There's one thing you can say for sure about Richard Falkenberg. He is, without question, the only retired-accountant-turned-llama-rancher in all of Mesa del Caballo.
Oh, all right. We didn't actually poll the neighborhood, so perhaps that's an erroneous assumption. But we are absolutely certain on this point: Even if there happens to be another retired-accountant-turned-llama-rancher in this quirky satellite community north of Payson, you can bet your alpaca sweater that he or she wouldn't be as much fun to chat with as Falkenberg.
It's impossible to say if the twinkle that is in Falkenberg's eye whenever he talks about his llamas is present when he discusses other issues, because in one recent conversation, anyway he never stopped dispensing information about the 10 Bolivian, Peruvian and Chilean llamas lounging in various states of repose on his property.
Llamas with names like Fuzzy Face and Razzle Dazzle. Llamas that Falkenberg hauls around the countryside in a trailer he calls "the llamasine."
These distant relatives of Asian camels are Falkenberg's business. He breeds them, sells their hair for up to $3 an ounce and rents them out for public-relations functions such as local movie premieres and bank openings. He competes in county fairs, having just brought home a dozen or so ribbons from a recent Flagstaff fair. He shares them with schools and nursing homes at no charge.
But more than that, these llamas are Falkenberg's pets. And above all, they are his family.
He's so proud of his adopted offspring, in fact, that anyone who wants to take a tour of his ranch, pet a few llamas, take a few pictures, and learn just about everything there is to know about them, need only do one thing: drop by. For free.
There's just one caveat.
"If they see the pickup in the driveway, folks can come right in," Falkenberg said, his eye-twinkle at full power. "If they don't see the pickup, forget the whole thing."
Falkenberg especially encourages those who visit to bring as many youngsters as they can round up.
"I love it when people bring children," he said. "You can leave a child all alone with a llama, even a big one, and the child will be safe. It's no problem. You can't do that with, say, cattle."
Should you spot Falkenberg's pickup and drop in, make sure you have some free time on your hands before you ask him what it is, exactly, he loves about llamas. It's possible his list is endless.
"Llamas are one of the easiest pets to take care of," Falkenberg said. "The feed, the care, the training, and you don't have to worry about a lot of diseases. They're quiet and very easy to train. They're like big puppy dogs. And they're potty trained!"
Another plus is that fencing is not a huge concern for a llama rancher, unlike those who ranch cattle and horses.
"If they do wonder off, they'll come back because they don't like being away from their group. The other night, one got out of the fence. He wandered around for 15 minutes, came back, and nuzzled me on the back of the neck, and followed me back to his pen."
All told, Falkenberg said, those qualities "sounded pretty good to me when I retired and then realized I didn't have anything to do."
Bred to haul loads across the Andes Mountains of South America thousands of years ago, llamas made their first appearance in the U.S. on farms in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s. By the mid-eighties, llama-farming caught on in unlikely places across the U.S. In the past 25 years, their numbers have increased from 5,000 to 125,000 in this country.
The one thing most folks of average weight and above cannot do with a llama is ride it.
"They can only carry about a tenth of their weight," Falkenberg said. "Since most llamas are between 250 and 450 pounds, that limits them to loads under 45 pounds. So only a child can ride a llama. But you can train them to pull carts; they can move a lot more weight that way."
Falkenberg took up llama ranching about 12 years ago, when he and his late wife, Lorraine, read some articles about llamas which outlined their aforementioned superiority to other ranchable critters.
They became hooked. They bought their first three llamas in Omaha, Neb., the llama capital of the U.S., and Lorraine, who had been an elementary school teacher, began taking the couple's budding herd to schools, libraries and nursing homes.
At the height of the Falkenberg's fair showings, they boasted some 28 head of llama.
"But that was a lot of work," Falkenberg sighed. "Just six of the llamas I have here right now are mine, and that's plenty for us older people to handle."
As Falkenberg prepares to return to his fine, furry family, he can't help but offer a few more llama factoids.
"They're great gardeners. They trim everything. You'll notice all of my trees are trimmed to a certain height. And I never have to worry about mowing."
"Yes, llamas do spit. It's a pecking-order thing and if one of them steps out of the pecking order, watch out. If you happen to be between them, that's your problem."
Finally, the most important information Falkenberg has to impart:
"If you ever are between them when they start spitting, raise your hands in the air. That shows them that you are bigger and superior, and they won't spit at you. But if you put your hands back down ... well, let me put it this way. Don't."
Sounds like serious advice, despite the twinkle in Richard Falkenberg's eye.
Llama ranchers of the Rim country
Richard Falkenberg's llama ranch is located on the east side of Caballero Road approximately three blocks north of Houston Mesa Road. He invites visitors to drive by any time, and they can visit at any reasonable hour when his pickup truck is visible in the driveway.
Further llama adventures, also free of charge, are offered at the Fossil Creek Llama Ranch in Strawberry. Located at 10379 W. Fossil Creek Road, it's about three-and-a-quarter miles west of Highway 87. Open by appointment year round, 7 days per week, the 17 llamas and one alpaca in residence may be viewed between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The ranch breeds, shears, boards and births llamas; offers free llama-produced fertilizer; and there's a small gift shop, too. For more information, call Joyce Bittner at (928) 476-5178.