I expected to see rolling farmland with white split-rail fencing. It was a surprise to see the tiny sign next to a gravel drive leading to a brick colonial home. Tucked in a quiet residential cul-de-sac is Happy Hills Alpaca Farm.
Host and farm owner Valerie Hietela said we were the first of the tour members to arrive. She explained we would enjoy a light lunch – with ice cream – and then meet the alpacas.
Happy Hills Alpaca Farm came to be when Val and husband Kaarlo made the decision to “get back our roots.” Val was an agricultural instructor and Kaarlo was raised on a dairy farm. Instead of going with the traditional farm style, they chose to follow a sustainable agriculture concept that utilizes every inch of existing property, in this case is a little more than 2 acres.
Once the rest of our tour group arrived, with visitors from Charlotte and as far away as Philadelphia, we helped ourselves to either peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwiches, or hot dogs with the fixings.
Tables placed under the tree canopy offered a place to enjoy lunch and soak in the solitude.
The property, notably the deep front lawn, is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat. The designation means the property “provides the four basic elements needed for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover and places to raise young.”
After lunch, Kaarlo met us by the gate leading to the dry – or dirt –lot where the alpaca herd resides. The flat and gently sloped landscape makes Happy Hills handicap accessible. With bird song in the background, Kaarlo explained, in an easy going way, what we needed to do to meet the alpaca.
• Approach them from the front. If we come up from behind and try to touch them, they will kick.
• Alfalfa hay is like candy to them. They will come to us.
If they get agitated, they will bunch into a tight group and put the youngsters in the middle.
Kaarlo opened the gate and in we went. We were greeted by Gracie, the only sheep on the farm. Val spins her wool with the alpaca fleece.
Before the last of the group was in, we were met – more like herded – by the female alpaca. There are 16 alpaca at Happy Hills. Males are segregated from the females, expect for breeding purposes.
We spent quite a bit of time with the alpaca, visiting the males crowding the back fence and listening to Kaarlo. There were two pregnant alpaca, both due in October. With a 12-month gestation, alpaca babies arrive able to hold up their heads and ready to walk. Breeding needs to be done carefully, the farm owners said, not wanting births too far into winter or too far into summer.
At Happy Hills, the mamas and their youngsters, known as cirias, find protection and coolness under the back deck where a fan blows during the hot summer months.
Even in this residential area, predators, such as coyotes, are a concern. Greta, the guard Saint Bernard, takes her job seriously. She shares space with the males and has been known to stop the infighting that sometimes occurs when the guys get too close to the gals.
Speaking of the gals, alpaca females do not go into a heat. Ovulation is induced when the male makes a noise called orguling.
After we petted and fawned over these cute creatures – even Mopsy with her overbite (alpaca do not have upper teeth) – we met up with Val in her spinning room. Val, sitting at her manual spinning wheel, showed us how fleece is twisted and spun into yarn. One loose coil of yarn takes six hours to complete.
She said the quality of the alpaca fleece, which is warmer and softer than wool, is 60 to 70 percent genetics and 30 percent food. Plus, for those with allergies, alpaca fleece does not have lanolin like sheep wool.
Shearing takes place at the end of May. Val sells raw or roving fleece, spun yarn and finished products such as baby layettes, infinity scarves, shawls, socks, caps and even earrings. Val also offers spinning, felting and knitting classes.
As a working farm, there is more going on at Happy Hills than just the award-winning fleece. There is stud service, breeding females and alpacas for sale. Recently, two females were sold to be trained for therapy work. Val and Kaarlo also are available to help offer advice to start an “alpaca life.”
Because nothing goes to waste here, alpaca manure is for sale. The manure, which Happy Hills has available in 13-gallon bags, is a superb organic fertilizer, the Hietelas say. It is non-burning, making it perfect for the veggie garden.
Too soon, we left the spinning shed and meandered back to our cars. Happy Hills is on the NC Meet Your Farmers Tour being held Sunday-Tuesday, Sept. 15-17, with special admission pricing, but tours can be arranged most other days of the week. There are 45 farms participating. Details at knowyourfarmstour.com.
We turned on the car’s air conditioning when we left, but I got to thinking: With fall almost upon us, it’s just the right time to get warm hats and scarves made from alpaca fleece.
Happy Hills Alpaca Farm
Address: 708 Winding Brook Road, Monroe, NC 28112
Tour times: Reservations required.
Name a baby
Happy Hills is looking for help naming the two cirias to be born next month. The current herd has names such as Sapphire, Mopsy, Sweet Pea, Shoshone, Incan, Ivanhoe, Gracie, Vulcan, Bambi and Moon Dancer. What do you think? Email suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan Doyle lives in Rock Hill.