Family runs successful alpaca farm

AgriNews photos/Karen Binder The alpacas at Rolling Oak Alpaca Ranch in rural Makanda, Ill., are curious creatures and have to join a family photo. That’s Judy Hoepker (left) with her daughter, Morgan Stevenson, and grandson, Sam. Yes, their husbands, Steve and Tom, respectively, are big parts of the operation, too, but hold down other jobs.

MAKANDA, Ill. — Most Sunday afternoons, there’s a colorful pile hats, gloves, scarves, shawls, socks, baby clothes, felted soap, rugs, greeting cards, toys, felted dryer balls and even easy-clip dreadlocks on one of the tables at the Old Feed Store Farmers Market in Cobden.

Just beyond these handcrafted wonders is Morgan Stevenson. She’s the one who in 2011 led her family well beyond her local craft interest to became alpaca ranchers.

Not only do she and her mother, Judy Hoepker, prepare the animals’ sheared blankets for spinning, felting, croqueting or looming, they also tend their own alpaca herd in southwestern Jackson County.

They’ve also launched a growing business in grading fibers and teaching others about alpaca craft. They are a full-fledged farm-to-fiber operation.

Their herd has grown from three males of the llama-like livestock to a herd today of 19. But that’s a number that fluctuates now that they have a breeding program in place to perfect the alpaca fibers.

Sure, they’re also keeping a close eye on the show characteristics when they debut the new progeny in the show ring in 2018, too.

Group Effort

As ranchers, the two have tread a careful path learning about the livestock care, first learning there are not many veterinarians with alpaca experience.

Over the years, they’ve built a network of professional colleagues that includes other growers, veterinarians, artisans, livestock experts and others.

One recent farm improvement came from a U.S. Department of Agriculture equipment matching grant to develop additional grazing pasture for the herd that included earthwork, five-foot no-climb fencing against predators and seeding with orchard grass and controlling mineral content. There’s a direct correlation between forage and nutrition to the fiber quality.

Do not to confuse alpaca fiber with sheep wool. The fiber is comparable to angora and is soft, warm, and hypoallergenic and is not itchy.

“I just wanted a way to make gifts for my family,” Stevenson explained. “The crochet yarn was so scratchy. So I started to do some research and found alpaca yarn. I learned that it’s the fiber of the gods for the Incas. Royalty wore it, and it was valuable. So I thought we could just raise some, and I could get a spinning wheel, so I just jumped into everything at once.”

As Stevenson’s interest grew, Hoepker and their husbands also were right there to help build the ranch. Hoepker also became as passionate about the fiber craft and works along side her daughter, but also works as an over-the-road semi driver.

They are preparing to host fiber classes, have hosted numerous school field trips and volunteer at shows to further their experience with the animals.

“We truly enjoy every step of all of this,” Hoepker said. “We’ve learned so much from others, and now we are trying to help others learn.”

Karen Binder can be reached at 618-534-0614 or kbinder@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow her on Twitter at: @AgNews_Binder.

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