By Bob Smith
Kitsap News Group
OLALLA — Folks stopping for a peek at a nicely appointed 5 1/2-acre farm on SE Willock Road might notice a row of oversized, curious eyes peering over a fence, all of them staring back.
Those peepers belong to a bunch of characters who possess unique personalities of their own. There’s Outlaw, the 12-year-old senior citizen of the group. McGregor is something of a class clown. Queen of the bunch is Destiny, who is a charismatic figure at the farm.
So, who are these characters and why are they staring?
Outlaw, McGregor and Destiny are just three out of 19 Huacayas alpacas that are the prized stock of Cindy and Harlie Hanke, owners of the White Cloud Alpacas farm in Olalla. The Hankes opened their farm in 2008 after buying rural acreage so they could stable their small herd of these gentle, domesticated cousins of the llama, who originated in South America thousands of years ago.
The Hankes got their first exposure to the irresistible creatures in 2007 when they came across an alpaca farm, stopped their car and got a closer look at the doe-eyed charmers. Smitten, they soon purchased three females and placed them on their acreage in Maple Valley.
As the couple began the process of retiring from Boeing — Harlie was a machinist in Auburn and Cindy worked in finance at the Renton plant — they bought their current property in Olalla. And before long, the Hankes had a herd of nine to care for.
Unlike other farm animals, alpacas could be considered the perfect livestock creature: They are gentle, leave their byproduct in communal piles on the property, require little care other than the occasional toenail trimming and worming, and stay relatively tidy.
The Hankes’ daily routine on the farm includes about 35-40 minutes to clean the fields by scooping up the animals’ droppings. Other than making sure the herd has food and water, the alpacas’ only other requirement is to “hang out with them,” Harlie said.
And for a retired couple, that’s just fine. “Well, they’re just beautiful animals and easy to take care of,” Cindy Hanke said. “I read that a lot of alpaca owners are women because of the animal’s size and ease of care.”
To top it off, each alpaca comes equipped with its own unique view of the world. “They all have their own particular personality,” Cindy said. “Some are friendlier than others. They can be goofy, and some are a little more feisty. But they all are pretty gentle and curious animals.”
Cindy said their alpaca community has a special affinity for small children. “They just love little kids,” she said. “I think it’s because kids are at their eye level.”
Alpacas are so intelligent and endearing — they’re all eyes and burst with curiosity when a visitor approaches — that some people want to buy them so they can pet their alpaca as you do with your dog Rover.
“They don’t really like that,” Cindy said. “They’ll let you pet them, but they’ll pull back when they’ve had enough.”
Harlie Hanke said their own herd knows they are alpacas, thank you very much. “We raise them to be alpacas,” he laughed. “Some people imprint on them when they’re born so that the alpacas don’t know whether they’re an alpaca or not. That can be a bad thing.”
While some alpaca owners like to have the animals on their property just for the sheer joy they bring to family and visitors, farmers with larger herds are able to generate varying levels of income from them.
“What alpaca farms are finding is that for generating income, you sell some of your animals, you sell their fiber and make products from the fiber for selling on their websites,” Cindy noted. “It’s kind of a well-rounded business. But people are interested in different aspects of alpacas, so each farm is unique.”
The raw fleece, or fiber, an alpaca produces — sometimes up to 10 pounds after shearing in early summer — can bring from $15 to $27 a pound. After their shearer finishes clipping the herd, the Hankes will sell the raw fiber and yard to spinners in the area.
And the byproduct that Harlie picks up each day? It’s a highly sought-after fertilizer by gardeners. “The manure is much richer for gardens and doesn’t burn plants. Chicken manure will really burn up your garden,” he said.
That’s because alpacas have three stomachs, which helps them digest their food more thoroughly and eliminate acidy properties in the manure’s composition.
By picking up after the alpacas each day, they reduce the parasites to which the animals are susceptible. “I don’t have to vaccinate as much,” Harlie said.
Nature invariably provides predators, and alpacas on the Olalla farm and elsewhere have found coyotes to be their nemesis. To keep them away from the herd, Harlie has securely enclosed the pasture land with hot-wired fencing. But critical to the herd’s safety is Maya, a white Akbach-breed dog, who keeps watch 24/7 on the property.
“When she hears the coyotes, Maya will come out to the fields, get in front of the alpacas and bark at them,” Harlie said.
Despite Maya’s life-or-death duties, she’s a friendly girl who nevertheless has been taught not to play with and chase the alpacas. “She’s really good with them,” he said.
From oldster Outlaw to 7-month-old youngster Arya, the herd is by and large a close-knit herd. But from time to time, the Hankes break up the group and will sell members of the herd as part of their income-producing business. Alpacas sell for prices that depend greatly on an animal’s qualities: Is it a show alpaca, will it sire or breed, or is it suitable just for weekend farmers?
Cindy said the animals sell for a wide range of prices — from $100 on up to $50,000 to $60,000. The average price, she said, runs anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000.
The Hankes plan to continue their alpaca business until it becomes too much for them to handle in their retirement years. But in the meantime, Harlie will continue to enjoy what he said the alpacas provide him: a sense of relaxation and peacefulness.