When I spoke with Barbara Hansen of Meadowrock Alpacas, I got the sense that she and her husband Jim have found joy in the new phase of their lives that includes raising alpacas. Anyone who is lucky enough to have visited their farm no doubt came away with that sense as well as a few pairs of alpaca socks or hats. I had to satisfy myself with a virtual tour at their website. What a gorgeous place, with lovely, and clearly very special, animals!
Unicorn Fibre: Hi Barbara, and thanks for participating in this Get to Know Our Unicorn Dealers project! Your farm looks so beautiful and fun. Can you tell me the story of how you got started?
Barbara Hansen: Whoa boy . . . our story is very long since this all came about in my “retirement”. Yep, I no longer have an IRA, 401(k), or annuity; just the store and my intrepid husband, Jim, who has now taken over as the Barn Manager. It’s hard to believe it’s 2015, eight years after purchasing our first pregnant alpaca. My goal was to have something productive to do in our retirement and I have found that “alpaca” fills our world.
We currently have nine alpacas including three pregnant girls; our first cria (baby) is due in a couple weeks. In our first years we showed our alpacas and through these shows our herdsire earned five championships. When we decided to open a farm store to sell the yarn our alpacas produced we got a little carried away and have filled 1,200 square feet with over 5,000 items related to the alpaca, including the Unicorn Fibre Wash and Rinse and Unicorn Power Scour.
UF: Your photos are simply breathtaking. Can you tell me a little about where your farm is in the world?
BH: We live in a very small rural community that is bordered by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the Mt. Adams Wilderness in Washington State, just north of the Columbia River Gorge. In the whole world, we would rather be no place else and rarely go on “vacations”, we are the vacation. Many of our farm visitors comment on how wonderful it is here and we simply smile back. The county we live in has only one stop light and it’s over 20 miles from the farm.
UF: What do you offer at your farm and store?
BH: Many tourists visit us year round to tour our farm, learn more about alpacas, and purchase items made with alpaca fiber: hats, scarves, gloves, vests, sweaters, SOCKS, fur bears, and YARN; some 100% alpaca, some blends, and some are even handmade.
UF: What are some of your top selling and favorite items?
BH: Alpaca yarn and alpaca socks are our most favorite items and our top sellers; the fur bears are the most delightful and usually have a new name by the time they leave the store.
UF: Sounds like a world of cute fuzziness! How do the Unicorn Fibre products fit in?
BH: All of the alpaca products we sell are enhanced when Unicorn products are used in their care.I recommend using Unicorn Fibre Wash and Rinse on yarn and finished garments to get the best results.
UF: How do you like to use the products yourself?
BH: My husband and I wear alpaca socks daily and I do a load of laundry once a week using Unicorn products. Once I began using Unicorn I found my clothes softer and retaining their shape better, remaining stretchy, not felted.
UF: What do you enjoy the most about your day to day activities?
BH: Needless to say, we love our alpacas! Besides being so darn entertaining, they act as our athletic club plus providing fiber for some of the yarn I sell in our store. They also provide fiber for our coop, The Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America, which produces the Extreme alpaca socks from US fiber and is 74% alpaca, really extreme.
UF: I love alpaca socks. And now I’m dreaming of making mitts or socks with alpaca yarn. What is your favorite craft, and how did you learn to do it?
BH: My favorite craft is working with and learning more about fiber whether it be knitting (self-taught) or weaving (took a class a local studio) or simply skirting fleeces (many seminars). My husband, on the other hand, loves to build things that make our lives easier; and I love him for it.
UF: Sounds like Jim is very handy and inventive. Can you give me an idea of what kinds of things he has built?
BH: Because of the way I designed and built the barn (yes me and a 24-year old with a broken left wrist, I even set my own trusses!), the outside gates could not be directly attached to it as we needed wall space to slide the outside stall doors open/closed without increasing barn size. Instead, by design, the gates were mounted on the last pole of each fence line that effectively divides the four stalls and paddock areas plus dividing their “little” pastures and herding alleys from each other. It sounds complicated but it’s not. Just think of the barn as the hub of a spoke wheel with the spokes being the fence lines. Imagine, IF all the gates are open at the same time you can physically drive a four-wheeler completely around the barn. We don’t do that, but the point is, we have complete flexibility and access to every paddock; which has proved really handy for moving animals and removing snow, as two examples.
Back to the point, the latches. Mesh gates typically hook onto a fence post. We simply put a post in the ground far enough away from the barn to allow the sliding doors to pass behind it. After using the typical chain and hook set up Jim found the thick plastic you see in the photos. We needed a more “solid” design for our herdsire’s (Aston) gate. Other gates use Jim’s “flip” design. But, with the flip design, we found it didn’t take long for the alpacas to figure out how to flip them up. To solve this issue, a spring was attached. Works great! Jim also came up with a little different design so a gate can be secured to the corner of the barn. Patents are pending on all Jim’s designs.
UF: I guess I never thought of alpacas as smart enough to figure out latches. Are there any “Frequently asked Questions” from your farm visitors?
BH: Hmm, frequently asked questions . . . there are so many. What’s the difference between an alpaca and a llama? How long does the alpaca live? How often do you shear? What’s the gestation period? How much acreage is needed to raise alpacas? Can I pet them? What does an alpaca eat? Why do you separate the boys and girls? Do you have to cut their toenails? Who built your barn? What do you call their fur? What do you use it for? I could go on and on. Our tours generally take 45-60 minutes and are intended to be of an educational nature. We do have a few animals to sell, but nothing like the BIG breeders. So, over the years we found our visitors want to learn about the alpaca not take one home. We are simply filling what the market demands in our very rural location.
When a guest walks into the store their first reaction is “I can’t believe you have such a nice store here in Trout Lake”, we’re very country here and I get this from locals and travelers alike. Other most received comments include: “Your place is so-o-o-o tidy and clean” or “how do you keep your place looking so good?” or “WHAT A VIEW!” (Mt. Adams is “in your face”) or “it sure smells good here.” or “you actually have a public bathroom?” or “can we just sit and have a picnic here?” All of which makes what we do worth while :-)
UF: I don’t know how you get things done…I would just be staring at the scenery all day. Can you tell me about your typical day at your farm and store?
BH: A typical work day begins around 6am with Jim (husband) heading to the barn to do the early morning chores that include feeding measured supplement pellets to the alpacas. I putz along, getting ready to open the store by 10am, there’s always plenty to do. I’m now the storekeeper and resident alpaca guru. My days are usually busy with all the needs of a working farm and store but when a visitor comes, everything is pushed aside and our guest(s) takes top priority whether they want to simply shop in the store or if they want a farm tour. I force myself to quit at 5pm for dinner and to spend the evening knitting or spinning (I’m just learning).
UF: What advice do you wish you could give yourself when you first got started?
BH: Advice? Hmmm, how about: why didn’t we do this 40 years ago?
UF: What are some of your favorite quotes or sayings?
BH: One of my favorite quotes is: If you can’t change the direction of the wind, adjust your sails. Which goes right along with: Think like a willow, not an oak.
UF: How do most of your customers learn about you?
BH: Many learn about us through word of mouth, driving by and seeing our farm, referrals from our Chamber of Commerce, and rack cards placed in hotels and motels plus we also advertise in local (within 60 miles) tourist magazines and hotel guest books.
UF: Well, I sure am glad I found out more about you. Thanks for the interview and for belonging to our family of Unicorn Dealers. Congratulations on the nice life you have built for yourselves. I encourage people to make arrangements to visit your farm and store if they will be in the area. Here is the link to contact Barbara and Jim Hansen of Meadowrock Alpacas.