The herd of alpacas entered the shearing sheds with a year’s worth of wool on their backs. Each left cleanly shorn, much lighter and humming happily. In the back of the shed, Fox Wire Farm owner John Ballentine talked a group of visitors through the process.
“This is our biggest day of the year at the farm,” Ballentine said. “We only get to shear the alpacas once a year, so think of this as our crop for the year, and we’ve been letting people come to watch the process and see the animals for a couple of years now.”
After starting to raise alpacas at Fox Wire eight years ago, the farm now has a herd of more than 70 animals, nearly all female, and most named after various characters from “Game of Thrones.” Looking back, it’s been a transition that sometimes surprises even Ballentine.
“We started with horses, but then we found out about alpaca, decided to give raising them a try, and the herd just kept growing bigger every year,” Ballentine said. “They’re such gentle, wonderful animals, very easy to take care of, and alpaca fiber is a very interesting product.”
As a product, alpaca fiber is 10 times warmer than wool, softer than cashmere and totally hypoallergenic, which has made it increasingly popular in fashion in the past few years. Of course, when alpaca fiber sells for more than $7 an ounce and each alpaca provides more than 10 pounds of wool when sheared, the fleeces may not be golden, but they’ve certainly made alpaca farming appealing to many farmers.
“When we started, we were one of the first in the region, but today, I could name 12 other alpaca farms locally,” said Ballentine. “That growth is a good thing, because the more there are, the promotion of the animals and the selling of the material becomes that much easier for all of us.”
The United States is the second largest home for alpacas in the world behind only Peru, with more than 152,601 animals in the country according to the most recent numbers from the Department of Agriculture. Virginia ranks eighth in the nation in number of alpacas, with more than 9,500 alpacas in the commonwealth.
With those kinds of numbers, it’s surprising alpacas will only be classified as livestock in Virginia starting in July.
After a series of dog attacks in James City County late last year, including one where three alpacas were seriously injured, charges against the owner of the dogs for injuring livestock were dropped because the Commonwealth of Virginia did not consider alpacas livestock at the time.
As a result, Del. Brenda Pogge, R-James City County, introduced HB 2689 to the General Assembly to include alpacas in the Virginia Code definition of livestock. It passed unanimously in both houses.
Pogge was one of the many people who came out to see the shearing, alongside Sue Sadler of the James City County Board of Supervisors. Pogge said the bill was just a common sense way to help local farmers, Virginia agriculture and some cute animals all at the same time.
“It was something easy to help these farmers and this growing industry thrive, and as for the animals themselves, they’re like giant poodles, you can’t help but love them” she said.
The alpacas themselves seemed quite happy with the experience, not only for the chance to shed a dozen pounds of wool ahead of the summer but to nuzzle with quite a few new human faces. The visitors seem equally enthralled, many of whom are seeing alpacas up close and in person for the first time.
“They’re funny looking critters. I’d only seen them in pictures before today,” Joseph Ochrank said. “They’re very fuzzy and very friendly in person.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.