In August of 2018, a silver trailer carried six four-legged creatures down a long country lane. The transport of animals happens every day in small, rural American towns. On this particular day, this trailer passed a 50-acre farm with black and white cows densely sprinkled across its landscape just before it reached its destination. This is farm country, and this is not the first lane this well-honed trailer has seen.
It is however, the first trailer to come down the lane to the very end of the road in a very long time. It stops at the wrought-iron gate, and the homeowners hold a collective breath to see if the truck and silver carrier can squeeze through. But this isn’t the first gate this trailer has eased through and it rumbled toward thirty-six acres with a barn and three distinct paddocks. Lots of grass and more trees than you can count. For the new owners of the property, it made sense to put some animals in the fields and to really use the space. This is farm country, and farmers use their expertise and sweat equity to make the most of it.
But these homeowners were not farmers. A petting zoo and the state fair were the closest they’d come to livestock. They’d told no one of their plans to populate the fields. No one except the driver and passenger of the truck pulling the trailer, and those conversations were only had after hours of research, road trips and expensive procurement visits to farming stores never-before-noticed. They watched in amazement when the trailer pulled through a second gate, this one larger and leading into a paddock. They greeted the driver and her passenger and then walked without a word to the trailer. They peered in to see the livestock that were now their responsibility. The non-farmers were now farmers and their proverbial guinea pigs were staring right back.
When you choose an endeavor not considered typical, you get a lot of questions. The idea that my family could become farmers was as atypical as the livestock we chose. Technically these animals could be called exotic livestock–at least that’s the wording on the feed bags that probably allows the specialty vendors to charge more for the wheat, soybean, dried beet pulp, molasses, alfalfa and vitamin mixture.
Alpacas are originally from the country of Peru. They are completely domesticated and are part of the camelid family. You’ve surely have seen their cousins, the camels and the currently popular llamas. Llamas have been quite popular as of late; found on a lot of merchandise and memes. Alpacas, however, are quite different from camels and vary from llamas in temperament, size and the ability to carry things. (They can’t).
My family and I were at a wedding reception when we started telling a relative about our farming. With excitement, we told him about purchasing the alpacas and some of our new daily activities. “Why?” he forcefully responded. “Why would you do that?”
My daughter, ignoring the derision, immediately replied, “To love them.”
The look on his face showed he did not see a valid reason to invest money or time into something as frivolous as the cousin of the llama. “And the fleece. We can sell it,” I jumped in, feeling like we should provide some type of justification or value to our decision. He nodded his head, saying, “Oh. Well, I was wondering why you would REALLY do that.”
On the ride home down that country lane, I started thinking about my need to put a value on our new venture. Was what we were doing considered farming? We had to feed, water and clean up like other farmers, but really…the animals in our fields look like stuffed animals. Were we farmers or just hobbyists with our version of fuzzy logic? Did I have to justify any of this by projecting a monetary value?
And then the questions starting rolling, like the trailer down the lane to our farm: Do we subconsciously assign a dollar/profitability/productivity amount to everything in order to establish its value? If so, is that the true definition of judging something? Do we create categories so that we are comfortable with where we are in relation to everything else? How much of life is defined by its perceived value? What is the value of human life? Does that value depend on a person’s productivity, status or net worth?
Questions abound when you’re standing out in a field, but one answer is quite clear: alpaca fleece may only be shorn and sold once a year. We live in a small community, remote from large fashion districts with purchasers of fleece. Selling the fleece may difficult, even in the age of the internet especially for first-time farmers, and we won’t find out until May or even later.
To our family, the value of our farm and animal experiences cannot be measured. To work, learn about and tend to our alpacas is worth far more than anything you could quantify or express on a chart. Legit profitable farming or hobby: the opportunity to just love them is enough.