Don Phillips, who is in his early sixties, has never worked harder in his life and enjoyed it more. When most people would be traveling or eyeing up a new condo in a retirement community, Don and his wife Jan are the very happy -- and busy -- owners of a herd of alpacas.
If you don’t know what an alpaca is, you’re not alone. The domesticated animals are the South American members of the camel (camelid) family, but I like to think of them as tall sheep. Maybe an even better description would be that if the Ewoks of Star Wars’ fame had four legs, they would look like alpacas.
Don Phillips, holding newborn Four Points Alakazam, "Zamie," while his mom Four Points Sonatina looks on
With expressive faces and huge eyes, these gentle creatures are terminally cute, as one friend put it. Don and Jan couldn’t agree more. They have found their niche on their 13 acre Four Points Alpacas farm in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh, and that’s given them a good reason to get up in the morning and a better one to stay home and thoroughly enjoy their lives.
Don spent 35 years in the manufacturing sector of the steel industry and sold that business when he was in his mid-fifties. Not a man to sit around, he began looking for something to do with himself. He and Jan had owned horses before, but found they were a lot of work and expense. They had begun fixing up the old farmhouse they had purchased, which needed many repairs. They were friendly with the folks down the road who owned alpacas. “Once we saw the animals, we were hooked,” he says. They purchased their starter herd of five animals in 2003 and now have 16 animals that they are raising and breed with two more crias (babies) due any minute and two more in the fall.
The Phillips also operate a cozy bed and breakfast suite on their property which is available for bookings guaranteed to lower the blood pressure of visitors as soon as they drive up to the door. Sitting on your own personal porch with alpacas grazing in the pastures in front of you is pretty far removed from the lives of many hard driving travelers.
Which brings up another advantage to the couple’s lifestyle. With gas prices so high, Don says that at certain times of the year, a tank of gas can last him six weeks, since he stays home most of the time, where he likes to be. He does transport his alpacas to shows where many of them have won ribbons, making them more attractive for breeding. But being around the farm is enough of a reward, especially when their grandchildren come to visit and rush down to the barn to see the “’pacas.”
The alpaca industry in this country is growing leaps and bounds (no pun intended). Many Americans are buying alpacas as an investment (some animals can cost as much as thousands of dollars), and Don says this reflects the fact that most of us have a farming history not too far back in our family trees. “Baby Boomers like getting back to their roots,” Don says, and getting involved in some way in the alpaca industry is a way to do that.
The fiber shorn from the alpacas annually is soft and nearly hypoallergenic and comes in about twenty different colors -- the natural color range of alpacas -- from black to white to brown to roan to gray. When spun into yarn, the alpaca wool price-wise is comparable to good wool sold in knitting stores. The Phillips feature hand-made items of alpaca in their store, AlpacApparel at Four Points, located in their home. You can buy one-of-a-kind garments and accessories there, as well as yarn spun from the animals you visit on their farm.
Newcomers to the industry can learn a lot from people like Don and Jan, who enthusiastically communicate their knowledge of alpacas while petting one of the happy animals. Whether you want to include the animals as part of a financial portfolio, raise them yourself or board them at someone else’s farm, there are plenty of opportunities to have these graceful animals in your life if you so choose. For more information, you can reach Don and Jan at www.fourpointsalpacas.com, 724-586-9677 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A warning, though: If you visit this lovely serene farm, you may want to grab an alpaca and stash it in your car to take home when Don and Jan aren’t looking. As you drive away, you will remember, darn, that alpacas are social herding animals and like to have friends around. That means you would have to own enough land at home to graze two animals, at least. So you start browsing through the real estate listings for a new home on a larger plot of land and….
But retirement never looked so good.
By Teresa K. Flatley
May 18, 2007