Hun­dreds check out fur, fleece and fiber

Mary­land Al­pacas and Fleece Fes­ti­val con­tin­ues to­day

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Jonathan M. Pitts

Vickie Liske and her hus­band, Phil, were look­ing for a re­tire­ment busi­ness when Phil hap­pened to meet a man who owned al­pacas, those furry, doe-eyed, gen­er­ally more com­pan­ion­able cousins to the some­times ir­ri­ta­ble llama.

Phil, cap­ti­vated by their per­son­al­i­ties, bought three. Vickie fell for the crea­tures, too. A dozen years later, they own 40, run their own al­paca farm in Pre­ston and say they’ve never been hap­pier.

Vickie ex­tolled the joys of the al­paca life Satur­day as she helped run the state’s big­gest an­nual cel­e­bra­tion of the species, the Mary­land Al­pacas and Fleece Fes­ti­val, at the Howard County Fair­grounds.

An es­ti­mated 1,500 peo­ple braved chill late-au­tumn winds to roam the grounds on the first day of the two-day fes­ti­val, the 10th spon­sored by the Mary­land Al­paca Breed­ers As­so­ci­a­tion.

The guests vis­ited and fed penned al­pacas, browsed the yarns, fleeces, fibers and knit­ted goods of­fered by 65 ven­dors, and in many cases, picked the brains of es­tab­lished al­paca farm­ers to learn more about a busi­ness that came to Mary­land in 1993 and ap­pears to be grow­ing.

To Vickie, 70, it’s equal parts love and en­trepreneur­ship.

“It’s a good re­tire­ment busi­ness,” she said. “The al­pacas are easy to han­dle; they’re not dan­ger­ous. Peo­ple love the wool and what comes from it. And the al­pacas have a way of win­ning your heart.”

As a clus­ter of chil­dren gath­ered around an al­paca pen, hand­ing grain into the an­i­mals’ wait­ing mouths, Vickie’s friends and fel­low farm­ers, Jen­nie Mez­ick and Bon­nie Bieber, stopped by her booth, one of seven ven­dor sites.

Mez­ick, also of Pre­ston, started her al­paca busi­ness, Se­cret World Al­pacas, nine years ago when she bought some of the Liskes’ stock.

Now she’s pres­i­dent of the 23-year-old state Mary­land Al­paca Breed­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents 65 ac­tive al­paca farms and its breed­ers, serves as an ed­u­ca­tional cen­ter on the an­i­mals and the busi­ness, and spon­sors pe­ri­odic events, the big­gest of which is the fes­ti­val.

Mez­ick, who has worked with horses longer than she has al­pacas, finds the wool-bear­ing camelids more docile and eas­ier to deal with — and as some­one who works in a pres­sure-packed area of the health care in­dus­try, she says she finds just be­ing around al­pacas an al­most zen-like ex­pe­ri­ence.

“They’re very tran­quil an­i­mals,” she said. “There’s a peace­ful­ness they give out. When some­one asks me what I do to get away from the stress, I al­ways have a sim­ple an­swer for them: ‘I shovel poop.’”

Tilly Dorsey of Up­perco, who be­came the first reg­is­tered al­paca breeder in Mary­land 26 years ago, manned a busy booth Satur­day on be­half of DAFI Al­pacas, the busi­ness she owns and op­er­ates along with her daugh­ter, Kate Dorsey.

Dorsey, a found­ing mem­ber of MABA, is a foun­tain of in­for­ma­tion on the an­i­mals, the busi­ness, and the prod­ucts their fur cre­ates — the dry soft­ness of their wool (it lacks the lano­lin of sheep wool), the ma­te­rial’s ten­sile strength, the mi­cro­scopic air pock­ets in the fiber that en­hance warmth and breatha­bil­ity— and she speaks as mat­ter-of-factly as she does fondly about the two al­pacas she and Kate have brought.

There’s a goofy in­tel­li­gence about 5year-old Teddy, who is gray and white and was given his name be­cause he re­sem­bled a teddy bear at birth, and choco­late-brown 4-year-old Scotty, who ro­tates his head from side to side as he sizes up some ea­ger chil­dren just out­side his pen, two strands of hay dan­gling from his mouth.

But there’s noth­ing silly about the busi­ness side of al­pacas. The an­i­mals cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars apiece — Liske says the av­er­age is prob­a­bly in the neigh­bor­hood of $20,000 to­day — and prize studs have been known to sell for as much as half a mil­lion dol­lars.

Shear­ing can be a ma­jor op­er­a­tion — some farm­ers shear their own, while oth­ers, in­clud­ing the Liskes, hire the spring­time work out to trav­el­ing free­lancers — and most ad­min­is­ter pre­ven­ta­tive shots, keep the an­i­mals’ nails trimmed, and try to en­sure that each al­paca can live a sem­blance of the herd ex­is­tence that keeps them happy.

As they age, los­ing their ca­pac­ity to gen­er­ate the high­est-qual­ity fleece, own­ers must de­cide whether to keep them through­out a life span of about 20 years or sell them for slaugh­ter.

The process gen­er­ates the fleece that is later milled, then spun into the fine yarn that can then be used to knit sweaters, hats and gloves, shawls and rugs, or can be “felted” to cre­ate floor mats or even in­soles for shoes.

“It’s grat­i­fy­ing to see Mary­land breed­ers con­tinue to pro­mote the al­paca and pro­vide good in­for­ma­tion for other breed­ers, whether they’ve been around a long time or are just think­ing about get­ting into the busi­ness,” Dorsey said.

NATE PESCE/BAL­TI­MORE SUN ME­DIA PHO­TOS

Mounira Hima, 11, of El­li­cott City, and Beth Hima, be­hind, feed al­pacas at one of the ex­hibits.

Yarns from Un­planned Pea­cock Stu­dio in Fer­rum, Vir­ginia.. The 10th an­nual Mary­land Al­pacas and Fleece Fes­ti­val con­tin­ues to­day at the Howard County Fair­grounds.

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