A Royal Alpaca Experience

We established our alpaca farm, Oak Hills Alpacas, in 2009 and since that time it has been a pleasure to see how alpacas and the farm lifestyle weave themselves into some of our family’s greatest and most memorable experiences.  A weekend at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, Ontario was yet another alpaca adventure for us all.  From the Royal York to the Rodeo, our family took our alpaca adventure to the city in style.  More than an adventure though, the “Royal” demonstrated that there is alpaca interest, and an alpaca customer base, in even the most urban settings. 

Breakfast Buffet low resThis adventure combined two “royal” experiences.  The first was our luxurious stay at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in the heart of the City.  The elegance of the hotel was no surprise.  It is renowned for this very thing.  After a year of tending the farm, working off farm, and the rigours of family life, we decided we would treat ourselves to this taste of elegance.  What was truly surprising about our Royal York experience was how tailored the hotel was to the agricultural community and the schedule of the boots and buckles crowd who were there to be a part of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.

We rose each morning to enjoy our breakfast in the Royal York’s “Epic” Restaurant.  And say what you will about a hearty farm breakfast – this dining experience was something every farm family should treat themselves to at least once a year.  And you won’t be alone.  We made our way up to the elegant buffet alongside others in breaches and boots, and even business suits.  We felt right at home. Breakfast menu low res

Once the valet whisks your car away upon your arrival, you need not find yourself behind the wheel again until you head for home.  The hotel conveniently offers a shuttle to and from the Royal, beginning early in the morning and running every 20 minutes through peak periods of the day, and ending with the last shuttle returning at midnight.  This gives everyone time to enjoy the show, tend to their animals, and then return to the hotel without a rush.  The schedule accommodated our volunteer shift at the Alpaca Ontario booth to the extent that we had time to end our day with a drink in the iconic Library Bar – another must.

Butter Sculpture low resAfter volunteering at last year’s Alpaca Ontario booth at the Royal, we couldn’t wait for this year to make a weekend of it and enjoy all the show had to offer.  The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair was first celebrated in 1922 and has served as Canada’s showcase of livestock and agricultural products ever since.  Over the years it has evolved as agriculture has evolved.  Today one of its most prominent events is the horse show, drawing a large equestrian crowd.

Canadian Cowgirls 2 low res

The Canadian Cowgirls performed at the Royal and made the Royal York their home too.

The Canadian Cowgirls performed at the Royal and made the Royal York their home too.

This is good news for alpaca producers.  Our farm experience has shown there is a great deal of interest in alpacas amongst equestrians.  And, as we know, alpacas and horses enjoy a very harmonious existence on North American farms.

Alpaca Ontario (AO) first exhibited at the Royal more than 10 years ago.  In 2012, our Educational Exhibit had the unique opportunity to introduce alpacas to the Royal’s more than 300,000 visitors.  Fascinated young fans and serious farmers alike are drawn to the elegant breed.  The exposure for our industry is positive on many levels.  Our job is to make them acquainted and introduce the benefits of alpacas on the farm and the rural, farming lifestyle.

Alpaca low resOur booth is located in the Education Area, where each small livestock breed is allocated space to promote the breed and provide awareness.  Alpaca Ontario’s booth includes volumes of information on the fleece, its unique benefits and many visuals that demonstrate life on an alpaca farm.  But the true stars of the show are the two young males who spend the week as ambassadors for the breed.  This year, Andre’s Alpacas of Hanover, Ontario, donated two ideal young boys who represented the breed well and charmed young and old alike.

Creating awareness for the breed in general is very positive.  Throughout the day you will meet people who have never seen or heard of an alpaca before and find yourself starting from the beginning, explaining their place in the camelid family and their South American origins.  Others have seen alpacas before but stare with amazement and ask questions about their purpose on the farm.  And I have marveled over the past two years we have been volunteering at the number of folks who stop and just quietly stand by the pen, experiencing their own quiet fascination for 5 or 10 minutes in this busy, fast-paced city.  Artists too drop by and sketch the animals, at times in groups with sketch books and pencils in hand.

Alpaca Ontario members volunteered their time to staff the booth and greet visitors.

Alpaca Ontario members volunteered their time to staff the booth and greet visitors.

It is worth your time to volunteer.  In addition to making contacts, you discover once again what makes alpacas so unique and wonderful, through the eyes of perfect strangers.

And while the animals attract a lot of attention, others are attracted to the display when they spot fibre and fleece products.  Children flock to the table to get their hands into the raw fleece or run their fingers across the woven rug.  I laughed at one small boy who never spoke a word but stood vibrating with excitement for minutes on end as he tossed the raw fleece from hand to hand and ran his fingers through it.  “You could be the best advertisement for the product without ever saying a word,” I told him.  I didn’t think his Mom would get him home that day as he played and played with something as simple as a basket of fleece.

Fifteen minutes spent getting to know one another.

Fifteen minutes spent getting to know one another.

And while we enjoy these opportunities to introduce newcomers to our animals and educate them about the regal role they have played in the fleece industry for thousands of years, as alpaca producers the real rewards at the Royal come from the surprising number of people who approach the booth, set in this urban mecca, and tell you they have been considering establishing an alpaca farm or adding alpacas to their farm, and wonder if you would be willing to answer some of their questions.

Well, of course!

The AO Alpaca Education Booth is a wonderful collaborative effort of all of our member farms and a terrific opportunity to answer those questions and connect each family with a farm in their area.  We distributed membership lists and encouraged them to visit the AO website to find local farms.  Many were surprised when we encouraged them to visit neighboring farms, not realizing that they would be warmly welcomed and their questions would be welcomed too.

Crowded Booth low resAnother real opportunity the Royal offers is exposure to other farm families and livestock communities who discover the breed and leave considering the addition of alpacas to their farm.  We spoke with many families about the possibility of combining horses and alpacas on their farms.  We addressed their questions about how to realize a profit from the introduction of alpacas, how they generate an income and how to market the products, including fleece and manure.  There were many questions about the cost of animals, often accompanied by misconceptions that alpacas were extravagantly expensive animals.

Dispelling myths such as this one are what make opportunities like the Royal so valuable.  Equestrian audiences are always shocked to hear that one horse eats the equivalent amount of hay as 15 alpacas.  And the agricultural community are intrigued to learn more about the efficiency, productivity and ease of care that this breed offers to farm families.

Having the animals on hand provides not only an irresistible attraction for all who wander by, but a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate to those who are seriously interested in the breed how peaceful and pleasant our animals are.

The AO team and their daily volunteers do a wonderful job of caring for our two alpacas while at the show, beginning and ending each day with a walk around the grounds.  The stall was smartly equipped  with a contained area of shavings that both boys used as their manure area, creating a litter box that was easily cleaned and demonstrated to all their unique characteristic of lining up to use a single dung pile.  Consistency in feeding and daily care was generously provided by Denise and Robert Martel of Meadowview Alpaca Farms.  They kept a close eye on their needs and ensured that each new round of booth volunteers had great support.

Wheat low resHenry Mengers, President of Alpaca Ontario (www.alpacaontario.ca) explains why AO makes the Royal a part of its calendar each year, “Alpaca Ontario has now been at the Royal Winter Fair for over ten years and still we meet people that have never seen alpacas until that moment.  They chat and ask questions, mesmerized by the quiet alpaca demeanor and buttery soft fleece.”  Thank you Mr. President.  I think that says it all!

A RISING TIDE RAISES ALL SHIPS (JFK, 1963)

A special thank you to the Alpaca Ontario volunteer farm families who donated their time to introduce alpacas to the Royal’s 300,000 visitors:

  • Doug and Debbie Meldrum; Alpaca Jak’s
  • Sharon Trent; Alpacas From Eighth and Mud
  • Henry Mengers, Andre’s Alpacas
  • Elaine Dobbin; Black Ash Acres
  • Louise and Emily Laidlaw; Echo Lane Farm Alpacas
  • Rick Andersen; Gold Star Alpacas
  • Deb Coles; Hickory Lane Alpacas
  • Carolynne Rodgers; Hidden Hollow
  • Doug, Carolyn and Christine Lilleyman; Kickin’ Back Alpaca Ranch
  • Mary Johnstone; Majestic Alpacas
  • Heather and Ron Scriven; MDD Exotics
  • Mike, Heather and Ruby Candler; Oak Hills Alpacas
  • Suelaine Poot; Pootcorners Farm
  • Kim and Trevor McKnight;  Royal Fortress Meadows
  • Nancy Carr; Silver Cloud Alpacas
  • Glen and Lynda Finbow; Split Rock Farms Alpacas
  • Janet Schoon; Whirlwind Alpacas
  • Kevin and Heather Lowes

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Camelid Quarterly.  A special thanks to the editor for their permission to reprint.