When Elaine Lonnemann was in the fifth grade, she decided she was going to be a physical therapist. Watching therapists help her father after he lost an arm in a work-related accident cemented her budding interest in science and medicine, she says. And after growing up on a vegetable farm in Starlight, Ind., she had firmly decided, “I am going to move as far away from here as I can and I am never going to farm.”
And then she laughs, because while she did indeed move away and become a physical therapist, she is telling this story from the front porch of the home on her family’s farm that she now shares with her husband, Dr. Paul Lonnemann; their four sons, ages 10 to 17; 30 Nigerian dwarf goats; four dogs; assorted lavender guinea fowl; and, most notably, 10 alpacas.
“I’ve kind of come full circle,” she says, “although the alpacas are only a hobby, for sure.”
Elaine first became interested in alpacas about 10 years ago when she saw a television program about the ancient Incans, who gave the animals a central place in their culture. About 99 percent of the world’s roughly 3 million alpacas still live in their native South America, mostly in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. They are fairly new to the United States; the first alpacas arrived in 1984.
The Incans referred to the alpacas’ fiber, which is as soft as cashmere and stronger than wool, as “fleece from the gods.” But it was science, not fiber arts, that attracted Elaine.
“I don’t really spin or knit. I’m more interested in the characteristics of the fiber and the genetics of the animals than I am in the art behind the wool. I like the breeding and looking at the characteristics, because I like anatomy and movement,” says Elaine, who teaches anatomy and orthopedics at Bellarmine. “It fits in pretty well in terms of looking at body characteristics in humans and animals. It gives me fun stories to share with my students, too.”
Because she had never owned livestock and alpacas are expensive, she started with the goats about seven years ago. “I was going to wait until I retired to move on to alpacas – I was going to take a long time to learn about them.” But in 2009 she learned that a neighboring farm was selling its entire alpaca herd. “We put up a barn and built a fence in about three weeks.”
“She’s lucky I like building and fixing things,” says Paul, a self-proclaimed “city boy” who grew up in Northern Kentucky. “With the Internet and all the farmers around here – some of whom are my patients – I have been able to figure things out. I’ll tell them I need to build a fence and I don’t know what I’m doing, and they’ll say, ‘What kind of fence? What are you keeping in? What are you keeping out?’”
Fairly soon he was building a dog house for a pair of Great Pyrenees, Major and Ali, who guard the small alpaca herd.
On a beautiful Sunday in late April, the alpacas, fresh from their annual shearing the previous weekend, are comically skinny – with the exception of the two females due to give birth in early May. Their heads look too big for their bodies, like lollipops with chenille pipe cleaner stems. As they follow Elaine around their enclosure, they make a low-pitched humming sound that rises at the end – “Hmmmmmm?” – as though they didn’t quite catch the last thing she said.
If alpacas are badly startled, they make a shrieking sound unlike “anything I’ve ever heard,” Elaine says, and like camels or llamas, their cousins in the Camelid family, they spit when they feel threatened. But those occurrences are rare. Alpacas are gentler and smaller than llamas, which made them ideal for the family’s 5-acre farm, now dubbed Starlight Shire.
The farm is part of 80 acres originally owned by her grandfather, William Boesing, a German immigrant, and her grandmother Elizabeth. Elaine’s mother, three of her eight siblings, an aunt and a cousin live on other parcels of the family homestead.
“Grandpa was one of the first farmers to start contour farming in our area (tilling the land to follow the normal contours) to avoid soil erosion,” she says. “I’ve tried to carry on that lesson of taking care of our land, keeping things green.”
That’s where the guinea fowl come in. They eat mites and ticks, which cuts down on the use of pesticides. “I’m also trying to do responsible de-worming procedures that vets are recommending. That is new to farming in the last five to 10 years,” she says. “A lot of farmers do de-worming every two months, which isn’t great for the environment because a lot of the parasites are becoming resistant. I have a microscope and a centrifuge where I take the fecal samples and spin them and look for parasites – and then I always get the lab to check them because I’m not that confident yet. That’s been very educational for my sons. They are like, ‘WHAT are you looking for?’”
Like most of the alpacas in the United States, all of the Lonnemanns’ alpacas are registered by blood type with the national Alpaca Registry, which helps determine breeding partners for optimal fiber production. “I’m interested in density, fineness and luster, not a specific color,” Elaine says. To achieve that, she breeds the females to males whose fleece complements its qualities. “One girl’s fleece is very dense, so I’ll breed her with one that has very fine fleece,” for example.
Starlight Shire is a member of the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America, which accepts fleece from members, processes it and markets U.S.-made alpaca products like socks and gloves, which Elaine has for sale in a small shop on the farm.
She adds to her knowledge of fiber quality by showing her alpacas at local shows, and she praises her mentors at The Shepherd’s Criations and Providence, two alpaca farms in Shepherdsville, Ky. “To do this right is challenging and time-consuming. It’s been so helpful to have mentors. I’ve learned a ton.”
For Elaine, who would already seem to have a full schedule with teaching, serving a leadership role in a national physical therapy association and raising a family, the hour or so a day she spends with the animals “is my relaxation time. I just really enjoy it. It’s calming to see them interact with each other and play with each other.”
“If we weren’t doing this, I’d be building something else,” Paul says. In something of an understatement, he adds, “We don’t sit around.”
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org