MEADOWVIEW, Va. — Alpacas were a big hit last weekend in Meadowview.
Nearly 20 participants from the College for Older Adults program at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center visited Dreamland Alpacas on Friday, charmed by the gentle and affectionate animals.
The visitors got up close and personal with the small herd, which is typically receptive to human touch, especially when food is involved.
“I like their different personalities,” said Molly Scott, as she offered a handful of dry pellets to an inquisitive alpaca. “I’ve never been around them.”
Pat Britton drove from Marion to participate in the event. “I’m fascinated by how alpaca fibers are processed.”
“These guys are gentle,” added Carol Beebe, as the friendly animals surrounded her in the pasture. “Now I know the differences between alpacas and llamas.”
Owners David and Debbie McLeish introduced visitors to the herd of alpacas during their annual open house last weekend.
We met people from places as far away as Alabama and Atlanta who were traveling through the area and saw the open house listed on Facebook,” said David.
“As fiber suppliers, it’s a good way for us to teach people about the animals and their value,” said David, who, along with his wife, operates a store on the farm that features Debbie’s hand-crocheted, knitted and felted accessories made from alpaca fibers.
Their handmade items can also be purchased at the Abingdon Farmers Market.
Sue Barlow said she likes how alpacas come in a variety of natural colors. “My sister is thinking about adding alpacas to the farm. She’s only 80,” said the younger sister.
The visitors mingled with 12 of the couple’s 34 alpacas on Friday. Their colors — 18 in all — range from white, brown and black to fawn, gray and rose gray.
Part of the camelid family, which also includes llamas and camels, alpacas are smaller than their cousins. They stand about 36 inches at the withers and weigh about 150 to 200 pounds.
Alpacas with their camel-like faces have big, inviting eyes; thick, soft fleece; and a gentle and curious personality that is easy to love. They don’t make a lot of noise, except for a sweet humming sound.
The fleece is known for its fineness, light weight and luster. Alpaca fiber is naturally hypo-allergenic, offering warmth without the itch factor. The fibers do not contain lanolin, which is an ingredient found in wool that can cause allergies.
When the McLeishes bought their farm on Bell Lane in Meadowview in 2005, they added alpacas to the mix to help keep the grass eaten down. In no time, the couple fell in love with the fuzzy and cute creatures that have turned out to be an unexpected passion for the couple.
“There’re really two great things about them,” said Debbie. “One is their sweet demeanor. They’re just lovely animals to work with. But I also get this wonderful benefit of their fiber. I crochet, knit and felt. Now, I have all this beautiful fiber I can do that with. It has developed into a sustainable business.”
Aside from being cute and cuddly, alpacas are moneymakers for people who sell their soft and durable fleece to make into various products.
A professional shearer from Kentucky comes to the couple’s farm each spring to shear the alpacas. One shearing requires about 10 minutes and produces four to 12 pounds of fiber per animal, depending on age and the density of the coat.
David estimated as many as 400 pounds of fiber is harvested from the animals on his farm each spring. Some of the fiber is sent to a miniature mill in Gallatin, Tennessee, where it is spun into yarn that is used by Debbie to make hats, scarves, shawls and rugs. Another portion is sent to a co-op of American alpaca farms that also uses the fiber to make winter apparel that includes gloves, scarves and socks.
After raising the animals for more than 10 years, the couple confessed their lives revolve around the schedules of their family of alpacas.
The owners show the animals at competitions hundreds of miles from home beginning in the fall.
Shearing begins in the spring, followed by birthing, breeding, fiber preparation and, lastly, product making.
“It’s a never-ending process,” said David. “And we’re loving every minute of it.”
The farm and store at Dreamland Alpacas are open noon to 7 p.m. each day except Tuesday. Visit their website at www.dreamlandalpacas.com or follow them on Facebook.
To learn how to participate in enrichment courses and events offered by the Southwest Virginia Higher Education’s College for Older Adults, visit www.swcenter.edu or call 276-619-4377.