Nestled amid wineries and the gently rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley sits the Alpacas at West Ranch farm. Although alpacas sometimes evoke stereotypical images of big, slobbery animals with soft fur and a nasty habit of spitting, they're also very social in nature.
At West Ranch, owner Hayley Jessup sells all of her alpacas in pairs, or she ensures that the buyer has companion animals. If an alpaca is alone, it will usually become stressed, stop eating and eventually starve to death.
When threatened, the herd will close in, forming a sort of tight-knit circle. Because alpacas have limited peripheral vision, the close group that they form together helps keep them completely aware of their surroundings, in case of a surprise attack by one of their natural predators, coyotes and mountain lions.
Ranch hand Trevor Garcia has been fascinated by each alpaca’s loyalty to the pack.
“With other animal species, when there’s any kind of danger they’ll usually run and save themselves," he said. "With these animals, though, it’s like they’re a family. Even if they were spitting on each other and kicking and biting, they still come together when there’s danger.”
In fact, it was this very sense of family that drew Garcia to work on the ranch two years ago.
“Most people look at these animals and they think they’re dull," he explained. "Or simple. They’re really not, though. They’re a family. And I think it was that sense of family that attracted me to working here.”
In addition to having each other’s back in case of danger, alpacas also have a sense of community when it comes to their personal hygiene. While many herd animals defecate in random spots across their habitat, alpacas actually share communal waste areas. With the phenomenon, the alpacas manage to keep their habitat sanitary and hygienic, and they make it easier for their handlers to harvest the waste for manure. So easy, in fact, that Jessup cannot stress how uncomplicated it is to manage her farm.
“These animals,” she said as she prepared to treat an alpaca’s ear for mites, “are just so darn ... simple."
Casually, Jessup holds a syringe in one hand while grasping the alpaca’s head firmly with the other.
“I mean, we could even expand if we really wanted to,” she said as she gently massaged the alpaca’s ear, murmuring soft words to calm the animal down.
The ranch got its start 15 years ago when Jessup’s father, Brooks Firestone, gave her a pair of alpacas as a gift. Since then, the 50-acre ranch has grown to include 90 alpacas and a handful of full-time staff members.
Under Jessup's leadership, the ranch operates like a well-oiled machine. The staff oversees the general health of the alpacas, including conducting checkups and administering antibiotics, and also manages the business side, which includes selling alpacas to good homes, preparing alpacas for shows, organizing the breeding process and controlling the sale of alpaca fur and fiber.
Once an alpaca is sheared, its crude fiber is sent to a fiber processing plant where it is transformed into yarn. Later, the yarn is used to create soft sweaters, blankets and rugs.
On the ranch, “ohana” means business. Jessup’s whole family helps out and the property is shared within the family. During a recent visit, even Jessup’s young grandson pitched in as he zoomed around on his mini tractor-trailer, feeding chickens and helping out in the vegetable garden.
It might be the farm’s prime real estate in the Santa Ynez Valley, or its healthy, strong herds of alpacas, or even its knowledgeable staff that make the ranch so successful. Or it just might be the strong bond of family that exists behind those wooden gates that has kept West Ranch successful and thriving after 15 years of business. Whatever it is, it’s clear that at West Ranch Alpaca Farm, fiber runs thicker than water.