Our bit of western New York is cow country. Well not in the sense of the huge, wild west ranches; ours are old-fashioned small-scale dairy farms, like hill farms in Europe, many of which used to be prosperous and now struggle to make ends meet. But it’s still good to see the cows munching in the fields, covered in good, honest muck. It reminds me of how far we are from Manhattan. Except these days, it’s not just cows. Go down a country lane around here and you might see a very different animal, one that looks like a giant poodle that’s just had a blow-dry. Enter the alpaca – the Next Big Thing. Alpacas come from South America and their wool is supersoft. It almost slips through your hands. More to the point, you can get tax breaks from running a small farm and alpacas are easier and cheaper than cows. They’re smaller, don’t eat too much and you don’t have to milk them – just harvest their fleeces. Mind you, it might be a bit hard to get by on farming alpacas alone but they’re becoming a popular sideline.
Of course, this being America, it wasn’t going to be long before someone thought of “Alpaca Farm Days” when our local alpaca farms, with names like Hy-Haven and Smiling Moon, have an “open house” aiming, no doubt, to get punters interested enough to fork out for some pricey alpaca socks. Last Alpaca Farm Day I couldn’t resist. I set out for Never Ending Alpaca Farm , Jerry and Kathy Scutt’s place near us.“That name?” chuckled Jerry, who started the farm after he retired, “Know how it happened? When we were setting up, it was a hundred dollars for this and fifty dollars for that and my wife said,’ Is this ever going to end?’
Not a conventional fairytale then, though the Scutts’ 33 alpacas were charming. My favourite was “Evening Star”, jet black, with a curly top-knot, long, thin neck, long eyelashes and curiously long cloven hooves. Kathy struggled to hang on to two frisky youngsters, her arms clamped grimly round their necks, urging me to dig down into their fleecy flanks. “Like sticking your fingers into a deep-pile rug isn’t it?” It was. Three-week-old baby alpacas nosed around us. Alpacas hum – it’s the only sound they make. They hum to bond with their babies, who recognize their mother’s sound. They come in brown, black, beige, white, patchy – and grey, which is mostly good for socks. The Scutts shear the alpacas themselves, a complicated operation involving strapping them to a table. The lazy way is to hire a couple of beefy Australians for a day – yes, they even come out here. The Scutts agree that the alpacas are low-maintenance – coming from the high Andes, they have no problem with the harsh western New York winters. “Evening Star will come in covered in a layer of snow which won’t have melted, she’s so well insulated – she looks like a skunk, black and white.” Humid summer weather, which we get here quite a lot, is another matter. They don’t like that much. “We have to set up cooling fans for them”.
The big bucks come with selling the animals, which are no longer imported and can go for thousands of dollars. One fabled male Alpaca (not theirs, said Kathy ruefully) went at auction for, get it, 675,000 dollars.
I didn’t get the impression the Scutts are really in this for big bucks. Few western New York farmers are. It’s more like love. Jerry has a part time job at the local farm market and Kathy is a teaching assistant. Jerry built his own barn and fences, carved his own signs. “Young people these days just expect others to do things for them. They should spend time on a farm, where chores just have to get done.” He seemed deeply contented with life, “I’m far from the rat race here!”
Under the autumn leaves, Kathy had laid out a pot of hot chili, an American staple, fresh local cider and coffee, it being a blustery sort of day. I lingered a little, savouring their unusual little rural fairytale and promised I’d be back.