The Great Alpaca Tour …an adventure that founded a farm

Trailer and Truck
Rainbow over farm

The farm that was inspired by The Great Alpaca Tour – Oak Hills Alpacas, est. 2009

Poised to enter the gates of Marine Land, Niagara Falls, our 9-year old daughter pleaded “let’s just skip it and find another alpaca farm.” That’s when we knew the Great Alpaca Tour had begun. What we didn’t know was that our visit to 7 farms would change our path for years to come.

We, like many other rural settlers, had spent months in early 2008 researching options for our 7 acre homestead. We wanted what most do; an agricultural activity that requires little time commitment, limited work, limited investment, minimal land, no harvesting or slaughtering and is safe for all members of the family to play a hands-on role.

Trailer and Truck

The truck and trailer that made the trek around Western Ontario’s alpaca farms

A summer drive through Peterborough, Ontario introduced us to alpacas. As we passed by Hummingbird Hills Alpaca Ranch we were greeted with a warm welcome and introduced to these beautiful animals. From there we were encouraged to visit other farms in the area and before the day was out we had stopped at Hubbert Farms, Obosheen Farms and Cedar Ridge Alpaca Ranch.

We were about to break cardinal rule #1: don’t show up unannounced.

After this intriguing day of discovery we began our internet research. We learned that alpacas eat very little, are easy on pastures, keep yards clean by sharing a single manure pile, require little shelter, don’t challenge fences and are gentle with children. Still, my business instincts were telling me that this all seemed too good to be true, and appeared to be a very sophisticated industry marketing appeal.

First Cia

Ruby handles her first alpaca at Canadian Comfort Alpacas

Summer holidays approached and we packed up our youngest daughter, Ruby (9), and headed to Western Ontario with our travel trailer for two weeks of camping and discovery. I packed the Alpaca Ontario Farm Directory and thought we might stop by a farm in Western Ontario for a comparative experience and to ground truth some of the facts we had learned. As we travelled through the Niagara region on route to Niagara Falls and Marine Land alpaca farms began popping up all around us on the GPS. We turned course and followed the GPS to Canadian Comfort Alpacas in St. Anne’s, Ontario.

We were about to break cardinal rule #1: don’t show up unannounced. I was raised to know better. We certainly should have called first, but let this be a lesson to you veteran alpaca farmers. Speculative newcomers to alpaca farming can be timid and unsure how to make that first contact. I don’t think we yet felt “entitled” to call and make an appointment as we were not yet even sure we would make the leap into the industry. So expect the unexpected visitors. Welcome them warmly. And let them know you are happy to see them even if they are not yet committed to becoming customers or even farmers. You will earn their respect and loyalty when they are ready to make the leap.

We pulled into Canadian Comfort, home to more than 100 alpacas, late in the afternoon, right about the time owner Leslie Comfort was ready to sit down and enjoy a beer. She lept to her feet and ignited our passion with hers. She thrust a 2-day old cria into Ruby’s arms, prying her mind and heart wide open to the experience – for life! For more than 2 hours she showed us all aspects of her operation, sharing tips on everything from fencing to feed, birthing to bloodlines, marketing to medicine. We did not leave empty-handed. Leslie provided us with a start-up package and wonderful reading material to enjoy round the campfire in the weeks ahead. It was an experience, and a welcome, we will never forget.

What did we learn at Canadian Comfort?

  • The role Peruvian bloodlines have played in the industry
  • How to recognize and prioritize fleece quality in your breeding program
  • Genetics: where those blue-eyed babies come from
  • Nutrition: its role in development, fleece production and even pest control
  • Marketing and value-added products
  • Fencing & predator control
  • The meat market debate

…we saw an adapted use of an existing farm, giving us many ideas for the ideal way to construct our barn…

How could Marine Land possibly compete with a couple of hours at Canadian Comfort? Once we experienced this, we pressed on to Niagara on the Lake, followed the Niagara Parkway to the Falls and then found ourselves at the gates to Marine Land with the urge to carry on and find another alpaca farm to visit. We pulled away from the gates and headed west along Lake Erie to see the sights.

Stingrays

Michael couldn’t resist the opportunity to touch a stingray at the Metro Toronto Zoo

As our sightseeing continued I would use opportunities where Wi-Fi was available to research farms in the area. I was intrigued to find Gold Star Alpacas just outside of Tillsonburg and just ahead. On their website, husband and engineer Rick Anderson described his initial skepticism about these animals and now described himself as their greatest champion. I wanted to find out what changed his mind.

This time we called ahead – about 1 hour before arrival – and were encouraged to stop by on our way through. Rick and his wife Jerra were wonderfully welcoming and eager to provide a tour. Here we saw an adapted use of an existing farm, giving us many ideas for the ideal way to construct our barn as we started from scratch. Their farm of 11 animals was scaled to our experience. At Gold Star we learned:

  • How to design flow in the barn making shearing and other activities easier
  • The value of creeping pens
  • You can’t have too many gates
  • Shared ownership of animals is an option
  • The health concerns associated with deer
  • Composition of a good foundation herd

As we pulled away from Gold Star we left with a warm invitation to return and headed further north to a farm that had two children actively involved in the farm operation who were the same as ours, 9 and 19. We were intrigued to see what role each member of the family played.

After each farm visit we would lie in our bunks that evening reading materials and talking about what we had learned and how it might apply to us.

At Ziraldo Alpacas we met the men of the family who watched with intrigue as our trailer pulled up to the fence. Starting with 3 animals only 3 years before and now home to 12, this was an eye opener as to how quickly your herd can grow. Here we were amazed at the wealth of information flowing from the children. Their eldest son was a veritable fountain of information and stories gleaned from websites and reading. Their youngest son introduced us to his alpaca bean marketing operation demonstrating how revenue can be generated at this “end” of the operation as well. We listened intently to learn:

  • What “crimp” really means in fleece and how to recognize it
  • How to integrate a livestock guardian dog effectively
  • Alpacas discriminating taste for second cut, grassy hay
  • Important resource books to have on your farm
  • Protecting young trees from alpacas
  • Halter training and stress
  • Male berserk syndrome
  • Alpaca Ontario education events

After each farm visit we would lie in our bunks that evening reading materials and talking about what we had learned and how it might apply to us. Each night the setting changed as we wound our way round the Great Lakes and the picturesque terrain of Western Ontario. We would discuss where we wanted to go the next day and what we felt we needed to see. This led us to Alpaca Acres just outside of Stratford, Ontario where Ann Clayburn met us in the driveway with a business card in hand. I appreciated Ann’s business approach to farming, identifying her goal from the outset to earn back her investment and generate some additional revenue. She emphasized that she has a limited budget and restricted on-going resources to invest. This was an approach I could identify with! This creativity and innovation offered many lessons:

  • Hay feeders were shared between stalls. Eavestroughing was used for feeding pellets.
  • Smaller pastures prevent selective browsing
  • The science behind good quality feed and how to consult with your mill for your own needs
  • “Knit kits” enticed knitters to particular projects with “just enough” yarn (I too purchased one for the road!)
  • Photos of alpacas on the end product, allowing customers to appreciate their origins
  • The expense and work involved in participating in shows
Alpaca Barn

Andreas Alpacas’ barn has many features that make alpaca care easie

Not far down the road we found Andre’s Alpacas, a farm with a new construction barn that we were dying to see, knowing that we too would be starting from scratch and designing our own barn. Henry Mengers and his wife Karen welcomed us to their farm with over 20 animals. Their barn did not disappoint. Henry demonstrated an innovative drop down exterior wall system that provides winter shelter and folds away to offer summer ventilation. The sickroom design considered first the needs of the ailing animal to see its herd mates during recovery. While touring with Henry we learned:

Drop Down Door

Henry Mengers of Andre’s Alpacas demonstrates his fold down wall system

  • Where to use various fencing materials to save money and control predators
  • Clean barnyards minimize parasites
  • Feeding each animal individually ensure it receives proper nutrition
  • How to feed hay to keep debris out of the fleece at the base of their neck
  • The danger of twin births
  • Shearing yourself can save roughly $35/head
  • The value of skilled knitters to producing truly outstanding knit products
  • How much alpacas truly love kids

Each day as we visited tourist attractions, or settled into our campsite for the night, our family discussions were consumed by what we had learned at each stop. Our interest continued to grow. We were now sorry we had so little time and would be limited in the number of farms we could visit.

Alpaca Enclosure

Lexan sheeting brings daylight into Northfork Alpaca’s barn

The final leg of our journey brought us back to central Ontario and through the community of Uxbridge where we found several alpaca farms. Breaking cardinal rule Number One once again we dropped in to Northfork Alpacas and the home of Ian Fockler and Mary Saindon. They too visited 20 farms before they began their operation, but still reported making some mistakes. We toured their immaculate farm with 11 alpacas and learned:

  • What body condition means and how to measure it
  • Avoid “package deals” that limit bloodlines in your herd
  • “Breeding up” is a good way to enter the industry and then improve your stock
  • Handle your animals regularly, ensuring they are manageable when it counts
  • Sorting fleece in natural light outdoors is effective. Sunlamps work well too
  • Fleece can be sorted as it is sheared
  • Clear lexan sheeting incorporated into your barn construction provides natural light
  • Centre your barn on the pastures
Mascara the Alpaca

Mascara proves that children have a special place in the heart of alpacas

Demonstrating the camaraderie and cooperation in the industry, Northfork Alpacas recommended we visit Arriba Linea Alpacas, just down the road. Again, despite the lack of notice, and their return home from Navan Fair just hours earlier, we received a warm welcome. Here we enjoyed seeing what extended family participation can mean on an alpaca farm. Lori Jones and Tom Vanhanen are joined by their extended families, working together to create a very professional and full service business. As we briefly toured their farm we learned that an alpaca farm can grow into a full time enterprise:

  • Offering full farm set ups
  • Livestock guardian dog breeding and training
  • Providing seminars and training opportunities for other farms
  • Agistment provides off-farm owners the opportunity to own alpacas

Arriba Linea’s team echoed many of the lessons learned on other farms around Ontario. The picture was becoming quite clear: these “too good to be true” creatures really were all that they claimed to be.

The industry is welcoming and there are mentors to be found around the province, on farms large and small, who will happily share their wisdom and lessons learned.

The greatest lesson learned from the “Great Alpaca Tour” was that alpaca farming brought clear rewards and happiness to each family that had taken on a herd of these humming beauties.

Oak HIlls Alpacas' Barn

Every journey ends at home. Yearlings make their way to the barn at Oak Hills Alpacas

The industry is welcoming and there are mentors to be found around the province, on farms large and small, who will happily share their wisdom and lessons learned. Our family is grateful to each farm family who welcomed us and continues to offer their support as Oak Hills Alpacas begins the Great Alpaca Adventure.

Alpaca Ontario played a key role in the Great Alpaca Tour. Not only did the website provide terrific information about alpacas themselves, but it listed member farms, allowing us to pop onto their websites and learn more about each. From here we selected a variety of farms to visit that shared common elements with our family or common challenges to our own. The Association is a great network and tool for newcomers to use to find their place in the industry.

Heather Candler, co-owner of Oak Hills Alpacas (OH Alpacas) with husband Michael and daughters Samantha (20) and Ruby (10) live in Stirling, Ontario, Canada. Their new sustainable farm is home to 8 alpacas, a livestock guardian dog and family dog. Heather works as general manager of a development corporation by day and Michael is a monument craftsmen. Their alpaca farm is their commitment to slower living to balance their busy careers and full family life. All members of the Candler family play an active role in farm life.

Originally printed in the March 2010 issue of Camelid Quarterly .  A special thanks for permitting its reprinting.  Download a PDF of the article: Great_Alpaca_Tour_March_2010