Eastland Alpacas—the sign came into view suddenly, as I jerked my wheel sharply to the right and steered my car down a paved driveway. When I reached the barn, I parked my car and looked over to see four furry heads checking out the newcomer, the crisp breeze blowing the noodly locks of their hair over to one side. “Hi guys!” I said. The day couldn’t have been more perfect— blue skies with fluffy cartoon clouds, a delicious breeze, and warm rays of sunshine.

I threw on a sweater and strolled up to the main house on Risser Mill Road to find the owners. Kevin Zurin was the first to greet me with a friendly handshake and a big smile, inviting me into the gift shop in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, near Amish country. His wife, Sue, appeared minutes later, and I received an impromptu tutorial of the yarnmaking process. The alpacas are sheared every year, and the fleece is sent every other year to a small mill in New York. The Zurins had just sent in 500 pounds, where it will be cleaned, blended, and spun into fiber. The yarn can be used to craft blankets, sweaters, socks, and countless other fashions, many of which were displayed in the gift shop. The fiber is soft, breathable, and versatile. So versatile, in fact, that waste fleece (from the legs) was gathered from alpaca farms all over the region and sent to private marinas to help with the Gulf oil spill in 2010. The fleece was stuffed into nylons and floated on the water to absorb the oil.

Life is Better With An Alpaca

On the counter at the gift shop were two pieces of fleece, one from each breed of alpaca—the Huacaya (wah-KI’-ya) and Suri (SIR’-e). A large percentage of alpacas are Huacaya, with puffy fleeces that have a crimp or zigzag indentation in the fiber. Less common Suri alpacas have long, stringy fleece, as if they overturned a bucket of spaghetti onto their bodies.

After basic knowledge was relayed, it was time to play with some alpacas! The first pen held males over the age of three. A llama strolled around in a nearby pasture. The Zurins have two llamas on the farm, primarily to show visitors the difference between alpacas and llamas. They are both related to the camel, but they are two completely different species. Llamas are much larger—280-450 pounds, and around six feet tall, and are bred as a pack-carrying animal. Alpacas stand three to four feet tall, and weigh only 100-175 pounds. They are bred for their luxurious fleece.

Life is Better With An AlpacaAfter the stories I’d heard about llamas spitting, I was a bit apprehensive about being in a pen with a bunch of alpacas. Kevin teased me by opening the gate and then closing it behind me, with him on the other side, laughing as he joked, “I’ll just stay out here.” I turned to find an alpaca with a goofy overbite staring me down. But it turns out alpacas are quite gentle and very curious creatures. And boy do they have personality! All different ones, actually. Several pushed their faces close to mine, but when I reached my hand out to pet their head, they’d swoop out of the way as if to say, “Hey! Watch the hair! I only give you permission to admire me with your eyes.”

In another pen, I met Nick Fox, an alpaca born, out of sheer luck, during a news broadcast at the farm. He was named for the cameraman, Nick, and Fox News. Bluesbreaker is the stud of the farm, with dense fleece with a good crimp, a desired trait looked for when judging alpacas. The Zurins explained high quality breeding stock could cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single alpaca down to a few hundred dollars for a pet. Each of their animals is insured, as the farm is the Zurins’ full-time career. They’ve raised alpacas for eight years, and plan to continue until they are unable to take care of the farm. Not surprisingly for this warm and affable couple, they find great joy in giving tours and entertaining visitors. They accommodate school children and nursing home patients alike, and find the alpacas are very therapeutic. While we chatted in the pen with the younger alpacas, Kevin scooped a handful of feed into my palm, and a mini stampede of fur came at me, gumming the little pellets out of my hand. Luckily alpacas only have lower incisors, so biting is not really a concern. I felt a tug on my clothing, and looked down to find Bluebell, a spunky tan-colored alpaca, happily snacking on the pocket of my sweater.

Life is Better With An Alpaca

Kevin appeared with a baby alpaca, called a cria, in his arms. The fleece was much softer and finer than adult alpacas. He also still had a gel pad on his foot, in place to protect the mother’s womb from his kicking. Healthy cria are generally up and running within a half hour after birth. The Zurins often don’t see the births occurring, though they’ve occasionally had to reach in and grab the other leg if it gets stuck. They have a vet that makes house calls, as well. Later that day, they had scheduled deworming and weighing. When school children come through, they often let them stand on the scale, always a highlight of the trip.

Before I headed out, we took a few alpacas for a walk around the farm. “Princess” Priscilla was content to stroll beside me, barely requiring any tugs of her harness. As we walked by the fence, two alpaca males raced over to check her out. She acted uninterested, as they wrestled with each other for her attention. Heartbreaker, that Priscilla.

With promises that I’d be back and a complimentary pair of alpaca socks in hand, I thanked the Zurins and bid adieu to my furry loves.

Originally featured in Issue 43. © American Lifestyle