George and Mary Hodson are living their dream life, thanks to a Dark Shaddow that crossed their path.
The Hodsons own Grand River Alpaca Farm, 982 Mechanicsville Road, Rock Creek. The farm provides their living. George, who worked in manufacturing, left the corporate world and all its stress and politics five years ago; Mary, formerly a radiation therapist, walked away from her medical career last year.
“It was quite a career change for both of us,” says George, who is in his early 40s. “We made some good decisions, overcame the bad ones and had some luck come our way, and the business has really taken off.”
The Hodsons, who have a herd of 75 alpacas, started with just three animals and a big dream 10 years ago. They first became interested in them as a result of a newspaper article. In 1997, as they were preparing to move into their new home, they attended Fiberfest at Lake Farmpark and touched their first alpacas. They spoke with breeders, joined the Alpaca Owners and Breeders association, visited farms, attended seminars and, in March 1998, purchased their first three Huacaya alpacas – a black bred female and two young males.
There are 22 recognized natural colors of alpaca, but George and Mary decided to focus on just black and gray. That desire led them to an unproven, 14-month-old male at a farm in New York. Two other breeders were interested in the animal, as well, but the Hodsons braved a snowstorm and got first chance at buying it.
“I saw him and I knew we had something special,” George says.
The animal, Dark Shaddow, represented a new blood line and a costly investment. George says it was a great investment, however. Dark Shaddow was named 2006 Reserve Herdshire of the Year; his offspring have earned 40 champion awards.
George says the animal was just the break they needed to transform their part-time farm into a full-time operation.
“He’s really put us on the map,” says George.
The Hodsons’’ alpaca success story is one of many that will be shared this weekend as more than 1,000 alpaca farmers across the United States open their operations to the public for National Alpaca Farm Days, Saturday and Sunday. Designated by the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, the even is being held to raise awareness of alpacas and the economic potential they hold.
According to the group’s Web site, there are 112 alpaca participating farms in Ohio, five of them in Ashtabula County. But there are many small farms raising alpacas that won’t be involved in the event. Geauga County leads the state with alpaca farms, and Ohio leads the nation.
Most local alpaca farms were started in the past five years by rural land owners looking for a good return from their land.
“The return on the investment is very high,” says Doreen Callaghan, who owns the Awesome Alpaca Ranch in Kingsville with her husband Paul and father, Ed Detrick.
In six years, their initial herd of six has grown to 23. Doreen says they started to see a return on their investment in just three years. At this point, they are still building the herd, but the business is strong enough to provide full-time employment for Doreen. She says it has been that way since the herd reached a size of 15 to 16 animals.
Breeding fees create cash flow without selling animals – the fee for Dark Shaddow is $5,000, for example. Another revenue stream is the fiber, generally considered the highest quality fiber from any animal. Soft as silk, the fiber lacks the lanolin found in sheep wool, which can cause an allergic reaction in some people.
Alpacas are sheared in the spring. George says the amount of fiber produced in this country is very small. He estimates that if all the fiber from the nation’s farms were combined, it wouldn’t be enough to keep a mill busy for an entire day. The fiber must be pooled and sold by a cooperative, although some farms, like K&J; Alpaca in Geneva, are branching out into spinning the wool. Karen Bagshaw, who owns the farm with her husband James, will have a demonstration of carding and spinning this weekend. They will also have alpaca yarn for sale.
Area alpaca operations also capitalize on the agri-tourism trend by including their operations on bus tours. The Hodsons received a couple of hundred visitors through this route last year. They are located near an apple orchard and in the Grand River winery region, which makes for good tourism synergy.
Recognizing the retail potential, the Hodsons and a farm they’ve served as mentors to, Ramblin Rose Alpacas, in Monroe Township, have opened gift shops at their farms. Mary Hodson runs the gift shop at Grand River. She sells bears made of alpaca fur and all manner of clothing accessories – socks, hats, mittens, gloves, sweaters and coats.
Unique to their shop are heavy hunting socks made from the dark alpaca fiber raised on their farm. The Hodsons found a small U.S. mill willing to do the limited production run of the socks, which sell for just under $40 a pair.
This weekend is the grand opening of the Ramblin Rose Farm’s gift shop, owned by Terry and Glenda Lowe. The Lowes are California residents who moved to Ashtabula County to be closer to friends and family, and to take advantage of the lower cost of property and living. Like the Hodsons, the Lowes specialize in gray and black alpacas. They have seven animals and are full-time farmers who are returning to a lifestyle they knew as children. His grandfather had a farm and Glenda grew up on a dairy farm.
In addition to the animals they sell, the Lowes have found opportunity in raising hay for area alpaca farms. About 40 of the 100 acres of their farm are devoted to an all-grass hay.
“The alpacas are pretty easy keepers,” says Terry Lowe. “They don’t require a lot of high-protein hay.”
The Lowes are assisted on the farm by their youngest son. They are planning on turning the day-to-day operation of the farm over to their oldest son when he retires from the Army several years from now. That would free Terry and Glenda to concentrate on the fun parts of the business, showing their animals and representing the farm at alpaca events across the nation.
Doreen Callaghan sees the travel involved in alpaca farming as one of its benefits. It’s not unusual to go to the Western states to purchase or breed an animal, or attend the show. “What’s nice about the alpaca business is you don’t need a specific area,” she says. “People are willing to travel quite a bit to either purchase animals or for breeding purposes.”
Ohio’s climate is ideal for the animals, which are native to Peru. George Hodson says the animals do not like extremes in temperature, and Ohio generally fits that requirement. Their space demands are also quite modest; an acre of pasture, when supplemented with hay and grain, can support five to eight animals.
Getting into the business can be expensive, however. George Hodson says the average cost for a bred female is $17,000. Males run from $5,000 to $100,000.
Demand for the animals is strong, ensuring a good price for the foreseeable future. But it is not a business to enter into lightly. The Hodsons call it a lifestyle because it does tie owners to the farm unless they are willing to hire help while traveling to purchase stock or attend shows.
“It’s a great lifestyle, but like any farming, it is 24 hours a day. You can’t go home and shut it off,” George Hodson says.
The up side of that is that with the farm in the back yard of their home, it’s a very short commute to work for the Hodsons.
It also takes a willingness to ride out the difficult times and inevitable setbacks. For example, for a year after they purchased Dark Shaddow, the animal refused to breed. The Hodsons waited anxiously for Dark Shaddow to perform so they could fulfill the stud-service obligations they had made with other farms. Getting through those anxious months took determination and a willingness to go along for the ride.
“We were going to make this work,” says George Hodson. “We felt very confident we could do this and make it our living and our lifestyle.” The Hodsons say it took a while to adjust to working together and having their home do double duty as their workplace. Mary handles the medical care of the herd and the store operations, which include telephone and Internet sales. George focuses on the physical labor, planning, marketing and bookkeeping.
“We split up the manure management side,” says Mary. “It takes us about 21⁄2 hours in the evening.”
The Hodsons see opportunity even in this aspect of the business. George is pursuing a grant to build equipment that would process the manure into high-quality fertilizer.
While the financial rewards of alpaca farming can be very attractive, the intangible benefit of working with an attractive, personable work force can’t be forgotten.
“It’s a very appealing animal,” says George Hodson. “People fall in love with them. They are very intelligent and easy to take care of.”
“They are just a very, very pleasant animal,” says Rebecca Seibert of Alpacas of Brydlewood Farm in Kingsville. “They brighten my day; if I’ve had a bad day at work, I can come home and they give this unconditional love.”
Area farms that raise these docile, friendly creatures hold open house this weekend
George and Mary Hodson are living their dream life, thanks to a Dark Shaddow that crossed their path.
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