INDIANAPOLIS — EDITOR’S NOTE: Members of the Vigo County 4-H Alpaca Club spent Friday at the Indiana State Fair, where livestock events were among the many activities under way on opening day. This is the club’s first appearance at the State Fair. Writer Susan Hayhurst caught up with the 4-H’ers and their leader at a pre-fair practice earlier in the week.
Discovering alpacas can spit gooey, sticky globs and being told the animals look like unicorns are just a few of the unusual experiences the members of the Vigo County 4-H Alpaca Club and their parents have had since the club formed three years ago.
Don and Jane Connor of northern Vigo County launched the club in 2011 by loaning animals to a handful of 4-H’ers and teaching them the basics of alpaca care.
Today, the club is led by Tracy Wilson, alpaca herd manager for the Sisters of Providence White Violet Farms, which leases the farm’s animals to the youth and their families.
“Sarah Gaughan with the Vigo County Extension office asked the Conners if they knew of anyone to take over the program, and they suggested Sarah ask me,” Wilson said. “This is my second year with the club. We had six kids last year showing alpacas at the county fair, and this year I’ve really seen the 11 kids bond with each other and the animals.”
The 2012-2013 club includes Olivia Branam, Rylee Bull, Harlie Dycus, Morgan Dycus, Eleanor Herndon, Liam Herndon, MacKenzie Jones, Anna Nagy, Sasha Nagy, Ben Steppe and Jia Webb.
Wilson’s purpose for the club is to teach the youth about the animals from care, feeding and grooming to what’s involved in showmanship and animal handling. Club meetings and practices take place at White Violet Farm at St. Mary-of-the-Woods.
“The herd sires and pregnant alpacas at White Violet are not offered to the youth, but we do offer a variety for the kids to choose from. I absolutely see the trust develop between the youth and the animals. Over a year’s time of the youth working with the animals, they really influence each other. There is change in body language, and I try to teach ‘alpaca zen,’” she said with a laugh. “Alpacas respond with calmness. Sometimes, I encourage spirited kids to ratchet it down, so they are calmer with the alpacas.
“I haven’t had kids of my own, so working with them was definitely out of my comfort zone,” Wilson said. “But being involved with this has certainly been worth it. I’m very comfortable teaching others about alpacas, and the interaction is what I enjoy.”
Wilson has been a wonderful influence on the youth as they learn more about this newer type of fair livestock, according to Deb Herndon, the mother of Liam, an eighth-grader at Honey Creek Middle School, and Eleanor, a fifth-grader at Dixie Bee Elementary, both alpaca club members.
“This is Eleanor’s second year showing ‘Providence Elise’ and Liam’s first year showing ‘Providence Wynne.’ Providence means the animals were born here at the farm,” Herndon said, while watching the 4-H’ers work with their alpacas at The Woods. “It’s evident to all of us: Tracy loves working with the kids, and she’s so great at teaching them about the responsibility. She lets us know about special events at the farm, like the animals getting their toenails trimmed, crias, or babies, being born, and the animals getting sheared. She wants the kids to experience lots of different elements of caring for the animals.”
The lease agreements with the farm are affordable, Herndon said, and some of the expenses associated with the alpaca care are subsidized by the farm. “Eleanor has had the same animal for two years and has had some great learning experiences, from mucking, or cleaning, the stalls and barns to feeding and daily animal care. We were proud of her for earning a reserve champion at county fair for handling, and Tracy also has the kids give speeches about the animals, so they are always learning about what they are doing.”
Liam “hung out” with his sister and Elise last year, but decided he had to do it himself for this year’s 4-H program. “I went to lots of Eleanor’s practices and watched her do chores last year, and I thought I was missing out. I’ve definitely gained a lot of knowledge and respect for alpacas,” he said. “I’d encourage other kids to join us because the meetings are packed with info, and you have lots of fun with the animals and everyone at the fair. I’m excited about going to the Indiana State Fair to show Wynne.”
Seven of the 11 youth are showing their alpacas — for the first time — this weekend at the state fair. Wilson said the club members are participating this year in showmanship and the obstacle course. “Our kids will be showing with other showmen from around the state, not just amongst themselves, like at the fair. This will be a bigger challenge, but they’re up for it.”
To prepare for fair events, the 4-H’ers and their endearing animals have diligently worked an obstacle course that includes walking across a low teeter-totter, through a tunnel, stepping into an established square and having to walk within the square backward, and completing a jump.
Anna Nagy, a sophomore at Terre Haute North Vigo High School, has been active with the club since the beginning and is the current club president. “I wanted to be involved with alpacas, but my family didn’t have the land available at home. The lease agreement has been wonderful and I’ve gained lots of leadership skills,” she said. “My alpaca feels like she’s my pet, just like my dog and cat. Seeing things like the vet coming to the farm and seeing a cria being born is something I wouldn’t necessarily see with other pets. This kind of animal may seem intimidating at first, but you’ll fall in love with them.”
Rylee Bull, a sixth-grader at West Vigo Middle School, also discovered the 4-H alpaca project is hands-on, not only between her and “Providence Gratia,” but also through working with alpaca fiber and making project posters. “One of my 4-H projects was a bookmark I had crocheted using alpaca fiber roving, which I dyed and spun into yarn. The bookmark is going to the state fair,” she said. “I’ve also learned alpacas have three eyelids, and I liked giving a five-minute speech on their ears and eyes. I want to do alpacas all the way through 4-H.”
Alpacas are somewhat unusual to most of the public, but seeing them wearing island leis was a treat during the county fair. “We walked in the fair parade with each animal and its youth wearing leis. We hadn’t done it before, but it seemed to be a big hit with everyone,” Wilson said.
A great club recruitment tool is the spring 4-H event, where various 4-H clubs share booth space and information. Contact the Purdue Extension office at 812-462-3371 or Wilson at 812-535-2934 for more information.