Close encounters of the woolly kind: White Violet Center lets public meet the alpacas

·3 min read

Mar. 28—Gratia, a white alpaca with soulful eyes and splotches of mud adorning its fleece, was the first to make the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice's Alpaca Encounter an actual encounter on Saturday, eagerly sauntering up to the crowd of 15 attending the event.

But a rose gray alpaca named Georgie soon made it an event, demonstrating why she's nicknamed "Lunchbox" when she hoovered up the feed in any set of hands within her orbit.

Tara Elmore, farm projects coordinator for the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, explained the motivation for the event, calling in "an immersive alpaca experience."

"We're letting the community come in and get an up-close-and-personal experience with the alpacas," Elmore said. "You can at anytime drive by and go up to the fence. This gets you inside the fence, you get to meet the alpacas and hear about the history of the alpacas, and why they're so important in our cycle of sustainability."

Elmore and Ann Testa, the farm projects assistant, led the attendees to the area housing the female Huacaya alpacas. Participants soon had the smaller cousins of the llama originally hailing from the Andes Mountains eating out of their hands. They then took them to the skirting room where the fiber sheared from the alpacas — the animals are sheared once annually; this year it will be on May 9 — is stored. Fiber from three different sections of the alpacas' bodies are separated and labeled with the name of the animal it came from.

They demonstrated how the soft and luxurious fiber is woven into yarn via a spinning wheel, then showed off the weaving room where all manner of goods — scarves, hats, socks, blankets, even children's toys — can be created. Finally, participants were allowed to create a small fiber ornament for themselves through a process called needle felting that used cookie-cutter molds of stars, eggs and alpacas.

White Violet got its first alpacas in 1998. It currently has 40 with a baby due in the spring, down from a one-time high of 80. The animals fit in nicely with the Center for Eco-Justice's goal of sustainability.

"Alpacas are gentle on the land," Elmore said. "They nibble grass down, they don't pull it up by the roots. Their manure is so vital to our program — they put nutrients back into the soil and are great for our compost program. Alpacas are great spokes-animals for sustainability. And we're able to use that fiber for fiber art projects and scarves and hats."

"I just like how fluffy they are," said Adalyn Lighty, there with her brother Alex. The two visit the alpacas at least once every year.

"I just like having fun," said Alex. "They're really cute and I like feeding them."

Sandy Beckman had come all the way from Jasper for the Alpaca Encounter, mainly to learn how to process the fiber from her family's alpacas.

"My son and his family have alpacas," she said. "At home we take care of them. We have eight. It's interesting to see the different fibers. I had bought a spinning wheel. I didn't know quite how to use it. They told me it was an antique and I should get a different one."

David Kronke can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at david.kronke@tribstar.com.