In an area where agriculture is almost nonexistent, Robin Kuleck is building a small farm business around alpacas.
Kuleck and her family sell fiber products and produce at Little Red Barn Farm in Cameron County, a heavily forested corner of north-central Pennsylvania.
Kuleck, a family and consumer science educator for Penn State Extension, got interested in alpacas at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, where she joined the Extension radio team for live broadcasts.
Every year, the booth was inevitably located where Kuleck could see a Carlisle alpaca breeder’s booth.
Kuleck knits and crochets, and she thought having fiber animals would encourage her to learn how to spin.
“They seemed cute and friendly, and I was intrigued,” she said.
Kuleck was finally able to get alpacas a decade ago when she and her husband, Michael, moved from downtown Emporium — the county seat where 2,000 of Cameron County’s 5,000 residents live — to a 34-acre farmette a few miles out of town.
She now has 19 alpacas and expects four babies, called crias, to be born next June.
Kuleck had some familiarity with livestock before she got alpacas. Her grandfather was a dairy farmer, and her grandmother raised dairy goats.
That’s more experience than a lot of alpaca raisers have.
“Many alpaca farmers are first-generation farmers with limited knowledge,” she said.
Through her work in Extension, Kuleck said, she has learned about agriculture from farmers, the county conservation district and USDA.
The low-maintenance livestock fit nicely into Kuleck’s erratic work schedule.
The alpacas get feed and water in the morning, and they spend time on pasture.
The animals need yearly shearing, occasional trimming of the teeth and toenails, and monthly injections to prevent brain worm, Kuleck said.
Though they look dainty compared with a Hereford, alpacas are tough enough to handle Pennsylvania’s winter. They are native to the Andes Mountains of South America, after all, Kuleck said.
The alpacas shelter in the barn when it gets really cold. “Often they come in the barn with 2 to 3 inches of snow piled on them,” she said.
The alpacas are shorn at the end of May, so they are nice and woolly again by winter, she said.
Despite the abundance of public woodlands in the county, the alpacas are also secure during hunting season.
“Our property fronts a highway, and we are surrounded by neighbors who post their land,” Kuleck said.
The Kulecks take the alpacas to community days and safety events several times a year. They use a seven-passenger van with the two back seats removed.
“You do get some very strange looks and comments from the servers when you go through a fast-food drive-thru and your traveling companion sticks their fuzzy head out of the driver’s side window,” Kuleck said.
Once the alpacas are shorn at the end of May, Kuleck’s mother gets to work turning the fleece into a marketable product.
After the contaminated fibers are removed, the good fibers are sorted by fineness.
Kuleck’s mother has developed an eye for minute differences in fineness. The grades of alpaca fleece are separated by only a few microns each.
“We also send the fiber away for micron testing, and she prides herself in matching her assessment with the scientific results,” Kuleck said.
Kuleck tried having the fiber processed at a mini-mill, but she had too many different colors of alpacas, so the cost was prohibitive.
She now belongs to two cooperatives that make the decisions about how to use the fibers, an arrangement that works better.
With the fleece, Kuleck’s mother has spun and dyed yarn. The higher-grade fibers are felted, and Kuleck’s mother cuts them into felt boots.
“Alpaca fleece doesn’t have lanolin like sheep’s wool, so processing is less intensive,” Kuleck said.
Her mother has also made fingerless mitts, cowls and other products that she sells at farmers markets and craft shows from the spring through fall, she said.
The alpaca items are also sold on Etsy and at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.
“Funny that I got alpacas in order to work with their fiber, but my mom ended up with that part of the business,” she said.
Kuleck bought a weaving loom last year, so she is getting closer to realizing her dream of working with the fibers.
While she primarily raises alpacas for fleece, the animals also fuel her small produce-growing business.
“Alpaca manure makes a great soil amendment,” Kuleck said.
Alpaca “beans” do not burn plants, so they can be applied without composting. Using the manure, Kuleck has expanded her garden enough that she participates in the state Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
To participate, farmers must grow at least $1,000 of produce per year in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Farm Market Guide lists Little Red Barn Farm as one of only two farm markets in Cameron County.
Kuleck offers farm tours by appointment, usually on Saturdays and Sunday afternoons. She shows people her bee yard and apple orchard in addition to the alpacas.
The alpacas, farm tours, and locally produced fiber products and crops are all ways Kuleck connects consumers in forest country to agriculture.