When you are out exploring the rural areas of the New Hampshire countryside, it is pretty common to see farms with horses, cows, sheep, and chickens. But how often have you come across an alpaca farm? For most of us, I’m guessing that the answer would probably be “never” or “what’s an alpaca?”
These exotic wool-bearing mammals, long prized for their soft, warm fleece, are native to the Andes region of South America. They are closely related to better-known llamas, but alpacas are smaller, better natured, and have softer fleece than llamas. AlpacaNation.com, an online resource for alpaca owners, lists about two dozen alpaca farms which are scattered throughout New Hampshire (although there are probably a few more farms which may not be members of the organization). One small farm located in the Lakes Region is Owl Brook Alpacas on Perch Pond Road in Holderness, owned and operated by Bruce and Beverlee Carpenter.
According to Bruce, a retired high school guidance councilor in his mid-sixties from Nashua, becoming an alpaca farm owner was something he and his wife “just sort of fell into.”
“In 2002, I was deployed to the Pentagon for a year as a member of the National Guard,” Bruce recalls. “Afterwards, we relocated and moved up to Holderness where we had bought some property and built a house. My wife, who was a knitter, was interested in learning to spin, and one Mother’s Day weekend about six or seven years ago, we went over to Hopkinton to attend the New Hampshire Sheep and Wool Festival. There were some alpacas at the festival, and when we felt the fleece, we liked the softness of it. I then bought my wife a spinner for her birthday.”
From there, the couple then decided to invest in alpacas, fencing off part of their property and building a small barn with a large sheltering overhang on one side to offer the alpacas protection from the elements. “We have a mentor who breeds alpacas in Canterbury,” Bruce explains. “She has given us a lot of helpful advice, and she recommended adding the overhang to the barn, which was one of the best things we did. Alpacas don’t really like staying inside – they prefer the outdoors, and the overhang gives them just enough protection from the elements. But on really cold nights, we will put them inside the barn with the hay.”
Bruce and Beverlee also bought their first alpaca from their mentor, and the herd currently numbers four females and four males. “Alpacas are very gentle animals and they are very easy to care for,” says Bruce. “They just need hay, a clean barn, fresh water, and grain twice a day. We make sure that they get their nails clipped and are up to date on vaccinations.
“What we intended to do originally was to breed the animals and sell them,” Bruce continues. “But then the economy tanked, so we have shifted our focus to agricultural fairs and alpaca festivals, as well as doing more commercially with the fleece, which is valued for its softness and warmth, and unlike the wool from sheep, alpaca fleece has no lanolin, so it is also hypo-allergenic.”
The alpacas get shorn every May, when the fleece has grown to about four inches thick. “We have a professional come in to shear off the fleece and bag it into firsts, seconds, and thirds,” Bruce says. “The seconds and thirds, which are shorn from the animal’s neck and legs, are sent off to the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool for credits to use to buy products that they make, such as mittens, hats, and so on.
“The firsts are the best fleece, coming from the area of the animal’s stomach and back,” Bruce notes. “We send the firsts to a mill in Barrington for processing, and they return it as “roving,” which is just raw fleece. My wife then spins this into yarn and knits hats, mittens, socks, and sometimes scarves. The processed roving can also be spun into different sizes and colors or yarn at the mill. Beverlee sells a lot of the yarn to other knitters.”
Beverlee will also work further with some of the knitted items, such as hats and mittens, in a process known as “felting,” which tightens and compacts the yarn to produce an even warmer product that has the look and feel of felt. “Felting is a process that starts with alpaca yarn (sometimes merino wool is mixed in with the fleece) which is knitted into an oversized hat, pair of mittens, etc.,” Bruce explains. “The item is then washed in a washing machine in warm water with a sneaker which bounces around and pounds the fibers, loosening them up and causing them to mesh together. When the item dries, the fleece is compacted, making the material denser and thicker.”
Beverlee’s knitted and felted products are available for sale at the farm, well as locally at several retail outlets, including the Common Man Company Store and Wholly Tara, both in Ashland, and the Squam Lake Inn’s Red Barn in Holderness. The Carpenters also have an online store on AlpacaNation.com, where you can find a variety of alpaca fleece outerwear, socks, toys, and yarn for sale.
“Owl Brook Alpacas LLC, has been somewhat rewarding financially with profits made from doing the fairs, selling two animals, tax write offs, etc.,” says Bruce. “But, more importantly, we have met some really nice, interesting people whether it be other alpaca owners and breeders, customers, or people who were just interested in learning about alpacas. I also think that we have bonded with our animals and them with us. We have witnessed four births on our farm which were incredible to be a part of. To sum it up, this so called career has been very rewarding in many ways other than just financial.”
Visitors are welcome at the farm at 257 Perch Pond Road, but they prefer that you call ahead. For more information or directions to Owl Brook Alpacas, call (603) 536-5404.