Dennis and Evalynn Kuehner own 51 acres of land in Lehighton and wanted to do something agricultural with it.
When Evalynn suggested alpacas to her seasoned-farmer husband, he said, "What's an alpaca?
After a year of visiting more than a dozen alpaca farms, Dennis Kuehner found himself not only well informed about alpacas, he was certain he wanted to raise these gentle animals, known for their soft, cashmere-like fur.
There are many things to consider before making a decision about alpaca ownership. One major consideration is whether or not you want to breed the animals or just use them for fiber.
The Kuehners wanted to do both, so in December of 2007, they purchased three females. Today, 14 alpacas are part of the Kuehner family. Five crias (baby alpacas) were born on the farm. The couple's plan is to establish a herd of 25 to 30 alpacas.
"Alpacas are a substantial investment, initially," said Evalynn. Not only can they be costly to purchase, there are also accommodations to consider, pastures to be built, and fences to be constructed.
"You can't own just one alpaca." Evalynn said. "They are communal animals. If you have just one, they will worry themselves to death."
To start with three are good, but four are better. If you take one away for any length of time, there must be at least two left behind, she added.
The Kuehner's alpacas are guarded by a five-foot high fence. Occasionally, however, the alpacas will give a loud, piercing distress call whenever they feel threatened. They will gather together and stare in the direction of the threat.
Because there are coyotes in the area, the Kuehner's decided to purchase a herd dog, a Great Pyrenees, named Xela, who patrols and protects the animals.
Alpacas have very different personalities. Most of them like to keep to themselves, but there are some that will come to people.
"Some even have small addictions," Evalynn said.
For example, Yazington likes to carry around Crocs®, which are shaped rubber sandals. When Xela was a puppy she chewed Yazington's Croc®. The irritated Alpaca wouldn't look at Xela for days.
Getting an early start
The Kuehner's daughter, Kira, who is in her first year at middle school, is very involved in every aspect of alpaca ownership. She trains and socializes all of the alpacas. Usually, as soon as a cria is born, Kira will 'fuss' with it for at least a half-hour a day, until it is used to having people around.
When they are a month or two old, they will be introduced to the halter and a short lead. This training is important because the Kuehners and their alpacas attend fairs and shows around the state.
Kira's alpacas are so well trained they literally jump through hoops. Both the alpacas and Kira have won top prizes for their abilities. Kira, for example, won first place for a photograph she took of Yazington, who has won a couple of blue ribbons himself. Kira is so taken with photography that she hopes, one day, to pursue it as a career.
Warm and natural
Alpaca fiber is different from wool because animal fur has shafts and scales. The scales on sheep are short (the reason wool often itches), whereas, alpaca fur has longer scales, which make alpaca fiber as soft, if not softer than cashmere.
"Many people do not know that Abe Lincoln wore a black alpaca coat," said Evalynn.
Alpaca fiber is comparable to cashmere and some well-known and popular clothing lines are starting to use the fiber in their garments. Alpaca fur is warm and comes in 22 natural colors. If you prefer pink or purple, alpaca fiber can be dyed with Kool-Aid®.
The fiber is generally sold directly off the sheared animal. Some fiber is sent to cooperatives where scarves, socks, and other alpaca products are produced. Other fiber is sold to people who spin the fiber into yarn.
Kira received a spinning wheel for her birthday, which she uses to spin alpaca yarn that is sold in the family's Picnic Woods shop. Despite minimal instruction, Kira was able to learn spinning easily.
Harvesting the fiber
Before sweaters and scarves can be made the alpacas need to be shorn. The shearing is not only to harvest the fiber, but it's also to help the alpacas be more comfortable. Alpacas are from Peru, Bolivia and Chile. They come from the high mountains in the Andes and prefer cooler weather. They are very bothered by the heat.
Shearing is a huge process that requires most of the day and a crew of experienced people. Jane and Craig Johnson, along with Craig's brother, Brian Confer, own Worthington Farm in Unityville, Pa. The farm, originally owned by their grandfather, is family-owned and operated. It consists of more than 70 alpacas and a cottage mill where alpaca yarn is processed.
"We're a salon for alpacas," Craig Johnson said. "They are already cute and we make them cuter."
The Johnsons sheared all of the Kuehner's alpacas and will be processing most of the yarn.
"The alpacas are used to the shearing," Kira said.
Nonetheless, the alpacas needed more than a little coaxing to become "cute." Jane held their heads while Confer searched for a strong grip on the back end. They held on tightly until Craig Johnson completed the shearing.
First the blanket coat is removed (from below the neck to the back).
"That is the best of the fiber," Jane said.
The Kuehner's alpacas have high grade fiber, characterized by being "amazingly crimpy and fine," Craig Johnson said.
By the end of the day, there were more than "three bags full," of alpaca fiber ready for the Johnson's processing mill.
For more information on alpacas, the Kuehners can be contacted at (570) 386-3805 or visit their website, www.picnicwoodsalpacas.com.