Since the last few posts for Suri week have been more text-heavy than picture heavy, I've tried to include more pictures in this post about my visit to River Hill Ranch - lots of alpaca photos ahead!
After speaking to both Liz and Margaret about these exceptional animals and the production side of manufacturing and dyeing yarn from the fiber, I knew that I wouldn't be able to provide a really comprehensive look at Suri alpaca without visiting a farm that specializes in raising them. I asked Liz if she had any suppliers in my area, and she told me pretty quickly that I simply had to visit the River Hill Ranch, located in Richmond, Kentucky.
I work every day in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is about four hours away from Lexington (and only an hour North of Nashville.) When I was in elementary school, my family lived in Georgetown, Kentucky, for awhile, so that area of the country feels a lot like home to me. If you've never been, Kentucky is absolutely one of the most beautiful states in the nation you can visit. Rolling hills are graced with green grass, horses, and a variety of plants and flowers. When I was little, you could drive for miles through tobacco fields, their arm-length leaves and sweet smell guiding you around each curve of country road. The country roads (and the beautiful stone fences that line them) are still intact -- the tobacco has made it's way out, for most farms.
You take a long stretch of highway South of the city, then turn off onto winding country back roads, following a creek bed along the edge of open hills beneath a curtain of greenery. Break out into sunshine at the top of the hill and a valley lays below you, dotted with farm houses and alpacas. Suri alpacas.
River Hill Ranch is run by Alvina Maynard and her husband. Alvina felt the calling to become an alpaca rancher after watching a commercial for National Alpaca Farm Day. A member of the US Air Force (now reserve), former country-girl and Californian (weird combination, right?), Alvina convinced her husband that starting an alpaca ranch was the right thing to do. Through raising Suris, she connected with both Liz and Margaret and has begun the work of developing a herd geared towards fineness and fiber dye-ability. You'll notice that many of the animals in these pictures are on the lighter end of the spectrum (and you may even spot a goat!)
The River Hill Ranch focuses on all aspects of alpaca farming in an environmentally respectful and animal-conscientious way. Alpacas are grazing animals, and the two herds -- one male, one female -- travel the acreage of Alvina's farm (and possibly some nearby farmland in the future.) Alpacas contribute to the livelihood of the River Hill Ranch in a variety of ways. While grazing, they work up soil that otherwise would go undisturbed, interrupting invasive root systems. Alvina's alpacas often graze with chickens -- the two populations in co-existence help lower parasite counts in both animals.
Baby alpacas' first shearing, the finest and typically longest fleece, will be sent off to makers who specialize in high-end dolls. Suri alpaca is a much sought-after material for doll hair, since it comes in both dyeable colors and a natural range of browns from strawberry blonde to deep auburn (especially Blythe, if any of you are fans!) The adult animals' fiber is graded and sent off to become yarns for Alvina's own farm stands (you can see the upcoming schedule here), and for other yarn companies working with alpaca fiber, like Salt River Mills (Liz's company) and Little Gidding Farms. In fact, Alvina has some of Margaret, Sue and Liz's animals on-site! All grades of fiber are used -- River Hill Ranch's cozy shed-shop even has a large-scale spun yarn woven into a rug made from skirt, leg and neck fiber -- fiber typically too short to be used in yarn production. I have to say, it certainly is a lot softer than rug wool!
While I have not had a chance to try it myself, Alpaca meat is an important piece in the survival of Suri alpacas as a species. You can read about this aspect of the industry here, and I caution you not to jump to conclusions! As fiber people, it can often be hard for us to accept the idea of eating one of our fiber-producing friends, be they sheep, rabbits, goats or alpacas, but it's a necessary part of farm life that allows no part of the animal to be wasted. Alpaca meat has become a gourmet item on many menus, and knowing that any food can be raised and used locally (saving expensive and environmentally impacting travel across the continent) gives me hope that more Americans will begin adopting it in areas where alpacas are raised. While not every farm is a business, and some alpacas are more pets than livestock, the fiber industry counts on higher yield production farms like Alvina's to survive.
I, for one, am glad that there are farmers reviving the interest and increasing the availability of Suri Alpaca fiber in the US. Something over the last year that has become very important to me is low-impact, big difference production, and River Hill Ranch is doing just that. Going and meeting your farmers -- whether at a farm stand at your local market or by arranging a visit or tour -- is a wonderful way to educate yourself and feel connected to the person who makes the yarn that you love. I feel very blessed and happy to have had the opportunity to meet the determined people who can make my yarn dreams come true!
If you'd like to visit the River Hill Ranch in Richmond, KY, Alvina and her family do give tours! I got to see some adorable crias (baby alpacas) while I was visiting, and the farm shop is full of goodies, from manufactured socks using Suri fiber (these are crazy warm and amazing for hiking, I'm told) to hand-woven scarves and professionally manufactured garments (there was the most beautiful seamless dress!) Be sure to check out her show schedule this year, as Suri shearing season is underway -- you don't want to miss out on this year's crop of this fantastic, home-grown, luxury fiber.
I just couldn't sign off without telling you the cutest story Alvina told me while I was there -- Alpacas, when it's hot and sunny, will often lay down on their sides in the field. Since the herd here is guarded by Maremma sheep dogs, often in the middle of summer, all the alpacas will be laying around and the dog is the only one left standing. The first summer that Alvina raised alpacas, she looked out her window to see the whole herd flattened against the ground and the dog walking around, nudging each of them with her nose. The herd looked like they had all fainted in the night, and a worried alpaca farmer ran out, only to scare them up and away, confused about why their naps had been so rudely interrupted!