By Karen Nicholson
Tina, please give us a little background on your farm.
We have 8 llamas (5 females, 3 geldings), one Angora goat, 3 horses, 4 dogs and 4 cats. The majority of our animal family are rescues. We bought our first llama as a guard llama for our handful of sheep and goats in 1998, two more within a year and then five more three years later.
Can I ask you right off the million-dollar question? How do you see the industry developing in today's economy?
In order for the industry to develop, we probably need to find our "niche," whether that is breeding, fiber, trekking, showing, agri-business, etc. Perhaps a lot of us don't know how to go about doing this. My sense is that, 13 years ago in the llama industry, there were a number of breeders in Vermont who regularly exhibited at shows, had periodic get-togethers with their llamas for obstacle courses or treks and who had generated an excitement for the growing industry. Over the years, this enthusiasm and involvement seems to have declined and I'm not savvy enough to know why that is. It may be as simple as some of the original breeders/industry leaders in Vermont moved on with no new folks joining the ranks to take their place.
I would have to agree with two points you made: that the industry as a whole and each individual farm needs to find their niche; and second, that when founders move on it is up to the next generation to be innovative and breathe new enthusiasm into an industry or business.
Perhaps learning more about your farm will help others contemplate their niche. How did you become interested in camelids?
Years ago, I was looking for something unusual to do for my husband's birthday and came across a farm that was offering llama treks. We hiked with our llamas through the woods and stopped by a quiet beaver pond. Our hostess then spread out an incredible gourmet lunch for us. The whole afternoon was so peaceful, serene and connected in the way that only our animal friends connect us to this earth and to each other. The whole time, I couldn't stop thinking, "I could do this....I could do the trekking and I could make the meals. I just need the llamas."
You've got the llamas now but share with us your background ...
My animal background… I've always had animals. In fact, the more room I've gotten over the years, the more animals I get. Now that we have a 170 acre farm, my husband would tell you that if he didn't stop me, I would take in everything furry that needs a home. In my professional life... I have a background as a registered nurse. My nursing skills have also proven useful with our critters.
So you have had a lot of experience with farm animals, what steps did you specifically take to prepare for getting camelids?
We joined GALA and VLAA about a year or so before we bought our first llama so we tried to educate ourselves about llamas and llama care through these organizations. We also went to a couple of shows where llamas were exhibited and we asked a myriad of questions from those who bred and raised llamas.
It's now 13 years later, what advice would you give to those just getting started?
Part of that would depend on their reasons for getting into the industry. If they are looking for pets, companions or guard llamas, I would advise them to do as we did by educating themselves first, then visit farms and talk to others who have llamas. You need to educate yourself first so that you can know enough to ask the appropriate questions of those who have the experience in this industry. If they are looking to breed llamas, I would probably advise them to talk to an experienced breeder who runs their farm as a business.
After 13 years, what would you say sets your farm and herd apart from others, what is your niche?
Right now, I don't think anything in particular distinguishes our farm from any other where the llamas are loved and give a sense of purpose to those who share their lives. This will change if we are able to realize my dream of running a small B&B and offering llama trekking on our farm.
I'd have to disagree. Something really important distinguishes your farm from others. All these years that you have had the llamas, learned about them and learned from them have prepared you to launch into a business related to them should you decide to do that. You won't have both learning curves at the same time — the llamas and the business! You'd be selling what you know and love.
With that said, where do you see your farm going over the next 5 to 10 years?
I would love to be able to breed a few of our girls and add some new babies to our herd. Unfortunately, two years ago we lost the only two babies we have had. That whole experience has been so painful for us that, so far, we have been unable to muster the courage to breed our girls again. So, I would hope that at some point we are able to try this once again. Also, I would still like to realize my dream from years ago to run a B&B and do llama treks on our property. I just have not yet figured out how to make this happen as long as we are both working full-time off the farm.
Again, you have gained a wealth of knowledge and experience with the llamas over the past 13 years, what has been your biggest lesson learned?
It is impossible to come up with one big lesson learned over the past 13 years, as there are many. However, the biggest lesson we learned this past winter concerns "negative energy balance.” I had never even heard of this condition before our favorite llama (please don't tell our other llamas that we have a favorite!) became ill and we came far too close to losing her. (Perhaps this topic should be an article for a future VLAA newsletter.) It is when a llama (or alpaca) can come into a state of negative energy balance when they become stressed by social, environmental or disease processes. As I understand it, the stress causes them to become anorexic (eating very little) and thus drop weight. If the negative energy balance is not recognized and aggressively treated in the early stages, the outcome may be fatal.
Many of us rely heavily on our veterinarian or other camelid owners for information and advice, what was the best advice you have received?
Again, I do not think I can narrow this down to THE most helpful advice over the 13 years we've had llamas. The advice we received this winter from both our vet and from Lindsay and Geoff Chandler concerning negative energy balance is what comes to mind right now, as it is the most recent issue we've had. We have to be very aware of our llamas’ body condition underneath all that wool - especially going into the winter months. In addition, we have to spend time observing our llamas - including the subtleties of their normal behavior. Because llamas are so very stoic and do not generally exhibit overt signs of illness until their situation is dire, we must know what their normal behavior is. If we think their behavior is abnormal for them, if we think they are not eating normally, if we think they are not as active as they normally would be or if they are not chewing their cud like they should, we must listen to our gut and act before things become critical. I've found that my gut is nearly always right when it comes to our animals.
We've all heard it over and over - take time to observe your camelids and listen to your gut instinct too so that you'll catch illness early on. Thanks for the reminder!
One last question, people take an interest in and buy camelids for many reasons and with many intentions. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
That folks would take care of the llamas they have and less rescue would be needed. I'm not talking about those who have devastating circumstances befall them and they must responsibly sell their herd. Rather, I mean those who either through ignorance or impulse acquire llamas without the commitment to care for these animals for life. As our vet says "we are their stewards while they are on this earth." I really take that to heart.
Tina, I do hope you are able to pursue your B & B/Llama Trek dream someday as I think that your passion for these creatures is infectious and to share that with your guests would be invaluable. Good luck and thank you for the interview!