Rural treasures offer ideal setting for alpaca aficionados

I turned onto Oblong Road, a mere five-minute drive from the College, and followed signs adorned with silhouettes of alpacas. I pulled into the empty parking lot designated for Sweet Brook Farm’s visitors and breathed in the scenery — undulating pastures dotted with neatly rolled-up cylinders of hay, pinned against a backdrop of yet-to-turn-purple mountains. I gasped upon seeing my first alpaca, admiring the plumed tuft of hair atop its head and its particularly gangly neck, as I slowly approached the camelids’ enclosure. I watched them and they curiously watched me back. I marveled in their oddity for a good 10 minutes until I encountered another human being.

It was then that I met Tara Garcia, a retired woman who owns the farm which doubles as her home. She pointed out some of the alpacas and attached descriptors or anecdotes to certain animals. “That’s Julia — she’s a P-I-G pig”; there is Suri, “the one with the buck teeth” and Prince George who, she alleged, was born the same day as the prince of Cambridge and often can be found rattling the fence in an attempt to reach the females confined to the other side. The farm no longer breeds the animals, Garcia explained, for as the owners approach old age, they no longer wish to expand operations.

Garcia scooped grain into many bins, offering to show me the “mayhem” of feeding time. Predictably, noted Garcia, an alpaca named Cerise ran down the fence line along which the troughs are perched, knocking down a food bin. Another alpaca sent spit flying towards us, which narrowly missed me but landed in Garcia’s hair. She seemed only mildly phased.

Sweet Brook’s primary focus is its maple syrup production. Garcia went into great detail concerning the vacuum-like mechanized device she hooks up to the trees in order to capture their nectar. The alpacas seemed to be a side operation, an almost arbitrary choice that requires minimal maintenance or interference; the investment on her part is strictly feeding them. Garcia apologized for their antisocial tendencies towards people.

After my adventures at Sweet Brook, I traveled to Shaftsbury Alpacas. Rock jams greeted me first; Sandy Gordon, the owner, followed behind in a close second. She was mid-conversation with two other visitors, and beckoned for me to come over. “We’ll just do the tour backwards, now that you’re here.” I forked over five dollars and she opened the fence for me to come in right amidst the alpacas.

Gordon has been in the business of alpaca breeding for 15 years, and the fact that this work is her livelihood was evident right off the bat; I had no doubt she could expound on the details of raising alpacas and selling their wool for hours on end. She insisted that some of her alpacas were social, demonstrating by wrapping her arms tightly around the neck of Shane Anthony II, upon whom she bestowed many smooches. Every year she leaves the hair surrounding the head of one designated alpaca fully intact, and this year Shane Anthony II is her token “bobblehead.” In her words, “he looked like a Q-tip the day he got sheared.”

Unlike Sweet Brook, Shaftsbury breeds its alpacas. Although the births often require no interference on her part, Gordon took a neonatal class. “I have the confidence to glove up, lube up and go in, but I’m not necessarily a vetrinarian,” she said. She expounded on the thought that goes into each pairing when breeding the alpacas: Choose the male based on the fiber of his coat; don’t breed grey and white; offspring with blue eyes are undesirable, because this recessive trait is often accompanied by health issues such as blindness and/or deafness. Gordon is also careful to prevent inbreeding.

After introducing me to all of her “children,” whom she alternated between describing as “delicious,” “yummy,” “gorgeous” and “perfect,” she took me into her store, the Alpaca Shack. She spent at least 30 minutes pointing to different items and offering their exact color and composition. The baby alpaca, called a cria, has wool that is much softer, I learned. She also informed me that there are six shades of grey, “not 50.” Gordon insists that all of her products are genuine,  mostly from the U.S. and Peru, and “absolutely none are made in China.”

Ultimately, the choice between Sweet Brook and Shaftsbury hinges on time, money and vehicular access. At Shaftsbury, one can experience a more in-depth tour and passionate explanation of the alpaca breeding process for a five-dollar admission fee plus the cost of gas for the 40-minute drive each way. The more scenic option, Sweet Brook, is a feasible biking distance from campus, but you won’t get to pet the mammalian residents there.