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A Tight Knit Herd: Alpacas in the Hudson Valley

Alpacas are the indie heartthrobs of the ungulate family. Quirky, long-legged, exotic and prized for their luxurious, colorful coats, alpacas are cherished as unique beauties and beloved as much for their whimsical appearance — straight out of the imagination of Dr. Seuss — as they are for their relative obscurity. However, alpacas may be gearing up for a commercial breakthrough. Steve McCarthy, who runs the 48-acre Spruce Ridge alpaca farm in Old Chatham with his partner, Jeff Lick, noted that interest in and information on alpacas has increased dramatically since they opened their doors a decade-and-a-half ago. “When I started looking into alpacas 17 years ago, it was very difficult to get any good information on them,” Mr. McCarthy said. “But now, it’s everywhere.” Domesticated South American camelids, alpaca are indigenous to the mountains of the Peru’s Andes mountains. There are no known wild alpacas, though one of their closest living relatives is the vicuña, which live untamed in nature. In their native habitat, alpaca herds graze at altitudes of 11,500-16,000 feet above sea level, and unlike their llama cousins, alpacas are never bred to carry and haul men or equipment.
Historically, alpacas have been bred for their warm, lightweight fleece, which comes in a variety of natural hues. The exact number of which, however, seems to be the subject of some debate: Peru counts 52, Australia tallies 12, and the U.S. calculates 16 hues; Spruce Ridge Farm’s website asserts 22. One thing everyone can agree on is that alpaca fiber offers almost unparalleled natural softness and luxe lightness. Since being domesticated more than 5,000 years ago, their fleece has been cherished; it was once reserved exclusively for Incan royalty, and called “the fiber of the gods.” Of their camelid cohorts (camels and llamas), the quality and quantity of alpaca fiber is still prized above all others.
“Their fiber is three times warmer than wool,” Mr. McCarthy said. “And it’s gorgeous.” Mr. McCarthy, who retired from Citibank 17 years ago, attributes his interest in alpacas to his passion for organic gardening. “Alpacas have three compartments to their stomachs,” Mr. McCarthy notes. “So by the time they digest their food, the product is low in nitrogen and makes a wonderful natural fertilizer in the garden.” He worked with a woman who owned several alpacas, and after studying the animals determined that radical career change was in order. Enamored of the notion of a quieter country life, and increasingly fascinated by the charms of alpacas, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Lick bought Spruce Ridge, formerly a horse farm and orchard. They operate the property as a working farm, with alpacas providing fiber and the other animals — six cattle, five pigs, two turkeys and 50 guinea hens — supplying meat. (A selection of the pasture-raised hormone- and antibiotic-free meat is available at Spruce Ridge Farm’s store.) But the owners also provide entertainment for throngs of weekend visitors eager to get a glimpse of the gentle, sweet-natured animals.
While all of the farm’s inhabitants have a clutch of visiting fans, the 55 Hucaya alpacas are the stars at Spruce Ridge. These Huacayas have the longer, fluffier hair of the two alpaca breeds, and their slender necks, long-lashed large eyes, tufts of gorgeous hair and graceful movements make them mesmerizing to watch. In addition to harvesting their shimmering fleece, the Farm raises the animals for breeding their own herd, and to sell to other alpaca farmers. Some of the clients decide to purchase just a few alpacas, more for the sheer enjoyment of it than a specific commercial goal. “We have a variety of customers,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Some are vegetarians or animal lovers who just want to enjoy working with alpacas on their land.” Spruce Ridge Farm’s alpacas produce soft fleece that is woven into runway-ready sweaters, coats and other cold-weather accoutrements by a team of weavers who work from their homes. Spruce Ridge sells the fiber to members of their fiber co-op, who produce handmade alpaca products for themselves and the farm. Many of their creations are sold at the Spruce Ridge Farm store; they also accept orders of clothes via email or phone. “We have all kinds of people creating products for us,” Mr. McCarthy said. “I’ve been working with some of the same talented local women the entire time I’ve been here. A Girl Scout troop from the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School knits items for us and uses the proceeds to pay for school trips.” Visitors can observe the alpacas as they graze, cavort and play safely behind fences in their share of the 48-acre farm, but they are not tame enough to pet. In the summer, baby alpacas, also known as crias, have a ritual of leaping joyfully through the fields as the sun goes down. Click here to sign up for Spruce Ridge’s email list, which will keep you up to date on their goings-ons, events and new additions (like their soon-to-come baby piglets). Spruce Ridge Farm-raised pig, cattle, poultry meat is available at the farm store. The meat is processed in a humane-certified, USDA slaughterhouse. The farm is open for visitors on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. During the summer they are only open on Saturdays, by appointment. Their knitted creations are available in the store and via mail order.

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