Spit happens. This is the motto imprinted on the back of the shirt of every employee present for “shearing day” at the beginning of June. A concerted two-day group effort, Harmony Meadows Alpaca Farm owner Kristi Mercier has brought in a special team for the weekend to harvest the fibre from her now 38 Huacaya alpacas.
It is both farm spa day and doctor visit, as while each individual alpaca is restrained for everyone’s safety and shorn, the opportunity to clip their nails (which they cannot do themselves, and in their natural habitat- the Andes Mountains and altiplano region- would naturally take care of itself while scaling sharp rocks) and administer a mega vaccine of eight-shots-in-one. To those who have not spent time on farms or with alpacas, the more dramatic of the group can put on a big show similar to myself at the hairdressers or dentist. Others, however, walk right into position, almost asking “and where’s my cappuccino?”, as they are accustomed to this yearly ritual, which they know will result in immediate comfort as they shed their heavy coats in the summer heat.
As I take a photo of a less-than-enthusiastic Terri, who, in a move worthy of Ghandiesque passive resistance, buckles her knees and drops to the floor, but despite her best efforts, is moved anyways, she abandons her peaceful protest and sends a gob of spit flying right past my face and into the girl’s standing next to me. The shearing, nail trimming, and vaccination process is done quickly and methodically, to a soundtrack of classic rock. No sedation is really required with these professionals, which is more than I can say of doing the same thing to my cats earlier in the week. “The thing is,” comments Mercier, “that they respond to us and our confidence. We all know what we’re doing and have seen thousands of alpacas shorn. It’s about comradery. You just have fun with it.”
At this point in the day, the males have already been shorn before lunch, and the females (the more dramatic of the two, according to Kristi, for what woman isn’t more concerned about her new haircut?) are brought into the barn, with a fence separating the before-and-after.
After being shorn, Terri is placed with some other “afters”, but in a truly Olympian feat, manages to catapult herself over the fence into the small enclosure to rejoin her closest friends. While currently still with his mom Larissa, one-year-old Jasper has undergone the most striking transformation as he is boasting over five inches of super-soft fleece. After being shorn today, he will be moved to the male group as he has reached sexual maturity, albeit a bit behind his peers. Males and females are separated on the farm, as in a natural herd, there would be one male in a group. Any more would lead to competition and fighting. For females, sexual maturity comes later in life at age three, while males reach it sooner anywhere between 16-24 months. Alpacas gestate for eleven and a half months, and can breed all year round, so the bond between mother and child is a long one. Within hours of being born, babies are expected to walk and keep up with the pack as alpacas are prey animals.
The other store room in the barn is already filled with bags of hair – one for each animal – that will later be sorted and separated for various uses based on the quality of fibre. The best wool, that which comes from the main body of the alpaca in bulk, will be used for the more upscale blankets, shawls, hats, mitts, gloves, pillows, etc. that are sold in the shop on site and online. The coarser hair will be processed into fertilizer pellets for local gardeners, so nothing goes to waste, and some of it goes back to the earth in a natural cycle.
Each bag holds between 2-5 lbs collected off each animal, or 1-2% of its bodyweight, depending on genetics and age. The wool will then be sorted after being sent to local mills, as well as those in Eastern Canada, for processing.
Kristi and her husband Rob, who bought and started the farm where they live in West Garafraxa fourteen years ago initially as a side endeavour, chose the more common Huacaya (native to Central American countries in the Andes such as Belize, Chile, and Peru, and only recently farmed in Canada in the last thirty years) because they are the easiest to work with. “We always dreamed about running a small farm,” says Kristi, who grew up in Oakville, “and then we met alpacas and just fell in love with them.”
The farm operates year-round right in Kristi’s backyard, where, weather permitting, anyone can book online for a tour or special event. “We take you right into their field so you’re surrounded by alpacas, you’re given treats [in the form of special grain rations that supplement their diet of grass and hay], and you can try and pat them if they’ll let you. We only ask that you don’t pursue them if they walk away, and that you don’t bring dogs to the farm.”
Aside from the tours, Kristi arranges for photo shoots, corporate outings, birthday parties, and, in the summer months, yoga sessions with the animals. With the height of the farm’s activities happening in summer, the fall brings its own special events, such as the Fall Rural Romp on the last Saturday in September (a great chance to visit a bunch of farms in Wellington County) and the Royal Winter Fair at the CNE in November, where Kristi and co. will showcase both their products and animals.
“Basically, pretty much anything you make out of sheep’s wool, you can make out of alpaca.” Socks are the best seller, but recently Harmony Meadows, which will indicate which of its products are made from its own animals and sometimes which individual alpaca, has also started working with a company in Peru- paying fair trade prices for the work- that combines organic German cotton with alpaca wool to make light-weight, warm, hypo-allergenic duvets.
For booking tours and other events, as well as checking on-site store hours in addition to online shopping, be sure to visit https://harmonymeadowsalpaca.ca.
WRITTEN BY: KIRA WRONSKA DORWARD | RESOURCES: HARMONY MEADOWS ALPACA FARM