ALMA, Neb. — Being an alpaca rancher is an unorthodox life for a woman from Chicago, but Tashia Butterfield couldn’t be happier.
She’s so happy, in fact, that she named her first alpaca Joy. Since then, she’s added 12 “girls,” as she calls her females, and eight “boys” and opened a small fiber shop.
Butterfield was teaching at a yarn store in Chicago when she visited an alpaca farm near Rockford, Ill. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. “I had never experienced anything like it,” she said.
The timing was far from perfect. In three weeks, she was slated to leave for South Korea to teach English for a year. While she packed, she squeezed in visits to six alpaca ranches in the Chicago region and bought a pregnant alpaca from that Rockford farm. She named her Joy. She boarded Joy and its cria, or calf, born a month later, at the Rockford farm while she was gone.
During her time in South Korea, Butterfield researched alpacas. She learned that their fiber, like cashmere, wool and angora, is a natural product. She’d worked with only manmade fibers in Chicago.
“I grew up in the city, so I wasn’t knowledgeable about any of this,” she told the Kearney Hub .
She came home in 2012 and mapped out her new life as an alpaca rancher.
“When I looked at the cost of living and the cost of land, Nebraska was a better choice than my native Illinois,” she said.
She knew south-central Nebraska because her father, Larry, now a pastor in Chicago, was born in Kearney and raised in Norton, Kan. He had family in Bloomington.
She moved in with relatives in Bloomington and found rural Nebraska to be blissfully quiet and friendly. Shortly after she arrived, acquaintances who were retiring from their alpaca business gave her 15 alpacas.
She kept them on a family friend’s old calving pasture while searching for land for her ranch.
“I learned that finding property online was not the way to go. I had to visit sellers in person,” she said. “I was looking for 20 acres, but finding that in this area was a struggle. The land most commonly sold was too large for what I needed.”
Finally, through word of mouth, she tracked down a 42-acre site that “had everything on my wish list except a house. Nothing needed to be fixed except a few fences.”
She bought it and housed her “girls” in the barn. The “boys” came a year later after her father built her a second barn. She found a house to rent a few miles away.
Her alpacas feed on grass, while her pregnant and nursing females also get pellet feed.
“Otherwise, I just provide quality pasture and hay and minerals,” she said.
The value of alpacas lies in the seven pounds of fiber they produce each year. Butterfield shears them at what she calls “harvest time” every spring. The first two years, she hired a crew to shear them, but by the third year, both her herd and the cost of shearing them almost doubled, so she sheared them herself.
“I learned from watching, and from YouTube,” she said.
This spring, she perfected her shearing with the help of an expert. Now she shears for other alpaca ranchers, too.
“Learning the details is important when you’re raising fiber animals,” she said. “How you shear affects the quality of the end product. You can’t just throw the fiber in a bag. That’s compromising the bottom line. The market value depends on how much it’s been processed.”
She processes the fiber at The Shepherd’s Mill in Phillipsburg, Kan. Fiber that is “not good enough to be yarn” becomes rugs, dryer balls and covering for bird nests.
“Everything gets used, including the manure. Alpaca manure is one of the greatest benefits for a garden,” she said.
Butterfield also has a few llamas that function “as guard dogs. When a predator approaches, alpacas will turn and run. Llamas will stare it down,” she said.
Her business is growing steadily. In June, she opened Butterfield Alpaca Ranch Yarn Shop & Alpaca Store in Alma. There, she teaches fiber arts classes and sells alpaca products, yarn, and soil additives for gardens.
“Everything in the store is American-grown and made,” she said.
She has also produced more than 100 videos on alpacas, shearing, fiber, medical issues and more for her Butterfield Alpacas and Fiber Arts Podcast on YouTube. She hears from knitters, crocheters, weavers and spinners from all over the world.
“I want to help fiber owners and new alpaca owners care for their animals,” she said.
For now, she retains her day job as a data analyst for a health care consultant, but within five years, she hopes to produce a line of yarn, dye her own products and expand her store.
“Sure, there are challenges, especially since I’m doing this on my own, but I find it rewarding. Animals make my day better. They make me de-stress,” she said.
Asked the hardest part about having alpacas and her answer came quickly.
“When the alpacas die,” she said.