Time for an adventure? I’ll alpaca my bags. As the owner of an alpaca ranch, Matthew Varrell has heard that joke — and a few others — before. Alpacas, are undeniably quirk and adorable, so it’s no wonder tourists from as far away as Asia flock to Varrell’s Harvard Alpaca Ranch for photo ops and alpaca souvenirs. But there isn’t a lot of petting — Alpacas, as cuddly as they are, don’t like to be touched.
For visitors, the animals are a livestock novelty, but for Varrell and his wife, Amy, they’re an income stream, thanks to their breeding potential and the value of alpaca fiber. Although the alpaca boom of the early 2000s is over, they’re trending back up, thanks to creative alpaca repurposing. Need an alpaca for a birthday party? Alpaca summer camp? Alpaca corporate outing? Varrell has hosted a bachelorette party – he thought it would involve an alpaca dressed for strip-tease but it turned out to be much tamer — just a visit by the bride-to-be and her friends to the pasture.
The fiber market is also gaining traction. Last month, the herd at Harvard was shorn, yielding 145 pounds of raw fleece that is highly sought after because it’s soft, lightweight, warm, and naturally hypoallergenic. Varrell sends the shearings to a fiber coop and mill, where it’s processed into socks, boot inserts, hats, ornaments, dryer balls, mittens, gloves, and more. “The general rule of thumb for alpaca farmers seems to be that the fiber harvested from an animal should generate enough income to pay for the annual upkeep of that animal, not counting the cost of the land, taxes, and more,” says Varrell. He also sells “magic beans,” manure from the alpacas that is mostly pellets or “beans” and has a high concentration of nutrients to improve soil and water-retaining capacity.
While Varrell waxes poetic about the “incredibly relaxing and rewarding alpaca lifestyle,” he admits that they’re a 24/7 responsibility. “We don’t have a huge desire to take a break from the alpacas,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t mind a break from the accounting and marketing part of the business, but we knew what we were signing up for when we jumped into this.”
The Globe spoke with Varrell about life on the farm.
“It’s my understanding that the first animal was imported into the US [from South America] around the 1980s. They were originally a rich man’s hobby, for the lack of a better description. These animals are really cool looking and were sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at the time. If you owned a Ferrari, then you most likely owned an alpaca. Then at some point, alpacas fell out of favor and prices dropped. Certainly the market has changed now. We see small family farms and more emphasis on trying to build the fiber market, not just owning the animals as if they were like a high-end show dog.
“Our first experience with alpacas was in Maine, when we were college shopping with our son. We fell in love with alpacas.
“My educational background is wildlife biology and I’ve always had an interest in animals and animal behavior. I am not squeamish about handling animals, even when it might get a little ‘messy,’ and also enjoy observing and trying to decipher animal behaviors. Alpacas are very peaceful and inquisitive animals and they all have unique personalities. Alpacas almost always poop in the same spot and especially with females, when one goes, they all line up to take their turn on the poop pile.
“Although alpacas look like walking stuffed animals, but they are like cats in their behavior — shy but curious. And yes, they spit. I’ve been spit at least once per month, a nice green, smelly spit. After a while, you learn where to stand to avoid it, but inevitably, you get a good one, right in the face. My reaction is typically to laugh it off. The alpacas are just doing what comes natural to them. If I get spit at for what I believe is no good reason, I will spit back at them.”