Alpacas on alert

Meet some of the denizens of Blackberry Hill Alpacas, a Saks farm business owned by Debbi Merrill.

Cappuccino, Cocoa and Casper stood in the door of a barn in Saks on Tuesday, placidly chewing their cud, as 12 other alpacas sat behind them.

“They’re defenseless animals,” said Debbi Merrill, owner of Blackberry Hill Alpacas. She said alpacas have two means of defense: spitting or running away.

Twelve years ago, Merrill developed an interest in alpacas and purchased three for her farm. Now, the farm consists of 17 alpacas on 60 acres of land. People from across the community come to visit the alpaca farm every year.

Often confused with llamas, alpacas are indigenous to Peru. In the 1980s, the animals were brought to the U.S., where people began to breed them.

There are two breeds of alpacas, suri and huccaya. Merrill said suri alpacas have afro-like fleece, while the huccaya fleece is similar to dreadlocks.

Merrill said she and her husband, Hank, plan to expand the business this year by building a pavilion and gazebo on the property. She said she wants to eventually hold weddings and other large events on the property.

Merrill hopes the pavilion will be ready by the farm’s 2018 open house on Sept. 22. A thousand people attended the open house last year.

Merrill said taking care of the animals now is a full-time job.

“We’re really tied to the barn,” Merrill said. Either she or her husband must visit the barn every day.

“If we go away together, it’s hard to find an alpaca sitter,” Merrill said, laughing.

Merrill grew up with horses, but made the shift to alpacas 12 years ago.

“When we bought the land, it had a big barn and we had to have somebody live in the barn,” she said. “I didn’t want to do horses again, so I got alpacas.”

She bought her first alpaca for $15,000. However, Merrill said, due to changes in the market over the years alpacas can now be bought for as little as $500.  

Merrill said alpacas are nothing like horses. Whereas one horse needs an acre of land, one acre is enough for 10 alpacas.

Merrill does not breed or sell her alpacas, but rather sees them as a big family.

“This is their home. This is their herd,” she said. “I didn’t think like that when I had horses.”

Because visits to the farm are free to the public, Merrill said they make profits from the alpaca fleece and a store on the property.

The 17 alpacas are sheared every April, after a full year of growing out their fleece. Merrill sends the alpaca fleece either to fiber shows and competitions or to New Era Fiber in Tennessee, where it is made into yarn.

Knitters, crocheters and artists who only use natural materials buy the alpaca fleece throughout the year.

Merrill said the fleece can be expensive, depending on its quality: As alpacas get older, their fleece fibers get thicker, making it a lower quality.

She sells her alpaca yarn for $7 an ounce. While Merrill didn’t know how many ounces of yarn could be produced from a single alpaca, she said the amount varies from animal to animal, depending on the type of alpaca.

This year, Merrill spent hours picking out dirt and grain from the fine fleece of one of the alpacas, Teddy, so she could send it to a fiber arts show in Tennessee.

Merrill said the profits from the fleece are not enough to keep the farm running until the next shearing, so she opened a shop on the property six years ago.

“It was an accidental store,” Merrill said. She didn’t intend to open a store on the property, but when the farm had its first open house nearly seven years ago, a reporter wrote that a store was open on the farm and people started showing up.

“It worked out really good,” Merrill said.

Merrill sells different products in the store, ranging from stuffed animals made of alpaca fleece or hats made of alpaca yarn. Prices for the products range from $4 to $50. She also has a partnership with women in Peru, who send over different products to sell in the store.

Merrill often travels to different shows throughout the year, setting up booths to sell her items or entering her alpaca fleece into fiber shows.

Her alpacas have won 104 ribbons in total, all of which are displayed in the store.

“I told my husband we need to extend the store because I’m running out of wall space,” she said.

Staff Writer Allison Preslar: 256-600-8688. On Twitter: @APreslar_Star