Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Staying cool with the alpacas

Farmer Rick Andrews steps into a stall to bring one of his 65 alpacas to be sheared on Saturday, April 25, 2015 at his farm, south of Lawrence. Andrews says that the shearing only occurs once a year and requires considerable help from friends and plenty of out-of-state family.

They’re like a llama with an Afro.

No, they are like a camel with a bouffant.

No, they are like . . . well, figuring out how to describe an alpaca is a bit difficult.

“They’re cool to look at,” says Rick Andrews.

That’s what Rick thought when he first saw one. Now, he has 65 of them. And that means that once a year he has days like this one. Sixty-five alpacas gathered in the barn, with hair so poofed up that poodles everywhere whimper in envy.

It is shearing day.

It is more than than that, really. The alpacas get their toenails clipped. Some get their teeth worked on. Others get a skin treatment. They all get a few shots for health and beauty purposes.

It is like a spa day. I must not be the only one with that thought, based on the conversation I overhear between a couple of ladies.

Lady No. 1: “I’ve arranged for him to do your legs,” she says while pointing to the fellow from Midwest Shearing and his big, electric clippers.

Lady No. 2: “Mom!!!”

I feel your pain. My wife comes after my eyebrows with a set of clippers that I’m sure are powered by a gas engine.

Here, big clippers are a necessity. Two at a time, the herd at Coal Creek Farms — which is just south of Lawrence on County Route 458 — enter the clipping area, where they are put on their sides and have their hooves secured by a rope and pulley system. (Discount spa, apparently.) Then comes the clipping, and more clipping, and more. The first cut of fiber is called the blanket. It easily can produce four to five pounds of fiber by itself. Hair from the neck and legs and underbelly is another five to six pounds of fiber on a typical animal.

Helpers gather the fiber off the floor and put it in laundry baskets, then it is weighed. Then it goes through a process called skirting, where it is picked clean of debris. Eventually, the fiber from Coal Creek’s herd will go either to a fiber processing mill in Phillipsburg, or back to the East Coast, where it is used by the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool. The pool uses the fiber to make everything from socks to scarves to blankets to something called dryer balls, which are put in your dryer to help cut down on the amount of time it takes to do your laundry.

Since the holiday season, Coal Creek Farms has been operating a little country store where it sells things made from alpaca products. (The store is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays at 1676 North 1000 Road.)

Vickie Andrews, who is married to Rick, runs the store. Ask Vickie what caused her to get into the alpaca business, and she often answers: “It was Rick’s idea to buy them.”

Ask Rick what caused him to buy alpacas, and he’ll tell you: “I get asked that a lot, and I’m still looking for a good answer.”

But don’t let them fool you. The couple are enjoying the venture, which began four years ago.

“We’re starting to get it figured out,” says Vickie, who also is an educator at Lawrence’s West Middle School.

The general public is slowly starting to figure out a few things about alpaca fiber as well. For one thing, it is really soft. For another, it is touted as being hypo-allergenic. Many people who can’t wear wool due to allergies can wear alpaca fiber. But a big selling point is the material’s wicking ability. It repels water, which means a pair of alpaca socks, for example, can be warm and dry in the winter and cool and dry and in the summer.

The Andrews aren’t the only ones who have figured it out in Douglas County. For years a family near Baldwin City has raised the animals, and other farms in the area have alpacas too.

There is certainly no shortage of excitement about alpacas online. Some alpaca websites proclaim alpacas as “the world’s finest livestock investment.” They have certainly become more affordable than when the animals first started to be imported from their native Peru, Rick says. In the 1980s and even into the ’90s, many alpacas were selling for $20,000 or more per animal, Rick says.

“I thought they looked cool, but I said that was the end of that,” Rick says.

Over the years, the U.S. government reclassified alpacas from exotic animals to livestock, and prices have come down. Rick says the farm has a couple of animals that may sell for around $7,500 apiece, but most of the farm’s herd would go for significantly less.

Aficionados of alpacas also talk about how much easier they are to raise than many other types of livestock. Their mountain heritage makes them very resistant to cold winters. They do well enough in the heat with just a little shade. They’re water intake is pretty low. They graze very gently on a pasture. Vickie says they eat very little. In addition to pasture grass or hay, they take just a “couple of handfuls” of grain per day. In fact, just try finding someone to say something bad about an alpaca out here.

“Their manure is some of the very best,” Pat Mujica, owner of Midwest Shearing, says while working on an animal.

Well, I don’t know how I can refute that.

Vickie has noticed other attributes that make the animal a joy to own as well. (The manure, by the way, is great for garden fertilizer, lest you think oddly of Pat.)

“They’re really calming just to watch,” Vickie says. “Some people have used them for therapy animals.”

The animals are notoriously docile. Even when being manipulated as part of the shearing process, they are relatively calm. The animals will spit as a defense mechanism, and occasionally they will kick, although usually not hard enough to leave a bruise, Vickie says.

Most of the time they seem content to enjoy their surroundings and look cool. People have taken notice. It was becoming common for people to stop along the county road, and stand next to the fence to get a picture with the alpacas. Now, the farm encourages people to stop. There is a self-pay station where people can deposit a couple of coins and take a handful of feed to give to the alpacas.

Vickie says the station has a crop of regulars who come to watch the alpacas. I guess it makes sense in a way. Here’s an animal that eats very little, worries even less, and makes the best of its surroundings. We all probably ought to spend less time figuring out what an alpaca looks like, and more time trying to adopt its attitude.

I’m sure it is easier said than done, though. I think I’m always going to be scared of those clippers.

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at