When she started planning her retirement in 1993, Barb Nuessle had never even heard of alpacas. She worked in TV market research at the time, and her husband, Warren, led a Philadelphia-based executive-search firm. They bought an old Cape May dairy farm and prepared to spend their golden years there. But what about those 10 empty acres that once sprouted lima beans?
Nuessle weighed her options. She thought about growing wine grapes, or maybe herbs. Then she settled on sheep. No, goats. She went to a few farm shows and wound up at the Eastern Alpaca Rendezvous in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
“I saw these cute animals and I thought, that’s it!” Nuessle says. “I love to knit, so the fiber was a big factor. Just having a supply of that yarn around was intoxicating. Plus it offered a tax shelter and seemed like a good investment option—there were only about 7,500 alpacas in the country at that time.”
It’s been 16 years since the Nuessles brought home their first five alpacas. Now they own 23, and their fiber business is thriving. Bay Springs Farm greeted 5,000 visitors last year. Some shopped for alpacas for their own farms; others cruised the yarn selection. Many just wanted to meet the plush pack animals in person.
Bay Springs is one of numerous alpaca farms you can visit in the Garden State. The national Alpaca Owners Association (AOA) says more than 5,000 alpacas are registered in New Jersey. The exact number of farms is unavailable, but at least 35 are active members of the New Jersey Alpaca Community.
In spite of the interest, there has been a falloff in alpaca farming nationwide. The AOA says only 8,966 new alpacas were registered across the United States last year, compared to 20,679 in 2008. And Nuessle says many alpaca farms in New Jersey shut down in recent years as farmers retired, faced slow sales, or chose to keep just a few alpacas instead of running large breeding operations.
For visitors, each farm has its own policies and quirks. Some welcome hand-feeding; others favor look-don’t-touch. Some have herds of more than 100; others a dozen. Most of the larger farms have stores that sell alpaca goods and yarn, which makes them a big draw for knitters and crocheters. Nuessle has a fiber store at Bay Springs Farm (609-884-0563) that’s open every Saturday and Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm. She invites people to visit her alpacas on those days; you can even bring carrots to feed them.
Here’s a look at four other visitor-friendly farms in New Jersey:
SCOTIA ACRES ALPACAS
Lumberton, Burlington County
Walk into a barn at Scotia Acres and 20 pairs of round, cartoonish eyes will dart in your direction. A curious alpaca may shuffle over to see what’s up. The rest of the pack will soon follow.
“They’re acknowledging the fact that you’re in the barn and wondering what your intention is,” explains Jim Campbell Jr., who owns Scotia Acres with his family. There’s no bleating or whinnying or howling; just the quiet munching of hay—and those intense stares.
Eventually the alpacas will return to their hay bales and water troughs. They’ll go back to sauntering around the penned area, but always with an eye toward movement or new arrivals. Curious, yes, but they’re also cautious; their ancestors in South America scanned their surroundings for predators like mountain lions, coyotes and bears.
Scotia Acres is full of color in the fall, not just on its changing trees, but inside the barn, too. About a quarter of registered alpacas are white. The rest range from black, brown and fawn to the chic-sounding “medium silver grey” and “medium rose grey.”
The 106 alpacas at Scotia Acres cover most of that spectrum. The farm, which has one of the state’s largest herds, is open to visitors for special events and on the fourth Saturday of each month. Guests are welcome to observe the alpacas, but Campbell says feeding and handling are off-limits.
The alpacas occupy three barns at Scotia Acres but spend a lot of their time out nibbling grass and trotting through the fields. In either setting, the animals will amble over to check you out, so it’s easy to get a close look at their crimpy hair and extreme underbites.
“Our animals are very social,” Campbell says. “I have no problem with my 3-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter going right into the pen with them.”
What’s more, says Campbell, alpacas are “very intuitive animals. If you have a bad day, they can definitely help you go through it a little easier. It’s their calming nature.”
All sorts of items are available in the tidy farm shop, including alpaca-wool boot inserts, stuffed animals, sweaters and piles of butter-soft yarn.
The public is welcome on the fourth Saturday of each month from 10 am to 4 pm and for special events (856-985-9012).
WOODSEDGE WOOLS FARM
Stockton, Hunterdon County
WoodsEdge Wools Farm claims it was the first alpaca breeding farm in New Jersey. Linda Walker bought a few alpacas in 1989 to join her sheep and llamas. She found a market for the alpacas’ soft fleece, and her herd began to grow.
According to her son, Brent, who runs WoodsEdge with his wife, Amy Serridge, the farm’s alpaca count swelled to a high of 300 in 2005. Now they have about 100.
“They’re very easy keepers,” Serridge says of alpacas. “There are not a lot of challenges with these animals.”
Walker calls them “a great alternative” to sheep, goats or horses. “They’re gentle, they’re not noisy like goats or sheep, and if they step on your foot like a horse or cow, they’re not going to break your toe,” he adds. “Our dog takes more maintenance than our alpacas.”
Walker and Serridge welcome visitors every Friday through Sunday starting November 7. (They’re booked up with weddings until then.)
You can meet alpacas and see the farm’s llamas and Tibetan yaks as well. There’s also a “field-to-fashion” boutique—with alpaca and llama clothing and gifts—along with grass-fed beef and yak meat for sale (609-397-2212).
WINDY FARM ALPACAS
Chesterfield, Burlington County
Jackie Armiger started Windy Farm Alpacas in 1999 “on a whim.” She had no farming experience, but a lifelong love of animals and the outdoors. To house her alpacas, she retrofitted an old dairy barn. Six barn cats she adopted from a Bronx rescue group share the space.
Armiger’s 46 alpacas—12 grown males and 32 moms and babies—wander from barn to field as they please, but when they hear Armiger open a container and start scooping out grain, they swiftly appear in the barn doorway to investigate.
On open-house days, Armiger lets visitors enter the alpaca pastures and hand-feed grain to her animals. When one ambles over and gently vacuums up the food from your palm, you’ll realize how small they are. Unlike their llama cousins, which can weigh up to 450 pounds, alpacas are usually between 100 to 175 pounds and about 3 feet tall. They’re mostly fluff, especially the further they get from their annual May shearings.
Armiger cleans the water basins, delivers hay and puts out grain once a day, usually around 5 pm. The whole thing takes her about an hour.
“They’re low maintenance on a daily basis,” she says, “but on an overall basis, there’s a lot of projects. There are gates that break, trees that fall, weeds to mow, pasture to reseed.” There’s also manure to shovel—fortunately alpacas poop in communal piles—and fiber to process, hay to order and trips to various farmers’ markets.
Despite of the work, “I love them as much now as I did when I started,” Armiger says. “They’re beautiful, charming, and entertaining. Very endearing—perhaps that’s the word to use.”
Armiger requires appointments for a visit to Windy Farm, but she throws open the gates from 10 am to 5 pm on scheduled weekends, including this September 26 and 27 and a weekend to be announced in December (609-324-0080).
New Lisbon, Burlington County
Stephan Thompson, president of the New Jersey Alpaca Community, opened his South Jersey breeding farm in 1996. He says that alpacas have individual personalities. Some are aloof, others sweet and friendly.
When Thompson talks about Nelly, born in October 2013, he makes her sound more like a new child than a baby alpaca. Nelly’s mom had a difficult delivery, so Nelly lived in Thompson’s house for her first five months. She slept in his bedroom at night for the first three months so he could bottle-feed her every few hours. During the day, she hung out in his living room.
Nelly’s out with the herd now, but she still comes when Thompson calls her name, even if she’s across the pasture. He made a special cake for her first birthday party last fall.
That level of domestication is rare on alpaca farms, but Thompson isn’t the only one who loves his herd. It’s easy to get attached to animals when you know they’re not headed for a plate, and the farms we visited all use their alpacas strictly for fiber and occasional breeding.
Thompson’s farm accepts visitors by appointment only (609-893-5552).Click here to leave a comment