When we moved to our little farm seven years ago I felt like I was coming home.
I was raised on a dairy farm in Mendocino County and I guess I'm a farmer at heart. For example, I asked my husband, Jim, for an industrial-grade leaf blower for Valentines. You can forget chocolates, roses, and lacy cards, as far as I'm concerned, because when I opened that BR420C STIHL Magnum™ Backpack Commercial Leaf Blower on Valentines Day morning I was thrilled!
For Christmas Jim gave me a DeWalt Cordless Tool Power Pack. It was the best Christmas Present I could have received!Little House on the Prairie
Jim and I first met during my first year in college, when I was still fresh off the farm. I grew up with animals and Jim grew up with computers. Before I met him I hardly knew what a freeway was. Our farm was a small subsistence place along Highway 1. All we had was one North/South road and 2,000 acres between our lane and the next neighbor.
On weekday mornings when I was growing up I rode my horse to our two-room little red schoolhouse.
My dad took off before I was a year old and left seven of us for my mom to raise without any support. My childhood was like Dolly Parton’s, if you can believe her ballads. We didn’t have nice clothes. We had only a single pair of shoes. Every year mom would give us each a new pair that had to last us for the subsequent year. We never had a TV. In fact, back in those days Mendocino County only had two TV stations, both of them usually full of snow.
We were growing up poor with nothing but our crops, our animals, our neighbors, and ourselves. But my childhood was not deprived. Even now, when I look back on those days I believe that we were rich, in the most important sense. We ate what we grew. We entertained ourselves by our work and by our imagination. We belonged to the great cadences of seasons and weather. We were living as human beings were designed to live.
Jim, on the other hand, had grown up in Santa Barbara surrounded by computers and other electronic devices. Our meeting was a true clash of cultures. I think at the beginning Jim was fascinated by me as some alien life-form. I was playing Mork to his Mindy.
Catching Visions of an Authentic Lifestyle
Jim was especially fascinated by my attitude that the way I was raised represented the most authentic lifestyle. "This is how life was meant to be lived," was my message to him whenever we were near a farm or a ranch.
Jim didn’t know anything about farms, but as he started hanging around me he began learning. We would go on amazing family trips together to New Zealand and Australia. We would live on farms, doing "farm-stays" for a month at a time in those places. Our visits were always great!
I would always slide right into the role of cowgirl and do things like, for example, herding sheep on horseback on a New Zealand sheep ranch right along with the hands. I think Jim began to get the idea during those visits. He gradually commenced to understand my vision and began to realize how life lived out in the weather with animals has a quality that people born and bred in cities completely miss.
So in 1998, Jim bought us our little Brentwood ranch. This was his Green Acres but fortunately for him I am no Zha Zha Gabor.
Farmers learn how to do such things as build cabinets, put mud on drywall, build fences, and install sewer, well, and electrical systems. I believe with all my heart the message I keep telling my kids — that the only limitations we have are the ones we impose upon ourselves.
Life on our farm is intensely satisfying and rewarding far beyond any hopes of generating income. I feel that I receive tenfold from what I put into our little farm. Sometimes the work is hard, but I would never want to live in any other way.
Lauren's 4H Project With Our First Alpacas
Since we are farmers, we must get up before the sun each morning. We have to do such chores as cleaning the stalls and turning animals out for free grazing. We have to attend to our rabbits, chickens, ducks, and our single rooster. We collect the eggs — eight a day, which is plenty for our needs with some extra to share with others.
We really are living the good life in our little ranch retreat. Our children are being raised right along with our animals in an environment that encourages the healthy development of living creatures. We’re passing our passion for the land and for animals on to our children. They are active with their pets and their 4-H projects.
Research has shown that kids exposed to growing up with animals tend to develop traits of kindness, gentleness, tolerance, and industry. They develop outward focus rather than self-centeredness. Our animals are teaching our children discipline. The kids are collecting eggs from chickens, riding their ponies, and taking care of animals every day.
I had worked at Delta Sutter Hospital as an R.N. for a dozen years. Then made the decision to stay at home with the kids, since Jim was traveling so much. Nurses have to work weekends and holidays, so I just gave it up.
I discovered that a lot of my medical training applies directly to the challenges of healing animals and keeping them healthy. For example, when my horse was sick I was able to maintain IVs that supplied the medicine that brought her back to health. I have been able to combine my extensive experience of animals with my knowledge of medicine to keep our animals healthy. Last month I worked with the shearers, learned about toenails and teeth, and did over 50 vaccinations.
We’re often present with our children at birthings on our farm and assist in the miracle in whatever ways we can, laughing and marveling together as the newborn opens an eye and catches a first glimpse of the world.
When medicine finally becomes unable to cure, I also know how to use it to terminate an animal’s suffering. A case of Pigeon Fever attacked my horse’s kidneys and resisted all attempts we made to find a cure. Finally, the torment of my wonderful horse became impossible to bear so I used my medical knowledge to end her suffering.
I held her head in my arms as her time ran out, present to hand over one of our beloved animals to death, just as we try to be present to receive them at birth.
RAISING ALPACAS FOR LAUGHTER AND PROFIT
Our latest adventure on the farm is raising alpacas. The first alpacas were introduced into the US only in 1984. These animals, together with llamas, guanacos, and vicunas, are South American members of the Camelids family, which means that they are, in a sense, little American camels.
The alpacas are the smallest members of the species. Adults commonly weigh a mere 120-180 pounds. They are shy, soft-natured creatures. Their behavior reminds me of deer because when you approach them they act skittish, but inquisitive. Unlike deer, however, alpacas are herd animals, and will die if left alone. Also, unlike deer, they are true domestic animals and can be easily haltered, herded, and rounded up.
Alpacas are enormously fun to be around. One of our older animals, Jewel, always puts on an interesting show. Alpaca society is matriarchal and Jewel is the dominant female. She can be temperamental.
Our youngest animal is named Poco, short for Pocahontas. It is satisfying to watch how protective the adults will be of younger animals even when they are not their own. Jewel will protect Poco, but then will spit right at her if she gets out of line, even if, in Jewel’s opinion, she is merely standing too close to her.
Alpacas are wonderful companions. They have no odor; without lanolin their wool has no smell whatsoever. They don’t bark or scream. They are so quiet you forget they are around. Alpacas have the curious trait of communicating by humming. Depending upon its pitch, a hum can express alarm, excitement, happiness, or contentment. When most contented or at rest they won’t hum.
Alpacas must be kept separate by sex since they will breed like rabbits. The gestation period, however, is 11-12 months. In their natural habitat pregnant female alpacas have tremendous control over the time they give birth.
The weather on top of the Andes Mountains in Peru can be life-threatening so alpacas have developed the ability always to give birth in the sunny daytime at a peaceable moment. They will never deliver in the rain or cold, or if there is a threat.
Animal quality is determined by fleece and fiber shows. We send in samples to these as well as take the animals to halter shows, which look for things like good neck, good legs, and especially good fiber. An animal is judged according to very scientific and objective measures and standards. It is a very intriguing process.
The DNA for all the alpacas in the country is registered in a single registry. The registry was closed to any more imported animals in 1998. Closing the registry had the effect of raising the value of the animals, so the market is managed right at the top by bringing in only good animals and subsequently closing the registry when enough animals had been registered.
The stock is further improved by selective breeding. The animals currently in America are superior to their original imported forebears.
I give the Alpacas appropriate shots and vaccinations because they are new animals in our country and, consequently, haven’t yet been exposed to many of the local parasites and diseases. The newborns, called crias, are cute beyond belief. The children help with the delivery and learn about things that Nintendo or MTV never could teach them.
THE PROFIT IN ALPACA RANCHING
Research has shown that 83% of people who raise Alpacas have never previously raised livestock, so we had a head start at this point. We’ve been raising animals right along. I’ve been doing it more or less for my whole life.
You can become an alpaca rancher on a small ranch because you can run these at ten per acre, if you supplement their grazing with hay and chow. The economics can work out good on even a small property.
We believe that Alpacas provide an alternative to wineries for people wanting to live off the land when they have only a small piece of land to work with. This can be a profitable business, with numerous tax advantages. For example, breeding programs permit start-up costs to be deferred and capital gains to depreciate. No capital gains tax is assessed on newborns, until the animal is actually sold.
Alpacas are easy to maintain. Unlike cows, alpacas reserve a common area for their bathroom activities. Alpacas are also unlike cattle because they are light animals with pads instead of hoofs so they don’t tear up the soil. You never have to till their pasture.
Money is to be made from alpacas by marketing their wool, which is processed into extremely fine fiber, softer than cashmere. The material is also safer than cashmere for anybody with allergies. A scarf or sweater made from alpaca fiber is hypoallergenic because it lacks lanolin.
The other way to generate income from a herd of alpacas is to raise breeding stock. Top breeding animals are identified by research. We ship wool samples to a lab that reports on the characteristics of the fiber. Based on qualities such as density, crimp, luster, and staple length, the value of a single animal can vary by more than $30,000.
Like thoroughbred racehorses, one of the main business goals in raising alpacas is to develop breeders. Statistically there is only one in ten chance of any male becoming a herd sire, but when that happens, the animal can be sold for hundreds of thousands dollars.
The toughest part is setting up the business. Besides the obvious tasks of building a barn and putting in a fence, the genetics tracking requires a mountain of paperwork. You are required to match genotypes, bloodlines, and history.
We began our own herd with high-quality foundation stock. We surveyed the entire national market before buying our animals from Oregon. We began our herd with three females and two males. Two of the females are pregnant. We plan to increase the size of the herd until we are producing sufficient fiber and breeding stock to sustain our business.
Since Jim is a computer wiz, he maintains the website, and helps sell the products to the national market.
SHARING THE VISION AND THE LIFE
Besides the financial advantages, raising alpacas is a family-friendly business. The best thing about the business is the privilege of being able to share the work and the rewards with my family. We’re teaching a value system that a family can live by. We’re trying to recreate what we learned in New Zealand. We brought some of that way of life back to our little ranch with us.
Now we’ve created a small society that captures this good life that we set up as an ideal. We really have created a home in which we can work, relax, play, and laugh together.
I want to change people’s beliefs about animals — to love them, care for them, and respect them. We need to regard these, not just as "animals," but as living, breathing creatures with feelings and emotions.
I have a gift in calming animals. Our horses never run from us. Alpacas tend to be skittish, not as friendly as they could be. I want to use my skill to make our Alpacas come to people without fear.
We’re are hoping to propagate the tourism effect in our area. Some day we will provide farm-stays for travelers, similar to those we ourselves enjoyed in New Zealand. People will be able to engage in nature, take a picnic lunch and experience quality times with our wonderful animals.
I have already started a small country store on our property for people to be able to see and purchased the finished goods that come from our animals. People can see and touch the material. You can tell people that these products are superior, but when they actually rub the material against their skin, they feel the difference.
We wanted to get back to the 1940s kind of experience. New Zealand is a place where time seems to have stood still. We’re creating our own alternative reality in Brentwood. Jim’s life during most days consists of briefcases, computers, and software design meetings.
But in the evening he can retreat into the alternate reality we’re creating together. Jim sometimes goes from eating breakfast on Wall Street to eating dinner on our ranch — an enormous and magnificent change.