How about big-eyed beauties with long, slender necks and the softest of hair? Yes, we're talking about alpacas, those tiny cousins of the llama and camel, which are raised throughout the Navasota area for their fine, furry fiber.
Several alpaca ranches in the Navasota area, about an hour and a half North & West of Houston, offer tours of their facilities. Texas Traveler recently visited Americana Alpanas, where we talked to the owner, Paul Roberts.
When we visited Americana Alpacas a few weeks ago, Roberts told us it was "birthing and breeding season," pointing to a swaying alpaca in the early stages of labor. Right at that moment, the animal's swollen stomach twitched as the cria inside (a cria is a baby alpaca) kicked. The animals on the farm had just had their annual shearing, on April 1.
Their skinny necks still showed the tracks of the razor, and their freshly-shorn hair rested in large plastic bags inside the farm's fiber shop, where you can buy pure, undyed yarn spun from the animals on the farm, as well has high-quality sweaters woven from alpaca.
Alpacas are members of the camelid family, and are raised specifically for the soft, kinky fiber that grows all over their bodies. The animals are bred for certain color combinations -- anywhere from black to white, with 22 colors in between, including heathered grey, cream, red and shades of brown; all of which were seen on the animals on our visit.
Alpacas are the direct descendents of the vicuña, a smaller animal native to Peru and first domesticated by the Incans there. Vicuña fiber is considered the finest and rarest fiber in the world, even finer than cashmere, and was harvested to the point that the animal became endagered. Now all the vicuñas in the world are legally owned by the Peruvians, according to Roberts.
Roberts and his wife Robin stared the farm eight years ago, moving from The Woodlands to a small farm house with several acres of land just west of Navasota. Paul Roberts had helmed a couple of IT start-ups and decided he wanted to try something new, get out of the city.
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"We didn't want to slaughter animals. We wanted an animal that was renewable, and intelligent, one that you could have a little fun with," he said.
Alpacas are extra-curious, and can be halter-trained. They can also be trained to complete agility and obstacles courses. The inside of the Roberts' shop is decorated with numerous plaques and trophies from the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. Roberts said the animals are smart like cats. One of his favorite males, named Errol Flynn for the pencil mustache-like marking above his nose, will go so far as to take a book away from Roberts if he wants to be the center of attention.
Alpacas can also adapt easily to various climates and conditions, making them ideal for Texas, which is a far cry climate-wise from the mountains of their native Peru.
Americana offers tours of their facility Tuesday through Saturday at 10 a.m. but you should call ahead (936-870-3887) since the facility is a working ranch. The tours allow you to meet the animals (rain or shine), feed and pet them, and then see a demonstration of fiber spinning on an old-fashioned wheel and weaving on an old-fashioned loom.