In the last few years, it seems that small alpaca farms have been cropping up all over our area. My personal experience with the animals was limited to driving by as they munched happily in someone’s field. That was before I got a call from Brenda and Mat Thall with Red Barn Alpacas in Norwich, inviting me up to take a crash course in alpaca shearing.
I figured it might be interesting, so on a recent Tuesday I donned jeans and a T-shirt and headed up to their small farm on Gibbon Road in Norwich, ready to go to work. Well, fully prepared to observe, anyway.
Like their cousins the llamas, alpacas are considered camelids, which, as the name implies, means they are related to camels. They trace their ancestry to the Peruvian Andes, where for centuries they have been raised domestically for their soft, fine fleece. Alpaca fibers are both lighter and warmer than wool. The fibers are considered hypo-allergenic because they have no lanolin, which makes wool naturally water-repellent and triggers an allergic reaction in people like me.
The Thalls have been raising alpacas for about 2 1/2 years, according to Mat, but before they took the plunge they spent about seven years researching. Today, they have a small herd of 10 alpacas, which they take to shows up and down the East Coast. These shows sound to me like the camelid-equivalent of the Westminster Kennel Club
On the day of my visit, the Thalls’ herd of alpacas were due to be sheared, something which is done every spring.
Thankfully (for the alpacas), this did not involve me with a pair of clippers. No, there was a team of experienced professionals for that. When it comes to their alpacas, the Thalls want the best. And when it comes to shearing, they told me, the best is Biosecure Alpaca Shearing/Shear Relief LLC out of Ohio.
The company has two, four-man crews who start in the southern states in March and work their way north, with another smaller crew which works on weekends closer to home. To say their services are in high demand is an understatement. On the day they were due at Red Barn Alpacas, they also had appointments at five other area farms. The crew (made up of head shearer Brian Gnizak, Ben Bowman, Chris Naugle and Jareb Popiel) can shear up to 90 animals a day. Let me tell you, they’ve got it down to a science.
I thought I’d have plenty of time to ask questions and get the lay of the land before we got started, but as soon as the boys pulled up (and I say boys because I think they’re average age was about 21) they were ready to go. They had their two shearing stations complete with freshly-bleached mats set up in a matter of minutes and Brenda was leading me off to the barn to get the alpacas.
Now let’s talk about those alpacas for a minute. They’re taller than they look from the car, and are a bit more jittery, but they sure are cute. Along with Red Barn’s alpacas, there was Professor, who was sort of a friend of the family. He was there to be sheared as well, and he was none too happy about it. And unfortunately, he was first up. My eardrums are still recovering...