Fleecy friends

CAMANO ISLAND — The baby was less than three hours old when Ruthann McVicker brought her out to meet the girls.

Juney Moon, the mother, tagged along and hummed loudly while the others stepped away from their noon meal to get a good look.

Instead of oohs and ahhs, though, the girls just sniffed and licked the 18-pound newborn.

“Alpacas are very social,” said McVicker, the owner of Juney Moon.

People can learn why Juney was humming and have a chance to see her newborn at a free open house today and Sunday as part of the Stanwood-Camano Harvest Jubilee and National Alpaca Farm Days.

Alpaca ranchers McVicker, Alise Schmitt and Audrey Chadwell plan to be on hand to lead tours, give wool spinning demonstrations, help visitors feed the alpacas and answer questions from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. this weekend at their farm, 1190B N. Arrowhead Road, Camano Island.

More than 55 alpacas from three herds live at the farm. The animals, native to the Andes mountains in South America, are half the size of llamas, but like them, are related to camels.

On the first weekend in June each year, before it gets too warm, the alpaca herds are shorn of their heavy, valuable fleece, which is then sold to local textile artists, woolen mills and even fashion designers such as Armani.

Alpaca fleece is softer that sheep’s wool and more durable than cashmere. It insulates well, but is light, Schmitt said.

The stud males with full cheek fleece are separated from the females except during breeding time.

The males spit at each other and act tough, but with their bodies shorn close they look like bobble-headed creatures out of a Dr. Seuss book.

The females and the young alpacas share a feeding pen and field on the other side of the farm. Inquisitive and friendly, they enjoy eating from their owners’ hands and welcome the company of children.

“Alpaca females are very maternal and family oriented,” Schmitt said. “They appeal to women because of their manageable size and gentle temperament.”

Washington is second only to Ohio in the number of alpaca farms in the state, Schmitt said.

The three families run the Arrowhead Road farm cooperatively.

Chadwell, 22, is a recent graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco. She and her mother, Cheryl Elliott, own the property and hope to open a woolen mill in the farm’s large storage building in the coming year.

“I’m a city girl and so new to this, but the possibilities for fashion using alpaca fleece are very exciting to me,” Chadwell said.

Schmitt, 52, and her husband, John, operate under the name Genesis Alpacas. They have been breeding alpacas for 12 years. The Marysville couple hope to eventually own their own farm, but for now they have their day jobs, he as a Boeing engineer and she as a Providence hospital nurse. Schmitt spins alpaca wool from the harvested fleeces and then knits and crochets with the wool.

McVicker, who runs her side of the business under the name JRAM Alpacas, moved to the Camano Island farm earlier this year when she sold her farm in the Silvana area. McVicker, 68, who also crochets, is the primary rancher and performs most of the day-to-day chores at the alpaca farm.

“My kids say I work too hard, but I love it,” McVicker said.

One of the highlights of the open house will be the chance to touch and look at alpaca fleeces and watch them being spun into yarn.

“The alpacas have it easy,” McVicker said. “It’s their job to eat, nap and grow fleece.”

Four other local alpaca farm owners are scheduled to welcome the public during the weekend: Mark and Rebecca Suryan at 424 153rd. Drive SE in the Machias area; Martin and Kim Shelman at 481 Dan St. off E. Camano Drive; Anne Brooks at 12918 150th Street N.E. off Burn Road near Arlington; and Laura and John Coussens at 13218 228th St NE in the Arlington Heights area.

In addition to National Alpaca Farm Days, the fifth-annual Harvest Jubilee Festival and Farm Tour is today. Start at Skagit Farmers Supply Country Store parking lot 8815 272nd St. NW, Stanwood, where you’ll find tour maps, exhibits, demonstrations, vendors, live music, food and refreshments.

Tour hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. A pancake breakfast will be served from 8 to 10 a.m. on the day of the tour at the Stanwood Community and Senior Center, 7430 276th St. NW. Admission to breakfast is $5 or $3 for ages 12 and younger. There also is a classic car show from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the center parking lot.

See www.harvestjubilee.org for a printable farm tour map or start at one of the farms to take this self-guided tour.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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