Inside an alpaca barbershop
Catherine Simpson is an expert at orchestrating Kensington Prairie Farm's annual shearing event, having run it for more than two-decades. Here's what happened after 100 alpacas were given a haircut.
The alpaca’s barber shop sat at the end of a long driveway lined with tall trees and a short wooden fence. The trees muffled the sound of Langley’s afternoon traffic.
A consistent buzz emanated from a large industrial barn. Inside, a dozen people worked away, many surrounding a fluffy animal on a large table. Here, electric shears gently cut through the fleece of an alpaca.
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It was shearing season on Kensington Prairie Farm. The staff were on day two of a four-day, labour-intensive effort to trim the coats of 100 alpacas. They had corralled about two dozen alpacas in two corners of the barn. Some had already dropped the weight of their coat of fleece and others were waiting for their turn.
The animals were docile, gentle, and well-behaved, but Catherine /Simpson warned this reporter not to be fooled by the group.
“Some of the old guys screech and holler,” she said with a chuckle. The animals aren’t in distress—they just don’t at all like having to get their haircut. They seem to feel much differently when, after only a few minutes on the table, they are released about eight pounds lighter.
“They feel wonderful when they’re shorn. They’re so happy,” Simpson said. “They’re so hot under there. Some of them are sopping wet underneath.”
There are two types of alpacas: Huacaya and Suri. At Simpson’s farm, which she has owned for more than two decades, the herd is primarily Huacaya. Their fleece is short, dense, and has a crimp that gives them the appearance of a fluffy teddy bear.
The animals can come in a variety of 26 different colours ranging from white to fawn and browns to blacks. Kensington Prairie Farm’s herd is primarily white, but on this particular afternoon, it was grooming day for fawn-coloured alpacas.
“Before we started the rescue program, most of my herd was white, because it was easiest,” Simpson said. “You can dye white any colour.”
She estimates in the past five years they’ve rescued about 100 animals, and not all alpacas. Some rescues were llamas, and others included pigs, ducks, bunnies, and chickens that have taken up permanent residence on the farm.
Simpson and her husband Jim Dale started their farm nearly 25 years ago. They had purchased five acres of land in Cloverdale and decided they wanted to keep some animals. Simpson originally considered getting llamas, but a friend advised her against it because they spit. Instead they purchased a herd of alpacas from a couple in Kelowna. Laughing, Simpson said she knew nothing about alpacas or farming at the time. For the first five years, the couple entered the alpacas in competitive shows, and quickly learned the traits that make a good alpaca and the ones that don’t—like the ones who are stubborn about getting their haircut.
Simpson and Dale quickly outgrew the farm. The pair went from owning a dozen alpacas to more than 30 animals. In 2006, the couple relocated to their current 45-acre property on the corner of 248 Street and 16 Avenue in Aldergrove. The farm’s growth and success has delighted the owners.
“It far surpassed my wildest imagination,” Simpson said. “I feel really proud. And it makes me excited when I talk about it, I get excited, because I haven’t lost the drive.”
That drive helped orchestrate the annual shearing event on the farm, which takes place every April. Simpson and her family expected to host 5,000 visitors over two days this year. (The Current visited on March 31, just before the event was opened to the public.)
“We really like it when people come from the city that have no idea what it means to farm, or raise animals, or the requirements of them, or what we’re up to, or what we do with the fleece—that’s a biggie,” she said.
The soft, silk-like fleece is the showcase of the shearing event that draws thousands every year. And it is what drew Simpson to the alpaca all those years ago.
Once the trimmer separates the fleece from the animal, it’s scooped up by another person who lays it out on a tall stand with metal wiring that serves as a tabletop. That’s where Simpson’s friend Cathy Merkley comes in. She and Simpson are the “old timers in the biz,” as Merkley described it. The pair have been in the industry together since the 90s.
Merkley is certified to sort and grade fleece. She visits Simpson from Saskatchewan each spring to help with the shearing. British Columbia is first to enter shearing season because of the climate; it’s not yet warm enough for animals in the Prairies to lose their winter coats.
The system used for Canadian classification is standard around the world, but there are some considerations that come into play regarding length, Merkley explained.
“So the length of the fiber determines the mill that it goes to, the process that it goes through, and the fineness of the fiber determines the end product that it gets made into,” Merkely said.
Merkley separated the fibers into long and short. Short fibres are blended with wool to make a range of yarn and batting. Long fibres are turned into finer yarns. But not all fibres are created equal, and each sample is graded. (Finer yarn is produced from grade-one and -two fiber. Mid-grade fibers are used for shawls and scarves; grade three fibers can make hand-knitting yarn.)
A fiber’s diameter, measured in microns, determines the grade of a fiber sample. (One micron is equal to one millionth of a metre.) But Merkley doesn’t need to use a magnifying glass.
“When they first told me that you could assess micron with your eyeballs, I thought that they were making things up,” she said. “But it turns out you can actually become really accurate.”
All the fibers will be made into yarn, blankets and clothing, many of which are sold in Simpson’s on-farm boutique alongside other imported alpaca products.
That side-project originally began in the bay of her garage—and Kensington Prairie will be expanding again, this time bringing in a food trailer for a restaurant.
Simpson said she’s done managing the growing business on her own and is proud of the direction her granddaughter is taking it.
What began as a small farm grew beyond anything Simpson had expected, and it continues to grow 25 years later. But the success didn’t come without some mishaps that today serve as a funny memory for the family.
“Sometimes we made mistakes and did dumb things and you know, running down the road chasing an alpaca because somebody forgot to shut the gate.”
But that was a mistake they quickly learned to never repeat.
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