“They are cute!” exclaimed four-year-old Liam Rust, an alpaca enthusiast. It’s hard not to become one after seeing the herd at Island Alpaca. The animals graze in a nine-and-a-half-acre gold and green field in front of a Pennsylvania barn that’s nearing the end of its second century.
On a recent summer afternoon, Heather Welch, a 16-year-old caretaker, stood before the barn and sprayed down the alpacas, trying to keep them cool and clean.
Ms. Welch does everything from feeding the alpacas to weighing newborns, known as cria. Ms. Welch, too, is an enthusiast. “I love my job,” she said, adding, “I’ve only gotten spit on twice.” As she closed the gate to an enclosure where “the boys” are kept, Ms. Welch confided that she hoped to have two for her own yard by the end of the summer.
While Ms. Welch was tending the herd, Barbara L. Ronchetti, who owns and runs Island Alpaca, was mixing electrolytes into a bucket of water. The Alpcade keeps the alpacas hydrated. “They like the apple flavor,” Ms. Ronchetti explained. “It’s a good thing to spoil them because they spoil me.”
Island Alpaca is a Vineyard-inspired project. Ms. Ronchetti first learned about alpacas five years ago, when she saw some in the Fiber Tent at the Agricutural Fair in West Tisbury. “When I saw them,” she said, “I was so engaged that I thought it would be great to have them.”
A native of Lexington, Ms. Ronchetti had no previous experience in farming and had never raised animals. Much of her career was in management and training at such businesses as Coffee Connections and Au Bon Pain. After a decade of corporate work, she moved to the Vineyard 16 years ago, to “get away for a winter, relax and regroup.”
Ms. Ronchetti volunteered at the Wintertide Coffeehouse, took on work as a real estate broker, and — along the way — met the alpacas. She visited alpaca farms and attended seminars and “natal clinics” to learn the ropes of alpaca breeding. Of her choice to set out in a new direction, she said, “It was an exciting challenge to undertake. It was kind of testing myself.” She added, “At times, it has actually been, at times, easier than I had thought.”
Ms. Ronchetti said that she was lucky to find a 19-acre property for her farm, although alpacas do not require extensive space to graze. Five or ten can be raised on an acre of pasture. Ms. Ronchetti had the barn moved from Pennsylvania. (It now houses a store that sells an assortment of soft objects made from alpaca fiber.) After two years of preparation she was ready to receive her alpacas. She recalls that moment as exciting. “It was the icing on the cake for the alpacas to arrive because I had worked so hard to put the barn together and get ready.
“What is really sweet about the alpaca,” said Ms. Ronchetti, “is that it is a livestock that can live out its natural life on a farm.” In addition to fleece, the farm sells “alpaca gold” to nurseries and, via the Farmer’s Market, to gardeners who use it for fertilizer. But the main profit for alpaca farms is in the sale of offspring. Pet-quality cria can sell for a few hundred dollars, but “herdsires” with the right qualities — offspring with especially fine, lustrous fleece — can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Native to the Andes, alpacas are in the same family as camels and have padded feet so they aren’t harsh on the land. The hope of the farm is to introduce the alpaca to the Island by selling to Islanders and making arrangements whereby seasonal residents can buy an animal and let it board at the farm for the winter. Beyond being great pets, Ms. Ronchetti says, alpacas earn their keep as lawnmowers.
Ms. Ronchetti said that as pets, alpacas are low maintenance. But this rule doesn’t hold for someone who manages a herd. Ms. Rochetti confessed that when you care for 47 alpacas, as she does now, “They are a lot of work. But that is true for any farm. The excitement on people’s faces when they see an alpaca makes the effort worthwhile for me.” She expects to have 53 animals by the end of the year and then to sell a few to reduce the size of the herd.
Just this past week, a cria was born. While Ms. Welch weighed the newborn on a large scale to make sure that it was growing at a healthy pace, the mother alpaca made strange humming noises for its baby. Scientists think that humming between mother and cria is a mark of healthy bonding. The crias remain juveniles for a year, when they are called yearlings. After the second year, they are considered adults.
Looking around, it was easy to tell that Island Alpaca is an attraction for children. The alpacas seem truly interested and interactive with humans, but as Liam’s twin brother Connor Rust discovered, they can be skittish to the touch. As Connor explained, “That’s because other animals can eat them in South America.”
The farm is open Fridays to Sundays, 1 to 6 p.m. rain or shine at 1 Head of the Pond Road in Oak Bluffs, and can be reached at 508-693-5554. The alpacas visit the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market, Saturdays and Wednesdays, from 9 a.m. to noon. The farm also offers knitting lessons for all ages. .