The Harvest is In!

The shearer and his team came last week, right in the nick of time before the heat. We harvested bags and bags of fiber from the herd, and the bags are safely stored in our fleece room, also known as Dick’s ‘equipment room’. Dual purpose with the focus on protecting the contents from Ragdoll cats.

Bags of fleece. Ribbons are mostly from cat shows.

The difference in how the alpacas look is always amazing, no matter how many years go by. Those necks are so skinny!! The shearing gang has a very smooth operation where two stations are set up in our big main barn. The young assistants get the alpacas and lay them on the mat, trim toenails and teeth if necessary, so the shearer just moves from one station to the other and just shears. Since I gather the fleece and bag it, I follow him back and forth. It takes him less than ten minutes to shear the whole animal. Dick supervises operations and helps the crew when it comes to fetching the boys who live down in the small barn. Our old boy Phoenix lives down there, and at a month short of twenty years old, he’s quite frail. The whole shearing crew was so careful with him and even offered to carry him back down the driveway when he was done, if needed. But the old boy, once they got him into a cush position after shearing, got right up and tottered off on his own.

Gunny, in full fleece
Gunny, after shearing, showing his little tongue

Shortly after the shearing, the temperatures rocketed up into the nineties, with oppressive humidity. The alpacas were very happy to be shorn and even went out to pasture in the heat.

A few days after shearing, a box of yarn arrived from the mill in Aroostook, Maine. That yarn was from part of the harvest from 2020. Since we hadn’t been able to go to Fairs or have open farm days due to the pandemic, I had been in no hurry to process the fiber for yarn. I finally got around to it in May and the day before I planned on taking it down to my usual mini-mill in Barrington NH, the mill burnt down. We saw it on the morning news and I was horrified. The woman who ran the mill lived in an apartment within the mill building. Fortunately, she woke up and got herself and her dogs out. But the building and all the equipment and her apartment were a total loss. The good news is that she is rebuilding. But I had to find a mill to do the fiber I had sitting, all ready, on our porch. I found the one in northern Maine and off it went. We take our shop vac and suck out all the air in the bags to shrink it all down, and then pack it into big Chewy boxes for mailing. (We love Chewy for a lot of reasons!) Six lots of fiber got to Aroostook in about five days. He sent the yarn back last week and I’m now in the process of washing it all.

Two lots drying after being washed. The dark yarn is actually dark silver grey from Judy Blue Eyes.
The box of yarn. The brown and gray skeins have not been washed while the fawn yarn has been. Washing fluffs it all up and gets out the spinning oils.

When the yarn arrives, it feels quite tacky due to the spinning oils added to the fiber. Alpaca fiber is dry compared to sheep wool, which has natural lanolin, and the static can be an issue with the machinery. The mills add spinning oils to help lubricate it during processing. I wash it with Pantene shampoo, in the washer (no agitating) and then spin out the water, rinse, spin and then hang to dry. Once the skeins are dry, they can be labelled and put into inventory.

Of course, I have bags of fleece upstairs from this year’s harvest that will need to go to the mill, but since I am ‘flush with yarn’ at the moment, I’m not in a rush to skirt and send anything out any time soon.

Meanwhile, the alpacas are probably wishing they had their fleece back this weekend. We’ve not gotten out of the 50’s for three days. But boy did we need the rain!

Alpaca for dinner?

I just read a couple of articles in Alpaca Culture Magazine on using alpacas for meat.  One article contained reasons why it wasn’t a good idea and the other stated reasons why it was a valid course of action.  Both articles had good points.  It made me think, so I decided I’d express myself here on the subject.

The ‘meat’ subject is very controversial in the alpaca industry.  People on both sides of the issue have strong opinions.  My reaction when I first heard about it was horror.  Eat these adorable, soft creatures when you could use their fleece and let them live long, happy lives??  But over time I came to see the reasoning behind using some of them for consumption.  It is, bottom line, a personal decision for each farmer to make.

When I was in my horror stage, Dick did not feel that way.  “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”  But when I asked if he would eat Leroy Brown, one of his favorite fiber boys, he said he really wouldn’t want to.  Ok, so there’s nothing wrong with other people doing it, but he doesn’t really want to do it.  That’s where I am at now.

Bad Bad Leroy Brown

Bad Bad Leroy Brown

Since we started in the alpaca business, I have been breeding for fine fiber that can be worn against the skin.  When I see an alpaca, I see the yarn that can come from it.  We never bred alpacas to show them.  Yes, we do show fleeces and attend one halter show a year, but that was never the goal.  So maybe that is why I had such a first strong reaction to the idea of using them for meat.  I still get a gut reaction when I think of the animals that Cas Cad Nac culls.  I’m sure I’d just love the yarn from those animals!  But there aren’t enough fiber farms to support the breeders’ excess alpacas.  My thought is that it is the lack of the establishment of a good fiber market that has led us to the meat market.  It is a viable option for farms that need to cut expenses and who want to continue to have new crias every year.

Cracklin' Rosie's blue ribbon fleece

Cracklin’ Rosie’s blue ribbon fleece

We aren’t breeding anymore and have morphed into a fiber farm.  We use our fleeces to bring in revenue, but don’t depend on our alpacas to support us.  If we were younger, we would probably continue to breed, especially since we are losing alpacas now to old age and illness.  But we, like many older alpaca farmers, want to downsize.  But not enough to eat them…

We do have fun with the dye pot too

We do have fun with the dye pot too

We lost two alpacas this Spring, and both have fiber out at the mill being processed into yarn.  Caraz was eighteen at her last shearing and her yarn, blended with our fine girl MoonDance, is very nice.  Those import guys knew good alpacas when they screened Caraz.  Gambler, who was only nine when he died, had strong primaries that caused the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool to downgrade his fleece.  But it felt so soft when I skirted it, that I sent his fiber to Sallies Fen Fiber Mill and the bulky yarn was wonderful.  I’m not sure what happened to the primaries, because there was none visible in the yarn.  I knit a cowl from his yarn and was very pleased that it didn’t itch at all!  (I’m so glad I have that cowl, now that he’s gone.)  Are all of our alpacas soft enough for good yarn?  No, of course some of them are coarser than others.  But the Pool has uses for their fleeces, so we send them there.  For us, using the fleece is what we want to do with our alpacas.  Each farmer decides for themselves what they want from their animals.  We all should be accepting of each others’ choices.

Leroy, you can rest easy.  No dinner plate for you…