You know life is good when it’s 75 degrees outside, the sun is still up late in the day, and you’re surrounded by alpacas. That’s precisely how I spent my Tuesday afternoon—and I didn’t even have to leave Middletown.
I hopped in a car with two fellow sophomores and took a short ride to the Summer Brook Valley Alpaca Farm, about four miles away from campus. One of my friends was on the fence about visiting the farm—“everyone’s chilling on Foss!”—but the alpacas ultimately won out because, well, they’re alpacas.
We were warmly greeted by Roberta (Bobbie) Tundermann, who owns the farm with her husband, Len. Close behind her was Daisy, one of her two dogs, who was equally enthusiastic in welcoming us.
“We have two dogs and four cats,” Bobbie said as we walked. “Most fiber people, I find, have almost as many animals in the house as they have outside of the house.”
Fiber people? Well, as we were about to learn, alpacas are known for their fleece, which is soft, durable, and hypoallergenic. The alpacas at Summer Brook are sheared once a year, and their fiber is spun into yarn and woven into fabric.
We got down to the barn, which Len Tundermann built himself. There, we got our first glimpse of the alpacas—a few of them were milling about in the grass outside the barn. Surprisingly, the first barn resident Bobbie introduced us to wasn’t an alpaca at all.
“This is a llama,” she explained, gesturing toward one of the taller animals. “His name is Gumby; he guards the boy alpacas. And then you see the other llama there? That’s Thunder, and he’s the protector of the girls.”
She explained that the difference between llamas and alpacas is that llamas have large, banana-shaped ears, while alpacas have small, oval (or sometimes rounded) ears.
Because the Tundermanns selectively breed the alpacas, they keep the males and females separate. To ensure this, the farm is partitioned into several sections. Sure enough, when we walked past the interior section of the barn, there were five female alpacas, fenced off from the rest.
“Alpaca females like to be pregnant all the time,” Bobbie said. “They’re really good moms.”
As we were getting acquainted with the alpacas, we also met two of the people who help hold down the fort at Summer Brook Farm. Bonnie introduced us to Doug Braelford, the farm manager, and his wife, Therese Spencer, the farm’s fiber manager.
“We couldn’t run the farm without them,” Bonnie said.
We made our way to the other end of the barn, went through a gate, and suddenly, we were surrounded by alpacas. Some of them came right up to us, and we got to pet them. They were unbelievably soft.
In the words of Gabriel Musikant ’15, “It’s like they have sweaters growing out of their bodies!”
There were also two sheep, who were weighed down with fleece and covered in hay and grass.
“This is Cookie and this is Coco…they always make themselves a mess,” Bobbie said. “These are miniature sheep; they’re called baby dolls, and they’re a rare, old breed. You can see that they’re already starting to lose some of their fiber, because they can’t wait to be sheared.”
Bobbie explained the difference between alpaca wool and sheep wool.
“Sheep are what we call greasy,” she said. “But if you touch an alpaca, you don’t feel any grease at all. It’s that grease that people are allergic to when they’re allergic to wool, so people who are allergic to sheep wool are not allergic to alpaca wool.”
Alpaca wool is also five times warmer than sheep wool, so it’s very useful for sweaters and socks—especially for people who do a lot of work outside. The alpacas and sheep get shorn once a year, either in May or June. Shearing day this year is on May 18.
Bobbie introduced us to a bunch of the alpacas at once, and her affection for them was clear.
“That’s Mufasa, he’s a baby; and this is Rory, who’s a kissy girl—she’s coming up to you to give you a kiss,” she said. “This is Sasha, and that’s little Duffy—he’s not old enough to be with the boys yet. And this is Ella—I’m pretty sure she’s pregnant for the first time.”
We learned that alpacas are becoming more and more popular lately—especially among people who wouldn’t necessarily identify as farmers.
“The largest groups of professionals that own alpaca farms—and it’s almost always professionals—are doctors, lawyers, and teachers,” Bobbie said.
Bobbie, a retired school psychologist with a Ph. D., and Len, who is a town planner in Vernon, have been working with alpacas for six years. She noted that alpacas are relatively low-maintenance, and that they are more gentle than many other farm animals.
Some Wesleyan students have already discovered the alpaca farm for themselves—they have visited either for school projects or to take a break from classes and tests.
“There was a girl who was here every weekend for a month,” Bobbie recalled. “She was doing a report for some science class about animals, and she tracked one alpaca for a month or so. She sat and was writing notes and everything, and little Cookie, the sheep, just sat with her the whole time. She fell in love with her.”
Bobbie hopes that more Wesleyan students will come to visit the farm.
“Any Wesleyan student has got free permission to call and come over during exam week,” she said. “I know they bring you dogs and all kinds of things…but it’s our pleasure to let you students go down and just mingle with the alpacas and hug them and pet them.”
After hanging out with the alpacas for a while as they ate—and narrowly avoiding being spat on—it was time for us to get going. We said goodbye to the animals and went inside the house, where the Tundermanns have a store products made from alpaca wool for sale. Socks and teddy bears are their most popular items, but they also sell sweaters, finger puppets, and the yarn itself.
We didn’t buy anything, but before we left, Bobbie gave me an awesome T-shirt that says “I love alpacas!” on the front. I will wear it proudly.