Vickie Liske and her husband, Phil, were looking for a retirement business when Phil happened to meet a man who owned alpacas, those furry, doe-eyed, generally more companionable cousins to the sometimes irritable llama.
Phil, captivated by their personalities, bought three. Vickie fell for the creatures too. A dozen years later, they own 40, run their own alpaca farm in Preston and say they’ve never been happier.
Vickie extolled the joys of the alpaca life Saturday as she helped run the state’s biggest annual celebration of the species, the Maryland Alpacas and Fleece Festival, at the Howard County Fairgrounds.
An estimated 1,500 people braved chill late-autumn winds to roam the grounds on the first day of the two-day festival, the 10th sponsored by the Maryland Alpaca Breeders Association.
The guests visited and fed penned alpacas, browsed the yarns, fleeces, fibers and knitted goods offered by 65 vendors, and in many cases picked the brains of established alpaca farmers to learn more about a business that came to Maryland in 1993 and appears to be growing.
To Vickie, 70, it’s equal parts love and entrepreneurship.
“It’s a good retirement business,” she said. “The alpacas are easy to handle; they’re not dangerous. People love the wool and what comes from it. And the alpacas have a way of winning your heart.”
As a cluster of children gathered around an alpaca pen, handing grain into the animals’ waiting mouths, Vickie’s friends and fellow farmers, Jennie Mezick and Bonnie Bieber, stopped by her booth, one of seven vendor sites.
Mezick, also of Preston, started her alpaca business, Secret World Alpacas, nine years ago when she bought some of the Liskes’ stock.
Now she’s president of the 23-year-old state Maryland Alpaca Breeders’ Association, which represents 65 active alpaca farms and its breeders, serves as an educational center on the animals and the business, and sponsors periodic events, the biggest of which is the festival.
Mezick, who has worked with horses longer than she has alpacas, finds the wool-bearing camelids more docile and easier to deal with ― and as someone who works in a pressure-packed area of the health care industry, she says she finds just being around alpacas an almost zen-like experience.
“They’re very tranquil animals,” she said. “There’s a peacefulness they give out. When someone asks me what I do to get away from the stress, I always have a simple answer for them: ‘I shovel poop.’”
Tilly Dorsey of Upperco, who became the first registered alpaca breeder in Maryland 26 years ago, manned a busy booth Saturday on behalf of DAFI Alpacas, the business she owns and operates along with her daughter, Kate Dorsey.
Dorsey, a founding member of MABA, is a fountain of information on the animals, the business, and the products their fur creates ― the dry softness of their wool (it lacks the lanolin of sheep wool), the material’s tensile strength, the microscopic air pockets in the fiber that enhance warmth and breathability. ― and she speaks as matter-of-factly as she does fondly about the two alpacas she and Kate have brought.
There’s a goofy intelligence about 5-year-old Teddy, who is gray and white and was given his name because he resembled a teddy bear at birth, and chocolate-brown 4-year-old Scotty, who rotates his head from side to side as he sizes up some eager children just outside his pen, two strands of hay dangling from his mouth.
But there’s nothing silly about the business side of alpacas. The animals cost tens of thousands of dollars apiece ― Liske says the average is probably in the neighborhood of $20,000 today ― and prize studs have been known to sell for as much as half a million dollars.
Shearing can be a major operation ― some farmers shear their own, while others, including the Liskes, hire the springtime work out to traveling freelancers ― and most administer preventative shots, keep the animals’ nails trimmed, and try to ensure that each alpaca can live a semblance of the herd existence that keeps them happy.
As they age, losing their capacity to generate the highest-quality fleece, owners must decide whether to keep them throughout a life span of about 20 years or sell them for slaughter.
The process generates the fleece that is later milled, then spun into the fine yarn that can then be used to knit sweaters, hats and gloves, shawls and rugs, or can be “felted” to create floor mats or even insoles for shoes.
“It’s gratifying to see Maryland breeders continue to promote the alpaca and provide good information for other breeders, whether they’ve been around a long time or are just thinking about getting into the business,” Dorsey said.