Kentucky Tobacco Farm Converts to Alpacas

- The Kentucky Enquirer

BURLINGTON, Ky. --

In 2004, Linda and Greg Salsbury had to make a decision. They knew, innately, it would be a big one. They knew it could help to define the rest of their lives.

In the end, they went with the domesticated South American camelid.

It started when the Burlington couple took part in the federal government's Tobacco Reform Act, which gave them a small amount of money every year for 10 years - think hundreds of dollars, not thousands - to get out of the tobacco-growing business.

It meant the Salsburys had a chance to start over.

They knew they loved their land, which they had owned since 1986. It was the place they raised their four children, and they wanted to grow old on it. But they didn't want a pretty farm, they wanted a working farm. They wanted to grow something or raise something.

It was important to them.

The Salsburys made an appointment with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension. There was an office just up the road from their farm.

What, they asked the agent, could they do with 52 rolling acres of green trees and lush land?

The agent rattled off a list of options and then, at the end, said casually: "Or you could consider alpacas."

Greg only had two questions for him: "What's an alpaca and how do you spell it?"

They learned the alpaca is about half the size of a llama and boasts a luxurious fleece coat. It comes from the Andes mountains of Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

They did some research, looked at some photographs and talked to people who knew the animals.

And on a hot summer day in 2005, they got their first good look at an alpaca.

Perhaps the best way to describe these animals is that they look like a teddy bear crossed with a camel. They are all long legs and long necks with lots and lots of hair.

They are, in fact, strongly reminiscent of the television sitcom puppet Alf.

For Greg, it was love at first sight. For Linda? Not so much.

"I thought they were just funny looking," Linda said.

"I thought it was crazy. It was hot and I was sitting in the car and he was standing in the middle of all these alpacas."

The minutes passed and finally Linda had enough and began a process familiar to any married couple.

She got out of the car, stood next to the fence and stared at her husband.

"I was willing him to look at me," Linda said. "One look, and he would know it was time to go."

But Greg and Linda had been married for nearly 30 years; Greg knew enough not to look.

So he talked to the farmer and looked at the animals.

And Linda waited. And glared. And then it happened.

"This alpaca comes up to me and puts his face right up to mine," Linda said.

She froze. She feared he might spit. But he didn't.

"He put his nose right up against mine and then he walked away. I knew right then: I want to do this."

That day they decided to buy five alpacas: two pregnant females, two babies - the young are called cria - and a male. Today the Salsburys have 138 alpacas on their farm, 125 of which are theirs and 13 they are boarding.

They have a farm store, a breeding program and informational tours. "We are part of the agra-tourism business," Greg said.

Their business, Eagle Bend Alpacas, has become one of the largest alpaca farms in Northern Kentucky and Southwest Ohio. And that is saying something, because Ohio has more alpacas and alpaca farms than any other state.

The OABA - the Ohio Alpaca Breeders Association - says that 12 percent of all alpacas in this country are from Ohio. "Ohio is called Little Peru," Linda said.

This is a business for the Salsburys. Each spring, they shear their animals and take the fiber down to Tennessee to get processed. They sell the yarn, they sell sweaters made from the yarn, they sell teddy bears and socks and hats and mittens and scarves.

They also sell alpacas and alpaca "services." Their top sire, El Nino's Maximus, has a $4,500 stud fee. If that seems steep, Green Pastures Titus will do the work for $2,000.

Greg still works in medical sales and helps as much as he can on the weekends. Linda, who used to be a nurse, is managing most of the business herself for now, and running the retail shop. But you can tell this is not just a job to her.

Walking toward the big barn, she is able to name each alpaca she comes across. Here comes Beloved to say hello. Then Noah, and here comes Odi, which, she says, looks just like Jimmy Durante. And he does. She spots Geneva in a crowd and then Pride and Black Elegance and Romney.

The animals are bashful but curious. Most stand close, but not too close. When they get a little nervous they making a humming noise. Eventually, they will approach. Especially Beloved, who seems more dog than cat, pressing up against visitors.

Linda rubs their backs and shows their thick fleece, soft and warm even on a cold, snowy morning. Each animal will produce 5-10 pounds of fleece during the spring shearing. The sweaters or socks or yarn they produce will have their names attached.

People like that. The fleece, Linda says, is "softer than cashmere and warmer than wool."

Greg admits to how special he thinks these animals are. "I fell in love with alpacas. I believe that every human being has a place in their hearts for alpacas," Greg said.

"And I'm not normally a person who thinks that way," he adds quickly.

Neither is Linda, but for nearly eight years, they have grown to love these animals and the fact that their farm is working again.

She opens the gate to leave the enclosed area around the barn, then turns back to look out over the pasture and the barns and the alpacas, some of whom are now running.

"Isn't this lovely?" she said.

"Aren't they just great?"