By Logan Nardo
Seven-year-old Clara Pickett ran up and down the field picking up grass to feed to the goats at Maple Grove Farm. Her friend, Honor Capaccio, followed close behind, giggling all the way.
As they sprinted back and forth past the corral of alpacas, Clara eyed them nervously, but did not dare approach and feed the much larger animals.
“I’m scared of them, but I like them,” she said.
Clara and her mother, Holly Pickett, an English professor, live less than a mile away from Maple Grove Farms. Last Saturday, they came to the farm for this year’s National Alpaca Days, hoping to see the animals up close and learn about raising them.
“This is just down the road from us so we thought we would come and check it out … they sure are cute,” Pickett said.
Across the nation last weekend, alpaca farms welcomed visitors of all ages to experience farm life, learn about the alpaca business, and find everything that alpacas have to offer.
National Alpaca Days usually attracts between 75 and 100 visitors to Maple Grove Farm each year, said Joe Kyger, owner of the farm. This year, children fed goats, pet the alpacas and hid behind fences while visiting the farm.
The goal of national alpaca days “is to get the public to understand the alpaca business,” said Kyger’s wife and part owner of the farm, Christy Kyger.
Some visitors were familiar with other livestock. Glenn Scarzynski, 41, and his family own Mountain Glen Farm, a beef cattle and sheep farm in Raphine. He came to Maple Grove to see what alpaca farming is all about.
“It’s always interesting to find out … what our neighbors are doing,” said Scarzynski’s daughter, Becky, 24.
Glenn Scarzynski said he sees alpacas as more of a pet than a profitable animal, but his wife said she thinks alpaca fleece could have many benefits for people.
“If you’re allergic to sheep wool, this is a good replacement to that,” Scarzynski’s wife, Cyndy, said.
Becky Scarzynski agrees, but thinks it’s important to “get more people educated about the benefits of alpaca wool.”
Alpaca fleece is warm, soft and not at all itchy like sheep wool. Plus, it lacks lanolin, an allergenic substance found in sheep wool. On site, the Kygers sell socks, sweaters and other alpaca fleece goods.
John Griffin, 66, is a retired construction manager who lives half an hour away from Maple Grove in Churchville. He and his wife have come to national alpaca days the past three years to buy new alpaca socks and goods.
“We really like the animals . . . but we really like supporting a local business,” Griffin said. “They’re really warm and it’s a very good product.”
Other families drove from as far as Staunton to learn more about the alpacas at Maple Grove. Steve Austin, 44, and his wife drove down last year to visit wineries and happened to stop in for national alpaca days. Austin said they wanted to learn more about alpacas and are considering buying some of the animals once they have enough land.
“It’s a learning experience, that’s for sure,” Austin said.
Before 2005, Maple Grove farm was used for dairy, beef cattle and sheep operations. After renting the land to a cattle farmer, Joe Kyger wanted to get back into the farm life.
“We looked at different things. We just kind of ran across alpacas and it just started from there,” Kyger said.
Although alpaca farming is a business, the Kygers treat their alpacas “like children,” Joe Kyger said.
“I want mine to be very used to people. And, that’s another thing that helps you sell animals.”
The alpacas didn’t shy away from people’s attention at the farm. They ate from the hands of some visitors. Kyger carried around the baby alpacas, or crias.
Austin watched as his wife walked around inside the alpaca corral and examined their coats. “She and I are both real animal lovers,” he said.
The Kygers call each of their alpacas by name, from Sugar Maple to Red Hot Two Spot Dot to Princess Poo Poo.
“We just really want to open the eyes of the public that this is a great business,” Christy Kyger said. “It’s a thriving business.”
Meanwhile, Joe Kyger enjoys a close bond with his alpacas and remembers each of them and their unique personalities.
“It’s what you can make out of it,” he said. “You can treat these things like your children or you can treat them like a cow. It’s whatever you put into an alpaca … they are very, very babied here.”