Don Tompkins gently placed the animal’s halter into his son’s hands. Two-year-old Austin grinned up at the unusual creature, its long neck towering above and its half-dollar-sized eyes shining down at him. Don’s 6-year-old daughter Avery and 7-year-old son Alex filled food buckets, fed the animals and walked the other animals around the farm pasture.
This is no ordinary farm. This family doesn’t raise cows, or horses, or sheep. They raise something much more unusual. This family raises alpacas.
Alpacas, a member of the camel family first domesticated by the Incas over 5,000 years ago, are curious-looking animals about half the size of llamas. Alpacas are extremely valuable for their thick, luxurious fleece.
Alpaca farming has grown to be a well-loved hobby for many residents of the Finger Lakes region and New York State. There are more than 200 farms registered in the Empire Alpaca Association, with well over 50 farms throughout the greater Finger Lakes region.
“They are gentle animals and fare well with children,” said Jennifer Tompkins who, with her husband Don, own and operate “Alpacalachin Farms” out of Apalachin. “A couple can easily take care of their farm and work outside the home too, making this a lifestyle anyone can handle.”
Alpaca farming is appealing because alpacas are relatively easy to care for and require minimal amounts of land (about one acre required per six alpacas) and food.
The Tompkins family, whose herd of 13 alpacas is quickly growing, is just one example of this trend in the Finger Lakes region. Don hopes to increase his herd by 20 or even 30 more alpacas.
“This is my plan for early retirement,” said Don, who works full time as a software engineer. “You can sell the animals, sell breeding of the animals, and sell the fleece and fleece products.”
In fact, alpaca fleece ranges in price from $3 to $9 per ounce. Shearing, which takes place only once a year, can be very financially rewarding for alpaca farmers with high-quality fleece. In fact, Don and Jen have an alpaca products store in their home. The store, Alpacalachin Fashions, sells alpaca fleece hats, scarves, gloves, yarn and much more.
Most alpaca farmers raise these animals for money, as a hobby and to enjoy “the good old days” of having a farm. For the Tompkins, alpaca farming offers even more, allowing them to impart their values and work ethic to their three young children.
“Children need to learn a sense of responsibility. So much is lost in this day and age,” according to Jen. “We, as parents, communities and nations need to set examples and teach responsibility to the next generation. We hope to teach our children to have respect for the lifestyle we as a family have chosen.”
The Tompkins first learned about alpacas in 1998 after seeing an article in a local paper, but were disappointed to learn how expensive the alpacas were. While most alpacas are much cheaper, the record alpaca cost an astonishing $600,000. While initially the Tompkins abandoned their dream of owning alpacas, several years later they choose to “take the plunge” and purchased their first two alpacas.
The Tompkins, like so many others in their field, never regretted their decision.
“Alpacas are so much like people, they each have their own personality,” said Jen. “Some are stubborn, some are curious, some love the attention, and others just don’t want to be bothered. They can be picky, finicky and all around lovable.”
Alpaca farming requires knowledge, study of proper techniques and diligence to properly care for the animals.
“Knowing what to do in an emergency situation is difficult. We care so much for each animal that it is hard not to panic,” said Jen. “Without proper training in veterinary medicine and without the foreknowledge one may acquire by growing up on a farm, it is sometimes hard to just do what needs to be done.”
For this and other reasons, many alpaca farmers join associations, such as New York’s Empire Alpaca Association, for support and advice. Polly Michaelis, president of the Empire Alpaca Association and owner of Finger Lakes Alpacas, has been raising alpacas full time since 1999.
“We in the Empire Alpaca Association take very seriously our mission to promote and educate both breeders and enthusiasts,” according to Michaelis. “With our help, you’re never alone. You never stop learning, whether you are just researching alpacas or you have been doing this for a long time.”
One major event is the New York State Llama and Alpaca Days, held on Columbus Day weekend each year. During the event, this year on October 7 and 8, alpaca farmers across the Finger Lakes region and New York open their doors to visitors who wish to learn about alpacas.
Many regions organize special weekend events to attract the locals. Alpacalachin Farms, for example, is a member of the Southern Tier Alpaca Association that organizes an annual alpaca tour with special events and alpaca fleece prizes for people who visit all the involved farms. This year the Southern Tier Autumn Alpaca Tour will be held on September 30 and October 1, although it usually coincides with the statewide weekend events.
Another annual event is the Empire Alpaca Extravaganza. Held in Syracuse at the New York State Fairgrounds, this competition attracts hundreds of alpaca owners and their animals from across New York State and the East Coast. The event, free and open to the public, involves many competitions including halter and performance competitions. Last year’s event brought over 800 animals to the competition, yet the highlight of the event is not the animals, but the children.
“You haven’t lived until you see a costume class,” according to Michaelis. “The kids get dressed up, dress up their alpacas, and they write a story about it.” In addition to the costume competition, children compete in egg-and-spoon races, as well as other entertaining events.
“The kids are the next generation of our industry,” said Michaelis. “If we can get them involved now, it only helps us to progress.” This year’s competition will be held Saturday and Sunday, October 21 and 22.
Between preparing for competition, feeding, shearing and giving medical attention, alpacas can be a big responsibility. Alpaca farmers agree that the rewards of raising these animals far outnumber any risks or inconveniences. Farmers love the affection and the connection they have with these fascinating creatures.
“I sometimes go out to the pasture at night after working and coming home tense and stressed,” explained Jen. “The alpacas hum for me and in return I sing them a song or two. They stand around and listen and let me give them a hug good night. My stress is gone, and I feel at peace.”
Raising alpacas also creates a sense of family unity because each person has responsibilities and cares for the animals. Even naming the animals has been a family event for the Tompkins, with their daughter choosing a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” naming theme for their alpacas.
“Alpaca farming is an amazing family activity because it draws from everyone’s skills and talents,” according to Michaelis. “It challenges you as a family. You never stop learning and you never stop smiling.”
If you are interested in learning more about alpacas and alpaca farming, visit www.alpacainfo.com or www.empirealpacaassociation.com.
by Lindsay Adler
Lindsay Adler is a professional photographer in Apalachin and an undergraduate student of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She enjoys all types of photography, and currently is both a photojournalist and a studio photographer.