Baldwin City As visitors approach the city limits of Baldwin City from the south, they may expect to see brick roads and the Baker University campus. But one thing seems out of place: a herd of alpacas peering over a fence, welcoming them to town.
The animals belong to Bob and Claudia Hey’s Ad Astra Alpacas farm. Looking like a cross between a llama and a sheep, the alpacas are raised for their wool — and as local celebrities of sorts. The Heys have taken the alpacas to the Baldwin City summer reading program for the kids to enjoy, as well as to an assisted living center and nursing homes. “Some of those old farmers that are missing their livestock, we let them lead them up and down the sidewalk and everything,” Claudia said.
“One of the reasons that people are interested in raising alpacas is because they are wonderful critters. They’re really, really nice animals,” said Gwen Wolff, board director of the Midwest Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. “They’re easy to handle. They have pretty gentle temperaments. They’re not a predator like a dog is and so you don’t have to worry about them biting someone.”
Ad Astra was Claudia’s childhood farm, which used to be a dairy farm. When she and Bob moved back to town, Claudia couldn’t stand to see the farm empty, and yearned for livestock to fill the barns and pasture. However, she wasn’t looking for just any animal.
“I knew I didn’t want cows, because you milk those twice a day every day. There’s never a vacation,” Claudia said. “I also knew I would be attached to whatever I got so I didn’t want anything I was going to become attached to and then have to send it off to market.”
After seeing an ad for alpacas and doing some research, the Heys purchased three alpacas from a farm in Wisconsin. They now have 59 alpacas, which are all “very gentle, very inquisitive,” Claudia said. Over the course of the past year, the Heys have welcomed six baby alpacas to their farm.
In keeping with the name of their farm, Ad Astra, which was borrowed from the Kansas state motto and means “to the stars,” each baby is named after a star, something in the sky or some sort of heavenly body. Names range from Jupiter to Zeus to Halley (from Halley’s Comet).
Claudia said they left off the second part of the state motto, “per aspera,” which means “through difficulties.”
“We didn’t want the difficulties, so we just chopped that part off,” she said.
The Heys have taken their alpacas to shows in Topeka and Kansas City and also as far away as Oklahoma. Awards include categories such as best all-around alpaca, best fleece and small, intermediate and large breeders, which is based on the number of alpacas on a farm.
“There aren’t as many (shows) in the Midwest, and we don’t really like to take them that far,” Claudia said. “I think it’s hard on them, but … if you wanted to and you had the money and time to travel, there are some alpaca shows most every weekend.”
Each spring, the Heys shear the alpacas to collect their fleece. Bob contrasts the process to shearing sheep, in which 20 or 30 sheep can be sheared with one pair of cutting clippers.
“Sometimes, I’ll only get one (with one pair of clippers) because they lay down and roll in the dirt and the dirt collects on the midline from the back of the neck and back,” Bob said. “As soon as they get into that dirt, it dulls the clippers.”
Alpacas come in 22 natural colors, all of which are present at Ad Astra Alpacas, except for gray. The fiber of the fleece is very valuable, as it is hypoallergenic and has a very low “prickle” factor, according to Wolff.
“It is generally people who are allergic to wool who can wear alpaca because it doesn’t have the lanolin in it that wool does,” Wolff said. “The structure of the alpaca is such that it doesn’t have the barbs that stick out as far as the wool does, and that the prickle factor is what makes a fiber itchy to someone.”
After shearing the alpacas, the fiber is sent to the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool in Fall River, Mass., where it is made into products such as scarves, sweaters, socks and gloves. Other fiber is sent to Texas to be made into rugs.
“I sort it according to grade, and then we send it off after I get it all done and have it made into products that I sell here in the shop,” Claudia said.
Although Bob works at Hey Machinery during the day, Claudia focuses her days on taking care of and feeding the alpacas, as well as preparing and working in her shop. She is continually finding new products to introduce to her store on the farm.
“We are just are beginning to scratch the surface of what all we can do with alpaca fiber,”she said. “We were involved with a thing called a felt loom and … and I made some things with that. I made these dog beds and it’s stuffed with alpaca fiber that I swept up off the floor. This is another application of what you can do with it.”
Although the farm sits outside of town and is not heavily advertised, their store sees quite a bit of business. Ad Astra Alpacas was part of this year’s Kaw Valley Farm Tour, which took place on the first weekend in October and led to more than 1,000 customers.
“I tell everybody to go to the mall on Black Friday,” Claudia said. “But then when you’re tired with the crowds, come here.”
As unusual as an alpaca farm is, the Heys take pride and pleasure in knowing they have raised healthy alpacas, and they enjoy watching the animals range around their property. “It’s fun to watch them,” Bob said. “A lot of times in the evening, they’ll just run … sometimes the whole herd will run out and run around and come back in and turn around and go do it. ... It’s also something we can watch as a sign of well-being: they’re feeling good.”