made from the fleece of their own alpacas, woven by local and regional artisans.
Soon after Mitchell retired from the only business he had known in his adult life, he was approached by a friend, who asked him that now that he was retired, if there was anything he wanted to pursue in his life.
"I realized that I couldn't answer that question immediately, and when you can't answer that question -- if there is nothing else you have ever thought of doing -- you have a problem," he said. "So many people we know who are in big business are terribly unhappy."
Now, the life he leads with Linda is one spent largely in the company of three-foot-high animals -- animals he refers to as "living stress balls."
"We believe that we are being guided through this," Mitchell added. "Things have sort of fallen in place for us and we feel we are very blessed in our life. We love meeting new people and sharing our 'Alpaca Lifestyle' with them."
Painted Sky Alpaca Farm is located on 95 Knight House Lane, Earleville, Md. 21919. Individual, family and group tours are available. Large group tours are booked in advance and a small fee is charged. Individual and family visits are free of charge. A gift shop, where alpaca clothing and accessories are for sale, is located on site. The farm is open seven days a week, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.paintedskyalpacafarm.com, or call 410-275-9423.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com.


 
So you want to know more about alpacas?

What is an alpaca?
Alpacas are members of the camelid family. The camels that most people are familiar with are the ones with humps; the dromedary of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia, and the Bactrian camel of China and Tibet. However, there are four other camelids (without humps) that are indigenous to South America: two of them, llamas and alpacas, have been domesticated for thousands of years; whereas the other two varieties, guanacos and vicunas, continue to roam in wild herds today.
The alpaca comes in two breed-types: huacaya (pronounced wah‑ KI‑ ah) and suri (SOO‑ ree). Huacayas, the more common type, account for about 90 percent  of all alpacas, and have fluffy, crimpy fleece that gives the animals a teddy bear-like appearance. Suris, on the other hand, grow silky, lustrous fleece that drapes gracefully in beautiful pencil-locks.

How long do alpacas live?
Generally, around 15  to 20  years. The longest documented lifespan of an alpaca is 27  years.

How are alpacas different from llamas?
People often confuse alpacas with llamas. While closely related, llamas and alpacas are distinctly different animals. First, llamas are much larger, about twice the size of an alpaca, with an average weight of about 250  to 450  pounds, compared to an alpaca whose weight averages 100  to 200  pounds. Llamas are primarily used for packing or for guarding herds of sheep or alpacas, whereas alpacas are primarily raised for their soft and luxurious fleece.

Are alpacas an "exotic species," or are they considered simply "livestock?"
Alpacas have been raised as domestic livestock for thousands of years and since the end-product of alpacas is their fleece, like sheep, they are classified as livestock by both the United States and Canadian federal governments.

Do alpacas spit?
All members of the camel family use spitting as a means of negative communication. They do get possessive around food, and thus may express annoyance by spitting at other alpacas that they perceive are encroaching on "their" food. Also, they often spit at one another during squabbles within the herd (usually involving two or more males). From time to time alpacas do spit at people on purpose, but it is more common that humans get caught in the cross-fire between alpacas, so it’s best to study their behavior and learn to avoid the most vulnerable situations.

Do alpacas make noise?
Alpacas are very quiet, docile animals that generally make a minimal amount of sound. They generally make only a pleasant humming sound as a means of communication or to express concern or stress. Occasionally you will hear a shrill sound, called an "alarm call," which usually means they are frightened or angry with another alpaca. Male alpacas also "serenade" females during breeding with a guttural, throaty sound called "orgling."

Are alpacas dangerous?
No — they are safe and pleasant to be around. They do not bite or butt and do not have sharp teeth, horns, hooves, or claws as other types of livestock do. They move gracefully and adroitly about the field and are therefore unlikely to run into or over anyone, even small children. Occasionally, an alpaca will reflexively kick with its hind legs, especially if touched from the rear, but the soft padded feet usually do little more than just "get your attention."

Is it OK to have just one alpaca?
As a general rule, the answer is no. Alpacas have very strong herding instincts and need the companionship of other alpacas to thrive. Gender-appropriate (or neutered) llamas sometimes will successfully bond with an alpaca. Otherwise, it is best to provide each alpaca with a companion alpaca of the same gender.

Are alpacas easy to care for?
They are a small and relatively easy livestock to maintain. They stand about 36 inches  high at the withers (where the neck and spine come together); weigh between 100  to 200  pounds; and establish easy-to-manage, communal dung piles. The alpacas need basic shelter and protection from heat and foul weather, just like other types of livestock, and they also require certain vaccinations and anti-parasitic medicines. Their fleece is sheared once a year to keep them cool in summer. Additionally, their toenails need to be trimmed on an as-needed basis to ensure proper foot alignment and comfort. Interestingly, alpacas do not have hooves — instead, they have two toes, with hard toenails on top and a soft pad on the bottom of their feet, which minimizes their effect on pastures and makes them an "environmentally friendly" animal.

How much space does it take to raise an alpaca?
Because these animals are environmentally friendly and require so little pasture and food, you can usually raise from two to eight alpacas on an acre of land, depending on terrain, rain/snowfall amounts, availability of pasture, access to fresh water, etc. They can also be raised on a dry lot and fed grass hay. Consult with your local USDA office for specific local recommendations.

Are alpacas clean animals?
Yes, they are much cleaner than most livestock. Alpacas have minimal aroma and tend to attract less flies in the summertime than other forms of livestock. Furthermore, alpacas often defecate in communal dung piles. There may be three or four of these areas in a pasture, spread throughout about 10 percent to 20 percent of the pasture. This makes for easy clean-up, reduced opportunity for parasites, and better overall hygiene in the herd.

What do I need by way of shelter and fencing?
While the shelter requirements vary depending on weather and predators, as a general rule alpacas need at least a three-sided, open shelter, where they can escape from the heat of the sun in summer and from icy wind and snow in winter. If predators (dogs, coyotes, bears, etc.) are present in your neighborhood, then a minimum of five-foot-high, 2-foot  x  4-foot  no-climb fencing is strongly recommended. Traditional horse fencing with 6-foot  x  6-foot  openings is not recommended, as curious alpacas have been harmed by putting their heads or legs through the openings.

What do alpacas eat?
Alpacas mainly eat grass or hay, and not much—approximately two pounds per 125  pounds of body weight per day. The general rule of thumb is 1.5 percent  of the animal’s body weight daily in hay or fresh pasture. A single, 60  pound bale of hay can generally feed a group of about 20  alpacas for one day. Grass hay is recommended, while alfalfa should be fed sparingly, due to its overly rich protein content. Alpacas are pseudo-ruminants, with a single stomach divided into three compartments. They produce rumen and chew cud, thus they are able to process this modest amount of food very efficiently. Many alpacas (especially pregnant and lactating females) will benefit from nutritional and mineral supplements, depending on local conditions. There are several manufactured alpaca and llama feeds and mineral mixes readily available; consult with your local veterinarian to ensure you are feeding the appropriate diet for your area. Alpacas also require access to plenty of fresh water to drink.

Can alpacas thrive in locations with very hot or very cold climates?
Generally, yes. Alpacas are amazingly resilient animals and have adapted successfully to the extremes of both very hot and very cold climates. In hot, humid climates, alpaca owners need to take extra precautions to make sure that the alpacas do not suffer from heat stress. These include: shearing fleeces early in the year, providing fans and ventilation in the barn, offering cool fresh water for drinking, and hosing off their bellies (where heat is dissipated) on very hot days.

Does the birthing require human assistance?
In most cases, cria are born without intervention, and usually during daylight hours. A cria normally weighs between 15  and 19  pounds and is usually standing and nursing within 90  minutes of birth. The cria continues to nurse for about six  months until it is weaned.

Are alpacas easy to train?
Alpacas are very smart animals and are fairly easy to train. It is best to start training them when they are young so that they will accept a halter and learn to follow on a lead. Many owners also enjoy training them to walk through obstacles; some even compete with their alpacas at shows where they walk over, through, and around objects and also jump over small hurdles. Also, it is helpful to train alpacas to ride in a trailer or van if they ever need to be transported to a show or another farm. Alpacas are easy to transport, as they normally cush (lay down with their legs folded under them) when traveling.

So what do you DO with these animals?
Alpacas are raised for their soft and luxurious fleece (sometimes called fiber). Each shearing produces roughly five to ten  pounds of fleece per animal, per year. This fleece, often compared to cashmere, can be turned into a wide array of products from yarn and apparel to tapestries and blankets. The fleece itself is recognized globally for its fineness, softness, light-weight, durability, excellent thermal qualities, and luster.
In addition to selling the fleece and the animals, many alpaca owners operate a retail store selling alpaca end-products—either on or off their farms. Products are sold directly to consumers at their store or over the Internet. Many also sell alpaca products through craft fairs, farmers markets, and retail sites. Sales of these end-products can provide considerable supplemental income to alpaca owners.

What about the fleece?
Let’s start by comparing alpaca fleece with wool from most breeds of sheep. In general, alpaca fleece is stronger, lighter, warmer, and more resilient. Finer grades of alpaca fleece (known commercially as "Baby Alpaca") are believed to be hypo-allergenic, meaning it does not irritate your skin as sheep’s wool sometimes does. Unlike sheep’s wool, alpaca fleece contains no lanolin and is therefore ready to spin after only nominal cleaning. Prized for its unique silky feel and superb "handle," alpaca fleece is highly sought-after by both cottage-industry artists (hand spinners, knitters, weavers, etc.) as well as the commercial fashion industry.
Alpaca fleece has a great variety of natural colors, making it very much in vogue: 16  official colors (white; beige; and shades of fawn, brown, black, and grey) with many other subtle shades and hues. White, light fawn, and light grey can be readily dyed, thus offering a rainbow of colors for the fiber artist. Alpaca fleece can also be combined with other fine fibers such as merino wool, cashmere, mohair, silk, and angora to attain incredibly interesting blends.

Do I need to purchase a registered alpaca?
Simple answer: yes. Anytime you are investing money, you need to take all the necessary steps to help assure that your investment maintains its value and registered alpacas do just that.
Source: Alpaca Owners Association, Inc.









 


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