Nov. 6, 2006

Alpacas bring LP woman and her mother together

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

Motorists traveling along Eagle Avenue in Lester Prairie might see some strange faces peering over the fence as they pass Little Gidding Farm.

The faces belong to suri alpacas owned by Margaret Long and her mother, Sue Simonton.

The two have always been close, but after each of them lost a sister within a two-year period, they began looking for something they could share to bring them even closer together.

They found the answer at the state fair.

Five years ago, they were at the fair when they encountered a demonstration of alpacas and the fibers they produce.

It seemed like a perfect fit.

Long, who works in a nursing home, was a fiber and design major at the University of Minnesota.

She loves animals, and owned horses before she broke her back in a fall.

“My husband said maybe it would be a good idea if I never rode again,” Long commented.

Alpacas are relatively easy to manage, with an average height of 36 inches at the withers, and average weight of 100 to 175 pounds.

Simonton has worked with different types of fibers all of her life, and was excited about the prospect of spinning fibers and knitting items from the fiber of their own animals.

Long and Simonton spent two years travelling around the state, visiting alpaca farms and learning about breeding the animals.

They learned that there are two varieties of alpacas in Minnesota, suri and huacaya.

The fleece on suri alpacas grows long and silky. Huacaya alpacas have a shorter fleece that gives them a more woolly appearance.

Alpacas are native to the Andes Mountains of South America, and were cherished by the Incas for their fleece.

The fiber is the key

The Incas described the fleece as “the fiber of the gods,” and this fiber is the reason that Long and Simonton chose to breed alpacas.

They formed a partnership and founded Little Gidding Farm.

They chose to breed suri alpacas for their fleece which has “a cashmere softness and silken luster,” which works well for spinning and dying, according to Long.

“One out of 10 alpacas in this country is a suri,” she said.

“The future lies in the fiber,” Long said of the alpaca breeding industry in the US.

Long and Simonton have been using a small mill in Hastings to spin the fleece into yarn for them.

Recently, though, Simonton purchased an antique spinning wheel so she could spin the yarn herself.

The wheel needed some repairs, which Long’s husband, Dean, is making.

Simonton was anxious to see what spinning was like, so she rented a spinning wheel and began experimenting.

She took to it right away. She said it felt natural to her, which she attributed to her years of experience working with fibers.

Simonton and Long sell the yarn they produce for $6 per ounce.

Each animal can produce from 5 to 10 pounds of fiber each year.

The shearing is done in the spring, and the process is similar to that used to shear sheep.

Long said that their goal is to breed animals that produce fleece that is “super fine, light, and white.” This makes it easy to spin and easy to dye.

There are four factors used to rate the fleece, and one of the key factors for Long and Simonton is the percentage of fibers that are more than 30 microns. Anything more than this can feel prickly, rather than soft against the skin.

The softness contributes to the appeal of items made from alpaca fiber.

Alpaca breeding in the US

Long explained that the import of alpacas into the US was stopped in 1998.

This is a good thing, she said, because it makes it easier to establish breeding history.

“All of our alpacas are tagged and micro-chipped, just like race horses,” Long said.

Long and Simonton currently have five breeding females, four studs, one baby alpaca, which is called a “cria,” and one llama.

Like all camelids, alpacas are herd animals, and need other alpacas around them.

They begin breeding when they are just under two years old, and they can live more than 20 years, according to Long.

Simonton said it has been a challenge to get good information for their purposes, because there is very little breeding history available related specifically to the fleece.

This is something breeders started to look at fairly recently, she explained. Prior to that, breeders were concerned primarily with conformation and color.

Alpacas are not inexpensive. “The highest price stud sold for $250,000 two years ago, and the highest selling females went for $98,000 at auction,” Long said.

It is important for breeders to have knowledgeable people to help protect their investment, Long said.

“The Lester Prairie Veterinary Clinic has done a great job for us,” she commented. She added that the University of Minnesota has also been helpful in answering her questions, as have other alpaca breeders.

There are about 60 alpaca breeders in Minnesota, according to Long.

Spreading the word

Long and Simonton enjoy sharing their knowledge of alpacas with others.

Recently, they were among more than 40 alpaca breeders in Minnesota who participated in an annual statewide farm tour.

More than 30 people toured Little Gidding Farm during the event.

Long and Simonton have also used the alpacas as ambassadors to help spread information about alpaca breeding and alpaca products.

They have brought alpacas to the nursing home where Long is employed to give the residents a chance to see them.

Long also said that many alpacas enjoy being around children, because the children are small and non-threatening.

Simonton, who lives in Hopkins, spends two days on the farm each week, helping with the animals.

These visits give Long and Simonton a chance to spend time together and enjoy the animals that have become such a big part of their lives.

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