Pair has passion for alpacas
Staff photo by Erika Strebel
By Erika Strebel
Published: Friday, April 15, 2011 11:39 PM CDT
Couple finds unique livestock brings them joy
Ken and Laura Adams care for 41 other alpacas like Dee Dee at True Colors Alpaca Farm in Caledonia. The couple has been raising alpacas for four years. In addition to boarding and showing alpacas, the couple also sell handspun alpaca yarn and items made from the fiber like socks, scarves and stuffed animals.
CALEDONIA, Ill. — Plenty of people have been stuck in traffic on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago.
But few of them can say that they were stuck in Chicago traffic with an alpaca — a shaggy llama-like mammal prized for its fleece.
Ken and Laura Adams are one of those rare exceptions. The two were on their way to WCIU’s studio in Chicago to do a show on exotic pets with their alpaca, Most Wanted, in November 2010.
“We were driving around on the northwest side of Chicago with an alpaca,” Ken said. “Laura’s on the phone and we’re running late.”
They missed the show, but they weren’t disappointed by the experience. They got to show off Most Wanted in the city.
People from the TV station and even the bank across the street had to take a look the furry creature.
It was just one of the many adventures of the Adams couple had since they first started raising alpacas four years ago.
Ken and Laura’s 7 1/2-acre farm, True Colors Alpaca Farm, is home to 42 Suri alpacas. Suri alpacas are a particular type of alpaca characterized by their long, silky coat, in contrast to Huacaya alpacas, which have puffier coats.
On average, alpacas live for about 25 years. Females weigh about 150 pounds; males weigh in at about 200 pounds. They breed year-round and have an affinity for snow, which is understandable because they are native to the Andes Mountains.
“They love it,” Laura said. “We’ve got boys, like Santino, that will lay out in the snow and be covered. You won’t even know he’s out there until you see this white thing get up and shake off.”
Alpacas are grass-eaters. In fact, Laura lovingly calls them “biological lawn mowers.” They are specifically designed to trim grass: They have a hard palate and no teeth on their upper jaw and only have teeth on their lower jaw. They also eat hay and a grain supplement.
Alpacas are pretty quiet animals. In general, they make a humming noise. If they are distressed, they squeal.
Alpacas by nature are so laid-back that people can actually enter their pens and romp around with them. At True Colors, people can schedule free visits in advance just to hang out with these furry guys.
“They’re advertised as the huggable investment,” Ken said. “When (people) come out, they expect to be able to hug them and touch them.”
Once the Adams let visitors into the pen, they will be greeted by the curious creatures.
“They have to check you out,” Laura said. “They all have different personalities, but they’re very smart and gentle.”
At one point, the Adams had 32 Boy Scouts roaming the pastures with the alpacas.
“They were chasing the alpacas around in circles and we screaming at them, saying ‘Don’t chase the alpacas!’ so they stopped finally, but then the alpacas started chasing them.”
Many visitors ask if alpacas spit. In general, they don’t, said Ken and Laura, unless you get in the middle of two alpacas in a spat over food.
They stress that alpacas are not pets — they are livestock.
“They’re not really pets like a dog. So if someone buys one and thinks they’re going to follow you around, it’s not going to be like that,” Laura said. “They’re catlike; they have their own agenda.”
Out of the 42 alpacas at True Colors, 17 are owned by the couple, while the others are boarding animals, or animals owned by other people who pay the Adams for their upkeep. Some are owned by people who show alpacas but don’t own a suitable home for them or farmers just starting out who are looking to start their own farm but don’t have a place yet. The couple charges $4 a day to board the animals.
Selling and boarding the animals account for a majority of the couple’s profits.
The average show alpaca at True Colors costs between $5,000 and $10,000 for a male and between $10,000 and $30,000 for a female. Show alpacas are bred for conformation qualities like straight backs, legs and teeth.
Fiber alpacas, which are usually bred just for their fleece, usually run for an average of $500. An example of someone who might buy one of these animals would be someone who makes handspun wool.
Laura said that alpaca farmers are close; they help each other out and generally don’t compete with one another.
But both Ken and Laura said the toughest part about their business is seeing the animals go.
“We do get attached,” Ken said. “It’s the hardest thing when we have to say good bye to them.”
“But if they’re going to good homes, it’s OK,” Laura said. “It’s a little tough at first, especially when you raise them from a baby.”
Alpacas are prized for their fleece, which is seven times warmer than wool and hypoallergenic, Laura said. On average, a single alpaca produces 5-10 pounds of fiber at every shearing, she said. They collect a total of roughly 150-180 pounds of fiber from their animals, Ken said.
After cleaning the sheared fleece, Laura hand-spins the fiber into yarn.
“I just enjoy doing it,” she said.
She sells it for $7.50 an ounce at farmers markets and craft shows. Laura will be at the Cherryvale Mall Craft show Friday, Saturday and Sunday during mall hours.
Laura also felts the fleece into items like purses and stuffed animals. She also sells scarves, socks and rugs made of the fiber. All the fiber gets used, down from the softest fuzz to the rougher locks from their legs, said Ken.
At first, for Ken and Laura, raising alpacas was just a far-off dream. Neither of them grew up on a farm. The two of them, originally from Palatine, Ill., worked municipal jobs in the Chicago suburbs. Laura worked for the police department in Arlington Heights, Ill., and Ken worked for the public works department in Gurnee, Ill.
“We thought he was going to be there forever, retire from there.” said Laura.
“At the time, that was the game plan,” Ken added. “It was a secure job and everything.”
But then, after 18 years of working for the Village of Gurnee, Ken sustained a back injury when lifting a manhole cover. It left him unable to do much of the work he did in underground construction, and he ended up losing his job.
“I got a settlement and we took the settlement and invested in this. Laura had always wanted to do it and that was the opportunity,” Ken said. “We could have done one of two things: We could take that money and blow it, or we could do something we always wanted to do. We just never thought it would happen.”
So, after doing their research, they bought their first alpaca, Gingersnap, boarded her until they found a place in Caledonia, and started their business.
“We just basically dove in with both feet,” Ken said.
The best part of the alpaca business, Laura said, is the lifestyle.
“We both get to be home and do this, we’re profiting from it,” she said. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had. It doesn’t feel like work.”
And it helps that their furry business partners are great company.
“We just like being with them,” Ken said. “We’ll just go out and hang out with them. If you’re having a bad day and just hang out with them, that bad day will just go way.”