Launda Soper has shed a few tears recently at Alpacas of Willow Hill, where she lives and has raised alpacas for 13 years.
She started with 32 animals and was maintaining a herd of about 14 on the DeLand farm when her husband, Tom Soper, declared that alpaca farming isn’t for him.
“It was sell them or sell him,” Launda Soper said. She opted to keep her husband.
“After 35 years, it’s too hard to train another one,” she said with a laugh.
By the end of May, the remaining herd will be gone. April 15 marked the final spring shearing day, and the farm was hopping.
Dr. Andrew Johnston of Great Britain sheared the alpacas, trimmed their feet and filed their teeth. Adam Riley of Eustis assisted. Soper bought her first alpacas from Riley’s parents.
Fourteen-year-old Wyatt Hammerle of Lake Helen helped, too. He secured each animal’s kicking-in-protest back feet.
Several of the animals are owned by Maryanne and Joe Lewis, also of Eustis, but have been longtime boarders at the DeLand farm.
Maryanne Lewis also struggled with emotion. She and Joe live in a residential neighborhood and have had to sell their alpacas, too.
The crew rushed to finish with the shearing before predicted rain moved in. The swift and ever-wary animals were not especially compliant.
There was a silver lining.
Wyatt has bought three of Soper’s alpacas — two females, Kokoa and Kowgirl, as well as Kowgirl’s 6-month-old baby, called a cria.
Wyatt’s parents, Scott and Jenny Hammerle, own a 16-acre cattle ranch. Jenny is a sixth-generation Florida cattle rancher.
That type of ranching is not for Wyatt, his parents said.
“He wasn’t a fan of the cattle, sending them to market, but he wanted something,” Scott Hammerle said.
But the couple didn’t run right out and buy alpacas to fill their son’s urge.
Wyatt, who attends Florida Virtual School and plays hockey for Volusia County’s only hockey team, the Florida Stingrays, researched the animals. He studied ways to generate income from raising them, and paid for his first three.
He wants to increase that herd to 20, and ultimately have 1,000, he said.
“Eventually we’ll have to take a trip to Wyoming to one of the big ranches to study how they do things,” Jenny Hammerle said. “We jokingly said he would have to pick the one thing we know nothing about.”
She thought Wyatt would be a beef rancher, “like the rest of the family, but you have to respect what they want to do, let them pursue a dream, especially one that could be a successful business,” Hammerle said.
For now, Wyatt is thinking in terms of selling the sheared fiber to yarn-makers. Some raw fiber sells for $300 a bag, and a bag of fiber from one alpaca can yield 18-30 skeins of yarn, depending on the fleece, Launda Soper said.
Wyatt also is packaging the manure in burlap bags to sell as fertilizer.
“It’s low-odor, really beneficial, and the stock’s not going to slaughter,” Scott Hammerle said.
“Alpaca fertilizer improves the soil quality and its ability to retain water,” according to the website www.gardeningknowhow.com. “It is also good for plants, providing a fair amount of nitrogen and potassium and about average levels of phosphorus.”
Wyatt will start with the Lake Helen Farmers Market and sales on eBay, and will reach out to local garden clubs, his dad said.
Showing the animals is another possibility, but first he has to knock on some doors.
To join FFA, Wyatt would have to be enrolled in a school agriculture course.
Since he’s home-schooled, Wyatt said, he plans to approach 4-H about getting alpaca showing on the roster of exhibits at the Volusia County Fair & Youth Show.
“He’ll be the first alpaca-shower in 4-H if they’ll let him,” Scott Hammerle said.
Volusia County 4-H extension agent Laura Cash said the organization allows an alpaca project, but showing at the county fair is open only to those who raise cows, sheep, goats, swine, cavy (guinea pigs), rabbits and poultry.
“The Volusia County Fair does not currently have alpaca contests,” Cash said. “It’s something worth investigating.”
Jenny Hammerle said she has spoken to some of the Volusia County Fair board members, and her next step is to approach the director before the June 1 deadline to register for the fall fair.
Wyatt’s family, including his younger brother Rhett, 11, has been surprised by some of the animals’ behaviors.
For example: “They’re not affectionate,” Jenny Hammerle said, adding, “but that doesn’t bother Wyatt. They’re exactly as he knew they’d be.”
They are curious but somewhat aloof.
Wyatt spends time with his herd of three every day, his mom said. He continues to study, and be fascinated by the alpaca, a domesticated species of South American camelid.
He likes that these animals will not be sold to die.
Wyatt leaned over and placed his hand next to his mouth in a conspiratory gesture.
“I like how fluffy they are,” he said, grinning.
Though Launda Soper had an offer from a buyer in St. Augustine that was quadruple what Wyatt could afford, she chose to sell the alpacas to the budding young farmer.
“He’s the future of what the industry needs — young guys and girls who will do the research and keep the industry going,” Soper said. “This kid is phenomenal.”
The goal after shearing was to breed Soper’s light silver-gray tuxedo alpaca Chipper to both of Wyatt’s females. But the animals were nervous. The weather was deteriorating, and storms were expected.
“They can die from stress,” Soper said.
Another attempt would be made April 18, but the 90-degree day turned out to be too hot for such an activity.
A combination of exertion, heat and humidity could cause dangerous stress for the animals, which breed on the ground for 10-50 minutes, according to www.gatewayalpacas.com.
Jenny Hammerle said the heat also could prevent the female from ovulating and becoming pregnant.
Female alpacas will not ovulate until the act of breeding occurs, according to the website.
With the help of Chipper, Wyatt hopes to get a rare gray or rose-gray cria. Those colors yield high-dollar fiber.
“Only 5 percent of alpacas in the world are gray, and only 2 percent are rose-gray,” Launda Soper said.
The Hammerles will learn all of this together.
Even Rhett, who is less enamored with the animals than his older brother.
“I like them, but they’re filthy,” Rhett said. “They’re big dust mops.”
Mopping the way to a prosperous future, Wyatt hopes.