A Hair-Raising Experience

LIVING

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Many Rim country residents know of Richard Falkenberg and his llamas.

The retired cattle rancher and his beasts of burden are frequent visitors to local schools and nursing homes, and they are actively involved in the Rim Country Literacy Program and the Future Farmers of America program at Payson High School. He has even given two llamas to the FFA program for students to raise.

Falkenberg is also generous in welcoming visitors to El Falcon de la Colinas, his llama ranch in Mesa del Caballo.

"A lot of grandparents come by with their grandchildren on weekends and ask if they can see the llamas," Falkenberg said.

And if you were among the several thousand who attended last year's Main Street Electric Light Parade, the llamas in that event also belonged to Falkenberg.

All of the above is what Falkenberg refers to as the "public relations" end of the llama business.

At the other end -- the business end -- is raising and grooming the animals to show and sell, and Falkenberg's latest passion -- growing and showing llama "fiber" or "hair."

"We call it ‘fiber' or ‘hair' to distinguish it from wool," he said. "It's hollow, whereas wool is a solid product with lanolin in it. Llama fiber has no oil in it and it's odorless."

Products made of llama fiber, including sweaters, gloves, mittens and coats, are highly valued.

"It's much softer," Falkenberg said. "It doesn't scratch like wool, which has little scales attached to it."

Products made from llama or alpaca (a cousin to the llama) fetch a hefty price -- if you can even find them. Expect to pay anywhere from $250 into the thousands of dollars for a llama sweater.

Falkenberg is aware of only one retail outlet that carries llama products.

"You can buy llama items at Nordstrom's because Mrs. Nordstrom is a llama breeder," he said.

Otherwise, the only place you can buy llama products is at llama and livestock events that include llamas, where more and more spinners are bringing their fibers and letting people watch them at work. One such event is held each year in Flagstaff the weekend before Labor Day.

Falkenberg, who shows his llamas regularly, got interested in the hair end of the business only recently. In fact, he entered his first "hair show" last May.

"It was in Estes Park and they called it a wool show because they had goat and sheep wool as well," he said. "Not knowing what to do, I did several things wrong. But that's what you go to shows for -- to learn."

The hair Falkenberg entered came from a 15-month old llama named Razzle Dazzle, who was also entered in a competition.

"The animal came in fourth, but the hair came in fifth," he said with a laugh.

Part of the problem was that Razzle Dazzle's hair hadn't been cleaned, and it had a strong kerosene smell from the cleaning solution used on the clippers.

"When (the judge) opened the plastic bag all she smelled was the diesel and she immediately took points off left and right," he laughed. "I didn't know what I was doing, but I found out what to do."

Considering that the fifth place finish came against 12 competitors, Falkenberg didn't feel too bad about his first hair show. And with what he's learning about llama fiber, don't be surprised if he starts bringing home blue ribbons for his llama hair to display beside the many blue ribbons his llamas have earned.

There are short, medium and long-hair llamas, although the latter two are pretty much indistinguishable. The short hairs are used primarily as pack animals because they're easier to maintain.

Long-haired llamas are often bred for the quality and length of their fiber, which can reach six inches or more. Because Falkenberg's llamas have a lot of interaction with people, he also tries to breed for calmness.

Long-haired llamas are sheared once a year, usually in the spring. An electric blower is used first to clean the fiber, removing dirt and dust. Then the llama is sheared with electric clippers or hand shears.

Compared to wool, llama fiber is very fine.

"Wool is heavy and thick and much harder to work with," Falkenberg said. "Because llama fiber is hollow it's very light and fibrous. You're lucky if you get a pound off one llama."

Falkenberg sends the fiber off to one of several facilities that will spin it into yarn. It comes back to him in a skein or on a spool.

While llama fiber can be died or blended with silk, Angora or other fibers, Falkenberg keeps it simple.

"So far I haven't even separated the colors (of hair -- white, black and several shades of brown), so it just comes back a tan color," he said.

While Falkenberg sells some of the yarn, he's also taking some tenuous steps toward creating his own finished products. He's learning to knit and he has two wooden forms with pegs, one that turns out scarfs and the other caps.

"It's just like crocheting," he said.

With the llama population growing dramatically in the United States, a wider variety of purposes and products is needed for the animals.

Falkenberg believes the superior qualities of llama fiber will make its cultivation and harvest increasingly important.

"Llamas were here in North America until the glaciers moved them south to the Andes," he said "They were brought back here in 1929, but their numbers didn't really grow until the 50s and 60s. They went from 3,000 to 150,000 in the U.S. today.

"Their No. 1 function is still backpacking, but number two is now fleece."

One thing is for sure, Falkenberg says -- a lot of his friends can expect llama scarfs and caps for Christmas.

(To arrange a visit from or to Falkenberg's llamas, call him at 468-1583 to make an appointment.)

Do llamas spit?

Yes, and with "marvelous accuracy," according to Falkenberg.

"I've heard of ones in zoos that are good at 20 to 30 feet," he said. "But the llamas in zoos and petting places have often been mistreated and are problem animals. Normally llamas won't spit at people."

Falkenberg, in fact, has never been on the receiving end of a "llama lloogie," but his late wife, Lorraine, sometimes was.

"Primarily they spit at each other to establish and maintain a pecking order," he said. "She would try to split them up when she was feeding them and sometimes they'd spit at her."

Although llamas are pretty much odorless animals, their spit is particularly offensive, Falkenberg says.

"It's regurgitated hay or grass that has gone through three stomachs. It's fermented and has an awful odor. It's terrible."

Which makes it a good thing llamas are, by nature, gentle and peaceful animals.

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