Barbara Ronchetti: On becoming an alpaca farmer
The creatures begin to move forward, first hesitantly, then with more confidence. They advance, a long-necked, furry-legged, pointy-eared otherworldly group staring quizzically through long lashes.
"Oh dear," says Barbara Ronchetti, "they think it's time for food. Hey guys," she gently calls out, "it's not dinnertime yet." She smiles like a pleased parent, and reaches out to stroke a feathery head.
Island Alpaca in Oak Bluffs, founded in November 2006, is home to Ms. Ronchetti and her brood of Huacaya alpaca.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Reminiscent of Dr. Seuss creations, they are strange and beautiful beings. Alpacas are part of the "Camelid" family and native to the Andes Mountains of South America. Yet they are amazingly adaptable to varied climates, from Florida to Minnesota and apparently Martha's Vineyard.
Over the past two years, Ms. Ronchetti's herd of nine has increased to 52. They are alpaca housed on 19 acres off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in a 200-year-old, hand-hewn, post and beam oak frame barn that was transported from Export, Penn. The male and the female alpaca with their babies, called cria, are kept in separate pastures. In addition to several employees, the farm is staffed by a number of volunteers, who have included students as well as seniors, all with a range of experiences and backgrounds.
Starting an alpaca farm might seem like an outrageous undertaking to some, but not for Ms. Ronchetti, who did extensive research, has a business background in management for national coffee chains and was an advertising sales representative for the Martha's Vineyard Times.
Ms. Ronchetti says, "It doesn't bother me to take a big risk. A lot of people around me thought I was crazy. Well, you'll never know until you try something."
Noting a recent article in the Wall Street Journal touting alpaca farming as a smart investment, Ms. Ronchetti says, "I wanted alpaca, but I wanted to know I could sustain myself financially. Making a smart investment was important."
It is a multi-faceted business, yielding product, progeny, and prizes. Ms. Ronchetti sells the alpaca "beans" as fertilizer. Local knitters and artisans are employed to create Island-grown apparel sold in the gift store. In addition to selling yarn and apparel, knitting and spinning classes are offered on a regular basis.
One alpaca can yield as much as 10 pounds of fleece. Warmer than wool and hypo-allergenic, the fleece is harvested every spring. Island Alpaca sends it off-Island to be washed and spun into silky soft yarn, which is sold at the farm.
According to Ms. Ronchetti, making the change from office work to farm work was not difficult. "Adapting was really not a problem, as I had this in mind for years. I took possession of the alpaca gradually. Getting the pastures fenced and building the barn were challenges. Most of the construction took place in the winter. But, I'm still at my desk for a good part of the day keeping things as organized as possible. Running a farm is all practical knowledge and common sense, and having a Jack-of-all-trades mentality is helpful."
Stroking the thick fleece of one chestnut colored female as she talks, Ms. Ronchetti says, "I always wanted a pet as a girl, but my parents denied me. I'm constantly amazed at these animals - they're beautiful, graceful creatures that give a lot and don't require much in return. They definitely each have their own personalities. There is a herd matriarch, and she won't go for grain until everyone else is in. Sometimes at sunset, all the young alpaca start to run and chase each other in circles, sprinting. It's incredible."
Ms. Ronchetti breeds her alpaca and enters them in shows off-Island, and she already has several blue-ribbon winners in her herd. An alpaca with excellent lineage can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. "I'll have to sell some of them at some point," she says. "When I do sell I feel like I should ask for visitation rights."
Ms. Ronchetti encourages Islanders to consider having them as pets, explaining that alpaca are hardy, and don't require much space (five alpaca can easily be kept on an acre of pasture), and don't need much grain or hay because they just nibble the tops of grass when they graze. Their padded feet don't damage the pastures.
"They're so easy to care for and in the whole wave of going green and keeping it local," Ms. Ronchetti says, "they're perfect."
The biggest challenge was dealing with the unknowns surrounding alpaca health care. She and her staff handle all of the herd's regular wellness care, from nail trimming to pregnancy field-testing. They also deliver the babies (cria), although Ms. Ronchetti points out that mother alpaca usually deliver their babies easily on their own. But she says it has been difficult to adapt to the ever-changing protocols, and variety of opinions. Not many North American vets specialize in alpaca.
"I'm always anxious to learn and understand the success rates of more homeopathic methods of care," Ms. Ronchetti says. "One of the staff members on the farm offered me a home remedy with slippery elm and comfrey and other herbal goodies, that we used successfully on one of the animals."
Ms. Ronchetti strolls the perimeter of the female pasture looking for a lost cria, who she soon discovers napping in the sun, a small brown bundle hidden behind his mother's legs.
"I wanted to own a farm that people could visit," Ms. Ronchetti says, sounding content. "Going into this, I always knew that I'd welcome the public so people could learn about and appreciate these unique animals. I couldn't have them here and not share them. And it's nice to be unofficially part of the 'Island grown' families."Island Alpaca is open everyday through December 23. For more information about knitting classes and hours of operation, call 508-693-5554 or visit islandalpaca.com.
Elissa Lash is a freelance writer living in Vineyard Haven.