After the economy began to sputter in 2007, Sue Morgan, a home-care nurse by trade, and her engineer husband, George, talked privately about getting out of the miniature llama breeding business.
They didn’t, and now they’re seeing a slow but steady rebound for Gemini Mini Llamas, their 10-acre operation on the outskirts of Hastings.
The farm — home to dozens of llamas of various colors, sizes and temperaments with mythological-sounding names like Hermione, Ivory’s Legacy and Rorschach — opened in 2006.
After years of raising horses and goats, Sue Morgan said they were looking for a new challenge.
“As my kids got older, I thought maybe I could have animals again. And, originally, I was interested in alpacas,” she said on a recent spring morning.
But, she said, “I thought the market [for alpacas] was already flooded.”
With little experience in the fine art of breeding llamas, she and her husband started small. Literally.
The Morgans bred and sold several miniature llamas, which are about three-fourths the size of a standard llama, but still larger than its close cousin, the alpaca.
While the gentle and affectionate creatures, long used as beasts of burden throughout South America, still aren’t high on most people’s postrecession wish lists, Morgan said that business had picked up recently. The animals mostly are kept as pets or a source of wool.
“I feel like a product that is not something that people need to have … anything like that is going to come back much slower,” Morgan said as she led a reporter on a tour of a stable where several llamas were lined up for their annual shearing.
As she talked, a group of family members and volunteers picked through the wool that drifted to the ground, sorting it by texture.
Most of the fiber will be shipped to the Pacific Northwest Llama Fiber Cooperative, a “wool pool” that helps its members market and sell their fleece. The rest will be used as mulch or sent to a fiber mill in Vermillion, Minn., to be spun into yarn, she said.
All told, the farm produces about 150 skeins of wool a year, Morgan said.
After getting a trim, a 250-pound Argentine llama named Cha Cha Cha reluctantly followed Morgan outside, away from the rest of the herd. Several times the llama stopped and dug her padded feet into the floorboards while Morgan tugged on her leash. Finally, the animal relented.
Llamas, Morgan explained, are sociable animals that crave the companionship of other llamas.
More people are taking them on as pets, Morgan said, which might explain why the market has recovered faster than expected.
Ann Barkley, who along with the Morgans is a member of the Midwest Llama Association, a regional organization of llama and alpaca breeders from the Upper Midwest (30 are from Minnesota), said that the industry hasn’t fully recovered from the recession.
“It hasn’t been as robust as it was before the crash,” said Barkley, co-owner of Prairie Doctor Farm in Marine on St. Croix, who started breeding “classic” llamas two decades ago after moving from St. Paul. Back then, she said, “animals were selling for a couple thousand dollars and you just don’t see that anymore.
“I think there’s a lot of overbreeding. It’s a supply-and-demand thing,” she said in a recent phone interview.
Some of the novelty of owning one has worn off, she says.
Still, she says, much of the llama’s continued popularity is due to its sartorial appeal: the cozy wool is used to make hand-knit sweaters and scarves.
“A lot of people raise llamas just for their fiber, or for pets, or for their kids to do 4-H with them,” said Barkley, who runs the 33-acre farm with her partner, Jane Sells.