Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture will hold its annual High Country Farm Tour on June 28 and 29. The tour allows visitors to weave through 20 different farms in two counties in the High Country. In the weeks leading up to the event, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture affiliates visited different farms on the tour, meeting the owners and their families and learning the story of each property. Here, Laura Johnson, a doctoral student working with BRWIA, visits the alpacas at Landmark Farms.
Before finding the perfect place to call their own in Grassy Creek, Ralph and Rachelle Bridges lived very different lives in Florida. But their lives were destined for a turn ever since Rachelle caught her first glimpse of an alpaca about 15 years ago and fell in love. The couples made trips together to alpaca farms on both coasts, somewhat spontaneous visits that Rachelle calls serendipitous. “I was totally hooked,” Rachelle recalls.
Years later, she and Ralph decided to raise alpacas in the mountains, where they could find a “rural, more placid and slow-pace life,” Rachelle explains. After boarding a few alpacas for a couple of years, they finally found their place in Grassy Creek. “We just fell in love with people in this town,” Rachelle said, explaining that she and Ralph felt welcome and at home in the beautiful West Jefferson area.
They own approximately 18 acres, with a barn for the alpacas. There are now 15 of the creatures — all different ages, sizes and colors — but there is one word that must be used to describe them all: cute.
That Ralph and Rachelle deeply love and care for their alpacas, just as they do for the land and the community, is clear. “These animals we love like our children,” Rachelle says. “We know each of their personalities. They’re fun and we get a lot of enjoyment out of that.”
Taking care of them in a way that keeps them happy and healthy is reflected in their end product: beautiful, quality fleeces. Their fleece has won a number of awards; the blue ribbons can be seen lining the walls of their onsite Paca Palace Fiber Shop, along with their award-winning (and internationally circulating) alpaca photographs.
The Bridges’ shop features yarns from their own alpacas, both hand-spun and mill-processed, along with a variety of yarns, scarves, gloves, hats and more that were imported from Peru. Ralph and Rachelle said that local fiber artists have been thrilled to find such gorgeous, quality materials to work with in a variety of natural colors, right here in Ashe County. At the same time, local farmers also use the “Paca Poo” as organic manure, feeding into the health of the land and the community.
Visitors are welcome to the farm year-round to meet the alpacas and browse the shop – just give a call to check first! The Bridges have participated in the High Country Farm Tour in the past and say they are looking forward to it again this year. For the tours, they’ve set up educational displays, allowing visitors to learn about the shearing process, touch different types of fleece, watch regional artists working with the fleece, browse for gifts or souvenirs and, of course, meet the alpacas – including their newest addition, Fellaman, just born in May!
Ralph and Rachelle hope to educate the public about what alpacas are used for and how easy they are to keep. “They’re a gentle, easy animal,” Rachelle explained. “And they can be raised in a way that’s easy on the environment … They are a green animal and they don’t require a lot of vet keep.”
Beyond that, the cute factor just has to be re-emphasized. And the fun factor. “Introducing the alpacas to people is fun,” Ralph said. “Like watching you meet your first alpacas today, that was fun!”
Fun indeed. I could have spent hours with these adorable creatures – especially Smudge, who immediately took a liking to me and showed it with kisses and some heavy ear breathing. But I won’t take it too personally – Rachelle says that Smudge “gives kisses to babies, old folks and everyone inbetween!”
— Laura Johnson
For more information on Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture’s High Country Farm Tour, visit farmtour.brwia.org. Check back later this week and next for more profiles from the High Country.