Clustered together in the shade of a leafy maple tree, the 25 alpacas at Breezy Hill Farm appear utterly unfazed by a visitor.
Most of the furry herd animals are stoic and calm, in part because heat and humidity slow them down. Among them are Snowflake, Bella Luna and Valentino.
And then there’s Maricela. The 4-year-old beige female, who is pregnant and due in August, ambles over and lovingly nuzzles up to owner Alex Lysantri, curving her long neck to lay her head on his shoulder. He treats all of the alpacas as pets, not just well-bred animals to be sold.
“That’s my girl,” Lysantri coos as he scratches under her jaw and looks into her big brown eyes fringed with long lashes. “You can pet Maricela. She’s a sweet girl.”
Lysantri, a native of Cyprus, handles the day-to-day operations of Breezy Hill, the eight-acre farm in Woodbine he’s owned with his wife, Heather, since spring 2011. Theirs is one of a handful of Howard County families who’ve taken a liking to the South American relative of the llama. The Maryland Alpaca Association — which caters to breeders, owners and enthusiasts — counts Breezy Hill, along with Alpaca Joy of Maryland in Highland and Flame Pool Alpacas in Columbia, among its 29 members.
Howard Magazine caught up with the humans behind the local herds to find out what sparked the alpaca attraction.
Owning a farm was a long-held dream for Alex and Heather Lysantri.
“Alex and I had both dreamed of being back in the country,” Heather says, noting that they grew up around animals and wanted that lifestyle for their two children, John, 15, and Sophia, 9.
“It’s just good, clean fun, and we feel it is a more peaceful way of living,” she says.
After falling in love with the property and deciding to move from Columbia to make a go of raising alpacas, the couple thought they’d hit the jackpot when they purchased three alpacas for $150. They later ended up trading them for chickens.
“Their fleece was not up to par,” Alex says, “and you don’t want mediocre fiber. Without quality, what’s the point? Then they’re just pets.”
The Lysantris quickly learned from that initial mistake and now raise champion huacaya-breed alpacas. Fleece quality aside, the family still loves to be around them.
“They are loving and curious, and responsive to feedback,” says Alex, their primary caretaker.
Even after the alpacas are shorn each May, their coats are incredibly soft to the touch. Their fleece is spun into a luxurious yarn unlike sheep’s wool or any other fleece in look and feel, the owners say.
In her spare time, Heather Lysantri makes yarn on a spinning wheel, a hobby that’s “enthralling and relaxing at the same time,” the Virginia native says. She also tends the farm’s boutique and handles the business and marketing end of the farm’s operation.
“My original vision was romantic in theory and involved spinning by a fireplace,” says Heather, who manages her own health care consulting firm in Columbia.
Though reality isn’t quite so idyllic, Heather says she can’t wait to “take the raw fiber and turn it into something beautiful” when she gets home from her day job.
Raising alpacas comes with its challenges, though. The species has adapted to temperatures in the Andes Mountains and isn’t conditioned for heat.
“We keep fans on them in the summer,” Alex says, adding that the animals would love a pond to cool off in, but water degrades the quality of their fur.
Alpaca fiber is prized because it is hypoallergenic and very fine, yet it holds body heat and is lightweight and water-resistant, Heather says. The farm gets 8 to 10 pounds of it per animal every spring when the shearer comes. Combined with sheep and goat fleece, Breezy Hill’s haul totals about 400 pounds.
Heather has traveled to Peru to scout out direct manufacturers of apparel for their boutique and attends the Alpaca Fiesta, an international conference with workshops, every four years.
“I really enjoy working with the animals,” says Alex, a former cook who took animal husbandry classes to prepare for farm ownership. Along with the alpacas, he tends a large menagerie, including a donkey, sheep, goats, emus, miniature horses, rabbits and a variety of domesticated birds.
Visitors are welcome to meet all of the animals — and their babies — on guided hourlong tours of Breezy Hill Farm, which is situated on a knoll off Woodbine Road. Breezy Hill also offers a monthly knitting and crocheting class, which is listed on meetup.com,
and recently renovated a space next to the store for workshops.
“For me, it’s all about the fiber now,” Heather says of learning to add beads, feathers and other flourishes as she spins it. “But until I become a highly sought-after fiber artist, the consulting firm is what pays the bills.”
After purchasing two pregnant females and a baby male in 2006, Joyce and Billy Miskovic boarded their huacaya alpacas in New York for eight months before moving them to Highland.
Since then, their herd’s size gradually increased to a high of 34 until seven were sold last year.
“This started out as a breeding business to create animals with a finer fleece,” Joyce says.
Over the last nine years, Joyce, a nurse practitioner, has learned to spin, process and dye the unwashed fleece. She then takes it to mills to be made into hats and scarves.
Tending the herd on the couple’s 10-acre property is a task shared by family and friends. Billy, an electrician, mainly contributes his skills to construction projects.
“I fell in love with alpacas after seeing a picture in a magazine,” Joyce says. She doesn’t consider them pets, though — “they’re more like my business partners.”
Joyce takes fleece products to shows and festivals and sells yarn, yarn bowls and alpacas on her website.
Kathy Graziani says she and her late husband, Mike, were looking for a way to diversify their investment portfolio a dozen years ago when they hit upon owning alpacas.
“I’m a knitter, and owning my own fiber animal intrigued me,” she says of the hobby she learned from her mother while growing up in a Philadelphia suburb.
When the couple decided to buy alpacas, they knew they didn’t want to move from their home on Flamepool Way in Phelps Luck and didn’t want to own a farm. So in 2004, they began boarding suri-breed alpacas off-site, with seven in Maryland and seven in New Mexico.
Since Mike’s death six years ago, Kathy, a computer programmer, has been traveling alone out west once a month to check on the herd and lend a hand. She was inspired to give her alpacas Russian names, like Karolya Zim, to honor the two Russian boys that the couple adopted in the late 1990s.
“The alpacas are very adorable, though some are friendly and some are not,” she says. “But they produce a wonderful fiber.”
She knits headbands, scarves, hats and fingerless gloves, and attends craft fairs and fiber festivals. Items and animals for sale can be viewed on her website.