It was a sunny morning crowned by wispy clouds, a gentle breeze drifting across the fields and birds chirping in the trees — and the Little Brothers and Sisters at the Abbey were in a good mood.
You could tell because they were humming.
They weren’t humming in unison. They weren’t even humming a song. It was just random, assorted humming — but it sounded wonderful, just the same.
“No matter how crazy the world is, no matter how fed up with everything you might get, if you listen to the humming, in five minutes everything will be OK,” promised Ruth Kinkade.
No, this isn’t your typical abbey. And these are not your typical monks and nuns.
They’re alpacas. And the Abbey is what Kinkade named her ranch after she retired from real estate and finally realized her lifelong dream of owning a hobby farm. The animals — 18 alpacas as well as “horses, a dog, cats and one giant macaw” — are the Abbey’s Little Brothers and Sisters.
Why the abbey theme? “I like the look of abbeys,” said Kinkade, who designed her home to resemble one, with a shrug.
She originally was going to raise goats with the intention of producing cheese, but then she saw the expressive face of an alpaca and it was love at first sight.
“They should come with a warning: We will steal your heart away,” she said.
Her “retirement” is more in name than in practice. She not only runs the farm, but she spins the alpaca fleece into yarn and then knits it into scarves, gloves, hats and other items that she sells online (www.theabbeyalpacas.com). She does it all by hand, including felting, in which alternating layers of fleece are kneaded together.
How does she know how long to keep kneading? “When you start to get blisters, it’s time to stop,” she said.
Alpacas often are confused with llamas, Kinkade said. While both are part of the biological family Camelidae — camels — they have little in common. Llamas are much bigger (300 to 400 pounds), are used as pack animals and are prone to spit when unhappy. Alpacas average about 125 pounds, too small to be a work animal, tend to be meek and hum when they’re happy.
“They’re shy, like deer; if you approach them, they run away,” Kinkade said. “They don’t bite, and they have padded hoofs, almost like boxing gloves. If they do kick you, it stings a little, but that’s it. I’ve never been left black and blue.”
Kinkade, 70, launched the Abbey 10 years ago after closing her Twin Cities real estate company, Welcome Home Realty. She bought 61 acres near Hutchinson, Minn. As soon as a barn was built, she bought two alpacas. The house hadn’t been finished yet, so for the first five months, she drove twice a day from her home in Bloomington (an hour each way) to care for the animals.
“I didn’t mind,” she said of all the time spent commuting. “I love taking care of them.”
Despite having spent years dreaming about owning a farm, she knew very little about farming and even less about alpacas.
“I read a lot of books,” she said. “And I called other alpaca farmers — there weren’t that many of them then; now there are about 95 of them in Minnesota — and everyone was more than willing to give advice.”
She found a hired hand, Tod Fries, who was well-acquainted with alpacas. “Seventeen years,” he said of his work experience.
And, of course, there was that age-old mode of education — trial and error. “That can be a very tough thing,” Kinkade admitted. “It took five years for me to really know what I’m doing.”
Once the least knowledgeable alpaca farmer in the state, she now is one of the industry leaders. In 2008, she launched the Minnesota Alpaca Expo, an annual show that displayed 600 animals last year. The alpacas are judged on everything from appearance to the fineness of their fleece — the finer the better.
Kinkade’s alpacas are all of championship show quality, meaning that each one is worth about $10,000. “But you can get one that’s not show quality for as little as $500,” she said. “And one sold last year at nationals for $168,000.”
Fleece prices also vary widely, depending on its quality and the way you want to get it: raw (the dirt has been removed, but it’s otherwise straight off the animal), spun into yarn or made into clothing. She sells her raw fleece for $6 an ounce. “I get requests from some customers for fleece from a specific animal,” she said.
More than livestock
The alpacas “are not pets,” she insisted. But it’s clear that, at least at the Abbey, they aren’t typical livestock, either. Kinkade repeatedly refers to them as “my babies,” and she designed her house so that it looks out over the two barns — one for alpacas and the other for horses — and the adjoining pastures.
“I want to see all my animals all the time,” she said.
She talks a lot about “the wonder of the alpaca,” and there are a lot of things included under the umbrella of that term. They range from the factual — “Their fleece is seven times warmer than wool, softer than cashmere and completely hypoallergenic,” Kinkade noted — to more, let’s say, down-to-earth matters: “They go to the bathroom in one spot, and they all use the same spot, so cleanup is wonderful.”
The animals are shorn once a year when temperatures start to rise. Unlike their desert-dwelling camel cousins, alpacas prefer chilly conditions.
“They’re from the Andes,” Kinkade said of the animals’ heritage. “They love the cold. It’s the heat that’s the issue. In the summer, we fill the barns with fans. And we put out soaker hoses, and they lie on them.”
One alpaca can produce enough fleece each year to make about 10 adult-size sweaters, Kinkade said. Alpacas have a life span of about 20 years, but their fleece production tends to deteriorate after 12 years or so. Many farmers get rid of their animals at that point, some even selling them for meat. But the Little Brothers and Sisters have a home for life.
“I didn’t get into this business to raise food,” Kinkade said emphatically. “We even kept a chicken that quit laying eggs. You’ve heard the saying: There are two kinds of chickens, layers or fryers. Ours are layers or friars.”