By Karen Nicholson
Nancy, tell me about your farm – what animals do you have?
While our primary animals are llamas (we currently have 20), we also have 7 Angora rabbits, 3 Icelandic and 1 Dorset sheep, 2 Angora and 2 Pygora goats, 3 horses, 2 cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs—and 3 dogs and 2 cats (and one fish!).
A successful business has a niche, what sets your farm and herd apart from others in the industry?
We run an interactive farm. Our primary focus is not on breeding or showing or even fiber. Our farm motto is "An Adventure for Everyone." We want to be a place where people can come and try something new. Visitors to the area can schedule a farm tour or llama walk on our trails. Several young adults with autism come regularly for llama walking. School children visit for field trips and also for behavioral interventions. We have an afterschool llama club where children work with their "own" llama, learn fiber art and other farm activities. We also do off-site visits such as to a local nursing home and libraries.
What is your greatest achievement or favorite memory since you started raising camelids?
It would have to be seeing individuals relax and grow while working with the llamas. One of our weekly walkers has an issue with keeping his hands tightly closed. He has learned over the past year to feed his llama which entails holding his hand open flat—and he loves it! We have also seen a young girl in the llama club who cried the first time she walked a llama. She has grown in confidence to the point where she has begun training one of the yearlings to go on trail walks.
What advice would you give to those just getting started with camelids?
Find what you love to do with your animals, get good at it, then find a way to make that a business.
Where do you see your farm and camelid business going over the next 5 to 10 years?
We would like to add a workshop room and farm store in the barn. Other than that, we would just be expanding the trail walks and workshops.
What has been your biggest lesson learned?
Take one step at a time and don't try to learn everything all at once. It can be very overwhelming when you feel like you need to learn to care for animals, train, shear, card, spin etc. all at once.
How do you see the industry developing in today's economy?
Local and natural products and services are in high demand—especially in our area. We need to capitalize on that! Look for new applications for fiber art (i.e. someone recently asked me if I could make a laptop cover for them!). Offer a local, reasonably priced activity like a farm tour or workshop.
What do you like best about your llamas?
I love their intuition and ability to connect. They just seem to know what a person needs. I'm amazed at how differently a llama can act in different settings and with different people. A llama who never seems to stand still will be like a statue when someone who is tentative is petting them. The most dramatic example I have of this comes from a recent nursing home visit. There was a lady who was unable to communicate or reach out at all. I went over to speak to her and hold her tightly fisted hand. As I approached, Whoopie Pie (my llama) walked up and gently "kissed" her forehead (llama style). He is not a "kissy" llama and hasn't responded that way to anyone else. I lifted her hand so she could touch him and she smiled. When I went back to the nursing home 2 weeks later, I looked for the woman again and was told she had passed away shortly after my last visit. I was so thankful that we had spent the time with her and that Whoopie somehow "knew" what was needed.
This interview was conducted by Karen Nicholson of Stepping Stone Farm Alpacas in Stowe, Vermont. Her family has a small, integrated farm raising broiler chickens and laying hens for food and pasture fertilization; Indian Runner ducks for Meningeal worm control; 2 French Alpine dairy goats for milk and brush clearing; and a herd of 8 colorful alpacas for fiber and their offspring for sale. Karen writes for VLAA, NEAOBA and other livestock publications. If you have comments about this interview contact: Karen@stowealpacas.com.