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Alpacas provide cuddly retirement experience

Alpacas have an almost teddy-bear appearance. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Scott and Linda Elmore bid farewell to their occupations in the metro, but concluded, "55 was too young to retire."

They shared this quandary with friends who suggested they consider raising alpacas.

They were initially incredulous. "Alpacas?"

But after hours of research, schooling, farm tours and interviews with alpaca aficionados, the couple agreed.

Now they are on a first- name basis with 27 of the affable critters on their Foothills Alpaca Farm.

Northern Minnesota, they'd determined decades earlier, would one day become their stomping grounds. Scott began arriving on the shores of Ten Mile Lake as an infant. The couple purchased property on Highway 87, just across the Cass County line, 20 years ago.

Alpacas, they learned, originate from Peru, Chile and Bolivia. They reside in the Andes Mountains, a frigid, desolate environment, that's likely a contributing factor to the quality of their fleece. Alpaca produce fleece that's seven times warmer than sheep's wool - and seductively soft to the touch.

Alpacas began arriving on U.S. soil in 1984, imports halting in 1999 - with the exception of Canada - so breeders could refine the density and fineness of the fiber. The initiative has proven markedly successful, Linda said. The fiber produced today is said to be 10 times better than the first "immigrants.'"

Alpacas are conservative in their eating habits, digesting just a half-cup of grain per day, along with a flake of hay.

"They are the most efficient eating machines I've ever dealt with," said a professor in one of the seminars.

"We're criticized for over-feeding," Scott said of their bulbous appearance prior to shearing in the spring, yielding five to 10 pounds of fleece. "Now they look like they are suffering from malnutrition."

The Foothills Alpaca Farm is home to two breeds, the huacaya and suri. The huacaya fleece has a waviness or crimp, giving them a teddy-bear appearance. Suris have no crimp in their fleeces; the fiber clings to itself forming "pencil locks" that hang from the body.

A close, deep crimp is desired, Linda explained of fiber quality.

The first cut is called the "blanket," which is sent in for yarn.

The fiber is used to make mittens, socks, vests and cuddly teddy bears. Skeins of yarn sold by the Elmores carry the alpaca's name, so if more is needed, a perfect match is made.

The "second cut" is sent to Texas, where rugs and "seat warmers" for outdoor stadiums are made.

Alpacas live to be 15 to 20 years and stand about three feet tall.

A baby alpaca, "cria," gestates for just over 11 months before making its debut, usually a half-hour procedure.

An expert on the subject told Scott he'd need two ropes and a chair for the birthing process. "Sit down in the chair and have someone tie you in," he advised.

"When it goes to 45 minutes, we get nervous," Scott said. A veterinarian is called.

On one occasion, they loaded a female into the back of their Explorer to rush to the vet, but as they approached Backus, Linda announced, "We have two alpaca back there now."

This young male gained the name for another famous "explorer," Christopher Columbus.

He's not the only one bearing a famous moniker. Scott's affinity for history led to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Eleanor (Roosevelt) taking up residence in the rural setting, as well as some of the lesser-known patriots. Students arriving for tours "get a history and alpaca lesson," Scott said. Seniors also appreciate alpacas' distinctive traits, arriving both for shearing and when the cria are born, which are expected any day now at the farm.

"It's easy to fall in love with them," Scott said of the animals that come in 22 basic colors - from white to tan to brown to black - with many variations and blends.

The animals are "very much a herd animal" and are always paired, or they "freak out," he said.

The wide-eyed members of the camel family have a full range of personalities - some are anti-social grumps and others touch nose-to-nose with humans.

"For the most part, they are very docile," Scott said. "Most eat from the hand," which he noted is somewhat remarkable. "They haven't been domesticated that long."

Paradoxically, the cria is usually up and moving 45 minutes after birth because of its fear of predators. Babies are nearly always born during the day, most of the time about noon, Scott said. Twins are a rarity, and don't usually survive.

The Elmores welcome visitors by appointment at the farm located at 190 68th Ave. SW, Backus. They can be reached at 218-947-3291 or 612-581-2006.

The alpacas and Elmores will be heading to the Hackensack Flea Market July 13 and Aug. 10. They will make an appearance at Nevis' Muskie Days July 22-23 and at Walker's Crazy Days June 16, July 21 and Aug. 11. Then it's off to the Minnesota State Fair.