Big Brown Eyes

At the Alpaca Farm

Story and Photos by Lorie Palmer

A few years ago, when my husband and I were out for a drive from Grangeville, we ambled down rural Talmaks Road off U.S. Highway 95 just west of Craigmont. Several miles in, I saw tufted heads peeking above the landscape. We drove slowly by a sign that read, “Sweet Pine Alpacas.”

Craigmont is only about thirty-one miles northwest of Grangeville but it’s in Lewis County, which is out of my jurisdiction as a reporter over the past three decades for the Idaho County Free Press. That’s why I had never seen this farm.

When I contacted owner Carol Vernay, she and husband Bob were warm and welcoming, as was their grown-up daughter, Brandy Henson. Brandy and her husband Chad also have a herd, which is housed together on the farm with her parents’ animals.

When I entered an open bay filled with mothers and their cria or offspring, the dogs Paca and Mari kept dutiful watch. Mari, a blend of the Tatra shepherd dog of Poland, the Spanish mastiff, and the Maremma sheepdog of Italy, stood nearly as tall as several of the alpacas. “He has a commanding bark,” Bob said, “and they listen if he warns them. And he listens if they warn him of something.”

Paca is a border collie that Brandy trained to herd the alpacas. He also served as a search dog with Search and Rescue K9s of Idaho. “He loves to have a job,” she said with a smile.

NextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnailNextGen ScrollGallery thumbnail
Alpaca mothers and their young.
Bob lets the males out for a run.
Brandy (left) and Carol hold a cria.
Friendly alpaca up close.
Mari the guard dog.
Paca herds young male alpacas.
Colorful alpaca yarn.


Brandy introduced me to Pantara and Jack and Mustang, to Manzi and Ellie and Nocino, to Colter and River and Azera. There were about seventy alpacas in all and she confirmed, “Yes, they all have names.”

“When you live here, it’s pretty easy to get to know them all,” Carol said.

“Aren’t her eyes beautiful?” Brandy held up a cria so I could pet it. Her eyes were big and brown with long lashes. Mama stationed herself nose-to-nose-with baby, ensuring that everything was okay.

A quarter-century ago, when Brandy was in graduate school in Colorado, she got a job ranch-sitting that first introduced the Vernays to alpacas. At the time, Bob and Carol were living in California, where he had an auto and RV repair business and she worked in a medical laboratory, but they were contemplating what their next chapter in life might be. Alpacas seemed appealing. They looked at acreage in Clarkston, Washington, but it didn’t suit their needs. “It had a steep, rocky area that wasn’t a good place for alpacas,” Bob said.

When they found their current home and ranch, the alpacas were intended to be a retirement project, but it grew into a breeding program. Alpacas are generally mellow, easy to maintain, and adapt readily to many environments. Brandy’s caveat to this was, “As long as there’s good fencing to keep predators at bay—usually stray dogs.”

Even though herd owners may enjoy their animals, the main reason they have them is for their fiber. Brandy, who attended shearing school, told me, “The fiber has unique qualities that make it soft and warm, as well as moisture wicking. And it combines well with other natural fibers such as wool, bamboo, and silk.”

Carol explained that the quality and desirability of alpaca fiber depends on where it comes from on the animal, as well as the particular animal.

“The back (or the ‘blanket’) and belly, that’s the best fiber for specialty yarns,” Brandy added. “Leg and neck fiber is a bit more sturdy, or course, and is often used in rugs.”

After the family does the annual shearing, they skirt and grade the fiber, separating it by quality and color. “Gray is very desirable, and one of the most rare colors,” Carol told me. Their herds vary from true black and brown to gray, light brown, tan, and white. Fiber is also graded on length, crimp, and other qualities.

Raw fleece is sold to local hand-spinners, and is also sent to a mill in Idaho. It might be used for handwoven rugs, socks, or limited-edition yarns. The ranch includes a boutique, but in addition to selling handmade items and the raw material, the family also sells alpacas. These sales include breeding stock, animals for fiber, and pets. A grown female normally weighs about 140 pounds, while males may range between 160 and 180 pounds.

Female alpacas typically have their cria in the summer, after eleven months of gestation. “A typical baby will weigh about sixteen pounds,” Carol said. She’s present for the births and usually requires help only for breech deliveries. “Normally, the mothers are very good, and instinctively just do what they need to do.”

Cria nurse up to about four months, and then are weaned. The families make sure all alpacas on their ranch are able to be handled prior to being sold. “We leave them alone as much as possible when they’re babies, so they imprint on and bond with their mothers,” Carol told me. “But we also need to be able to handle them easily for ‘spa days’—topknot and toenail trimming—and for miscellaneous husbandry and shearing,” Brandy put in, “so we build that rapport when we feed, water, and take care of them. And just by us being in close proximity with them, they learn not to be skittish around us.”

The ranch holds offers a Fall Fiber Festival each September, with classes on weaving, knitting, spinning, felting and fiber prep. Carol said people are invited year-round to see the animals.

This story originally appeared in a different form in the Idaho County Free Press.  

If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting us with a SUBSCRIPTION to our print edition, delivered monthly to your doorstep.


This content is available for purchase. Please select from available options.
Register & Purchase  Purchase Only
Lorie Palmer

About Lorie Palmer

Lorie Palmer Russell is a graduate of Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. She has worked for twenty-seven years as a reporter for the Idaho County Free Press in Grangeville. She and her husband, Valor, have three grown daughters and two spoiled chiweenies.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *