Category Archives: Alpaca

The felted, matted mess

imageLast year, I purchased a beautiful Suri alpaca rose-grey fleece from a local farmer. It was the most beautiful natural colorway I had ever seen in a fleece, with hints of autumn-rose and oatmeals and grey. I handled the fleece with extra care, checking the temperature of the wash and rinse water carefully, handling it gently, quietly contemplating at each phase of the wash-rinse cycle all that might be made from these gorgeous fibers. And then I did something stupid.

I don’t like that word stupid, but it’s the word that really works here. Fiber demands its process. You can’t rush fiber. You can’t tell it to hurry up and dry or get clean. You can’t shear an alpaca and make socks within the next five minutes. If you could, we crazy fiber nuts would find something else to fawn over.

Eager to begin carding, I decided to place the washed fleece in a pillow case and put it on air dry in the dryer for a good 15 minutes. This is something I had done with other fleeces and without issue, but I did not check the air temperature in my eagerness to dry the fleece. Anyone who works with fiber knows the most fundamental of rules:

Heat + agitation = felt.

By the time I realized my error, I lifted a matted piece of felt the size of a corgi out of the dryer. And yes, there were real tears.

I tried in vain to make something useful from the felted monstrosity. I even hung on to the fiber for months, hoping I would come up with something useful to somehow make up for the error. But what I realized was that this felt was destined to compost, as beautiful as it was. And that I had learned a lesson worth 10 times the price of the fleece; that process is important and, in instances like this, vital.

It’s so easy to try to take the short-cut, or to give up when someone tries to throw a wrench in your plans, but when you look at life as a process of growing, of moving from this raw, dirty fleece to a clean, organized useful yarn, it’s easier to see that those little bumps in the road aren’t there to deter you, but to help you broaden your awareness.

There’s a reason Gandhi was so wise; he was a hand-spinner! ūüôā

Letter to the Greater Schoharie Valley

The woman in the photograph is my great, great grandmother, Rose Render.¬†She lived onphoto 3 (1) a farm in middle Michigan, raising her boys and her livestock on her own, without the help of modern conveniences like electricity and running water. My mother¬†remembers going to¬†Grandma Rose’s for dinner, enjoying chicken raised on the farm and processed by our grandmother’s own hands. My mother described her visits to the farm as travelling back through time. The tiny, sturdy farmhouse walled off to the approach of a fast-paced modern era.

I assume the desire to farm runs deep. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, save for that year I wanted to run for president in the seventh grade.¬†Some of my earliest memories involve planting radishes and pumpkins in a garden beside my mother’s house, beside the neat rows of cherry trees that stretched out for miles in three directions.

We’ve faced hardships as farmers. We’ve lost animals to predators and had to learn to harvest our own birds for meat. We’ve had animals get out of the paddock to explore the lake or visit town. Last year, we lost nearly 200 apple trees planted with love, by hand, to a brutal spell of unprecedented cold winter that¬†followed an equally brutal drought. I’ve wept in the soil for these losses and questioned many, many times why we do this thing called farming.

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The answer always comes back to the successes. Grafting apple varieties on the brink of extinction in order to preserve this unique living cultural landscape. The raising of sheep, of alpacas, of learning to shear by hand, of washing these fleeces with great care and following this education down to carding each, and learning to spin so that the farm could support raising these beautiful animals. The reward in each of these feats far outweighs any set-backs.

Farming has also taught me to follow my instincts, to see failures as opportunities for growth, to find strength in vulnerability, and to be bold, despite the risks.  And this next bold move has taken us down some narrow roads Рexploring the limits of our own fears and anxiety as we venture forth from Michigan to New York. Last fall we sold our house imageand have been staying with family as we make trips out east to locate a farm where we can finally put down permanent roots.

It has taken several trips out, but we finally feel comfortable¬†in saying we would like to¬†land¬†in the region of the Schoharie valley,¬†somewhere between Canajoharie to the¬†undulating, aged¬†mountains that rise up from Roxbury. And we’re seeking help. We’ve met with farmers, and are currently putting out feelers for any farmer¬†or land owner who may be considering selling their farm. We are hoping to locate a farm with a house (we love older homes and are not afraid of renovations) with as few as four acres (more¬†will be put to good use). A barn is not necessary, but a barn or outbuildings are a plus.

IF you know of anyone who may be able to help us, please feel free to share our email address healingtreefarm@gmail.com. We appreciate any help and look forward to becoming NY farmers this year! Thank you._o4xWwwKByO91WVxwu-cQcT7gkqweBxIjtCdCjO2G2U,NuqeJjwABcK9WcVXgvNf4Tkear9KK_FbgJqF45848_s

Sunshine Girls

photoYesterday was the first really gorgeous day we’ve had this week. High 30s, sunshine, and the most obvious sign of good weather: the alpacas roaming the pasture.

Even the alpacas know that in these winter months, you must make the most of these sunny days.

With every morning walk I’m noticing dawn arriving earlier and earlier –¬†it feels as though spring will arrive early this year. ¬†And if it mimics other warmer winters, we could see the first leaf unfurl by mid-March. That makes any cold days¬†that cloud the sun less threatening and builds upon an appreciation of¬†spring that all Michiganders hold sacred.

A day in the life…

We are a family of six. That translates to two kids per parent. Factor in a dog, cat, and four alpacas, and meal planning/preparation,¬†and you can see how a day goes by very quickly for our household. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love farming, but this kind of farming is unique for us. We do not live at the property and without electricity and running water, we have to make daily trips hauling materials¬†in during the winter months over-top heavy snowfall and no matter the weather, and as often as two to three times daily.

photo 1Water is carried in three-gallon drums. We fill it at home and carry the water uphill through the snow because there is no way for our car to traverse the drive this time of the year. It’s good cardio, but not half as good as the 50lb bags of pellets or the even heavier dense hay we carry bale by bale.

A hay shortage this year meant we could not stock up as we had done previously, but thankfully we found a really good supplier just 12 miles from the farm. Today, we’ll haul in another load, bale by bale, through the snow, uphill the whole way. I’m just grateful it’s good grass hay (harder to find with such high demand fphoto 3or alfalfa mixed bales in our area).

Yesterday, was a straw day. We stack two bales on the Prius roof once a week for bedding. The straw is light and not as difficult to maneuver, but takes time, like anything, when traversing heavy snow.

The daily tasks at the farm include the removal of the evening dung-pile (it’s amazing what an alpaca bottom can produce in a day), watering of the animals, a daily ration of pellets (a treat and supplement), hay feed, and feeding the cat, who has taken up residence with the alpacas. They form a harmonious grouping. Cats and alpacas pair well together and the cat keeps the mice away from the feed and I often find the cat and the alpacas nestled together in the deep straw bedding.

Next comes the dumping of the collected dung outside of the barn, then a walk around the perimeter to ensure the fence is in good order. Usually a few nuzzles and snuggles are exchanged and that concludes the first round.

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Another aspect of having alpacas is the grooming. We do not groom their fiber, but we do keep their nails clipped, which is not a very pleasant process for the farmer, unaccustomed to wrestling a 200-lb animal during its routine foot-care.

This summer, I learned to¬†administer both IM and SQ injections for vitamins and vaccines. Also not my favorite task, but part of the routine care of the animals. There’s the shearing, but that’s a biennial event for Suris, and thankfully one we can hire out (though we successfully sheared two on our own – I may be slightly stretching the use of the word “successful” in this instance).

Farming is not for the faint of heart. And farming in this fashion is reminiscent of something older. At times I am working in complete darkness, by feel, and other times I find myself breathing standing before the large looming barn with the feeling time has stopped in this place altogether. It’s a peaceful feeling and I am grateful this special place¬†has been¬†preserved for many future generations to experience and enjoy.

Feeling Fibre

photoThe fiber is packed away, my spinning wheel is safely stowed, and I was feeling confident I could let my little hobby go for the winter ahead, but there’s something about the tactile sensation of fiber and the art of spinning that pulls at a girl. So, I gave in and bought some roving and started spinning with the drop spindle. Certainly, this is one of the very best things about the drop spindle – its portability.

So, while I won’t be spinning yarn for sale for a bit, at least I can revel in the sanctuary of the art, gain some more confidence, and hopefully come out a better spinner this spring.

Herding Cats

photo 1 (12)Life as a barn cat must be pretty strange, especially for the barn cat surrounded by Suri alpacas, the muppets of the animal kingdom. Though size-wise, they are quite different, cats have more in common with alpacas than nearly any other animal.

Alpacas and cats are both naturally curious, they do not like to be handled, except on their terms, they appreciate companionship, and they each think we humans exist to provide a steady stream of adoration and praise (I think they’re right).¬†¬†photo 1 (11)

According to esteemed¬†alpaca¬†whisperer (and author of the wonderful book, Camelid Dynamics), Marty McGee, cats are the animals most similar to alpacas and relationships between the feline and camelid are¬†often forged. In the photo at left, you are seeing the¬†beginning of a daily pattern in which Bree (she’s in charge) approaches Watson, our cat. They get close enough to touch noses. Bree then retreats back to¬†allow the next alpaca to come forth for a similar friendly initiation of sorts.

After this happens (usually when Watson emerges from his resting perch in the morning or after a nap in the afternoon), there is a period of “follow the cat,” which sometimes turns into, “follow the alpacas,” in which it is clear Watson has joined the herd to some degree and is paying attention to¬†the locality of the alpacas.

photo 2 (13)McGee (Camelid Dynamics) describes that by watching this exchange, we can better understand how to approach our alpacas the way they wish to be approached. It was one of the most helpful aspects of reading her book and has altered our perspective in a way that has made handling the alpacas safer and gentler for all involved.
As for Watson, like any cat, I think he enjoys the attention (at least when no one is watching).