PARADISE, Cache County — Sharon Bartlett opens the door to her backyard pasture in Paradise and holds out a handful of food. As she does, a group of fuzzy faces crowd around to eat out of her hand.
With long necks like llamas and some of the most prized fleece in the world, John and Sharon Bartlett's 15 alpacas each have their own distinct personality, the Bartletts say.
With names like Sweet Pea, Teddy, Sadie Sue and Abigail, Sharon Bartlett describes her herd as sometimes sulky, demanding, spoiled or precocious. But having spent hours with them, either taking the herd out to pasture, caring for one with a broken leg or bottle-feeding a struggling baby, she said she's gotten very emotionally involved.
"I love them all," she said. "I've gotten attached to every one of them."
John Bartlett said alpacas are generally calm and friendly toward humans, and unlike llamas, if they do spit, they usually only spit at each other — although the Bartletts say they've been caught in the crossfire every once in a while.
"They have the mentality of a dog, but they're harder to train," John Bartlett said.
All of them know their own names, and if trained when they're young, he said they can make very good pets.
The Bartletts didn't buy a herd of alpacas to keep them as pets, however. About two years ago, John Bartlett retired from the outdoor and ski supply business and Sharon retired from her job with Intel in Riverton. They bought 17 acres of land in Paradise and bought six females — four of which were pregnant and two of which were nursing babies — from a neighboring alpaca farm in Paradise.
With their new herd and two big dogs to keep them safe from predators, they started Paradise Alpacas LLC.
The Bartletts are still in the process of building and improving their herd, but as they continue to breed their females with the best possible "herd sires," the Bartletts say some of their animals are potentially worth a lot of money. Banner, a 1-year-old potential herd sire, would have been worth $50,000 if he hadn't broken his leg as a baby. With surgery and metal plates in his leg, he's now able to walk again with a slight limp. If he's able to breed when he gets old enough, John Bartlett said he will still be worth $25,000 to $30,000, despite his injury.
Originally from Peru, alpacas have thick coats of soft fleece that can grow to be 4 to 6 inches long. Their fleece does not contain lanolin, Susan Bartlett said, making it hypoallergenic for people who can't stand the itch that comes with other types of wool. Their thick coats keep them happy during long winters in the high Andes, and in places like Oregon, New Zealand and Cache Valley.
"They love the cold," John Bartlett said. "In the winter, they'll just stand outside and sniff at the wind."
In the springtime, a traveling shearing company visits the Bartletts' farm to shear all of the alpacas, trim their toenails and file down their teeth. The fleece is then stored in the basement to be processed later and made into high-quality alpaca yarn.
Because he the son of a top-notch herd sire himself, Banner's reddish-brown fleece has an award-winning "crimp," or wave to it, that makes his fleece very valuable. Once sheared and processed, John Bartlett said good quality alpaca fleece might sell for $4 an ounce.
After being a ski instructor for 20 years and owning his own business, Canyon Sports, John Bartlett said being an alpaca farmer is definitely a change of pace. It's still a lot of work, he said. The Bartletts, along with Sharon's son, spend their days scooping poop with their Bobcat machine, administering oral medication for parasites, feeding the herd high-quality hay and taking them out to green pastures to graze.
For John and Sharon Bartlett, the work is rewarding. One of their favorite things to watch is when, every night before settling down to sleep, the herd will race around the pasture. Led by the younger alpacas, they will jump, kick, play and perform acrobatics in the air.
"It's fun to watch," Sharon Bartlett said. "One of them has always got something goofy going."