Farming for fleece in Stonington
Stonington — Pam Brewster still remembers the despair she felt after the death of her husband, Michael Duffy, five years ago.
The two operated the majestic Stillmeadow Farm off Al Harvey Road, where Duffy was a bloodstock agent brokering first warmbloods, some of which went on to compete in the Olympics, and later thoroughbreds, over the years.
There were about a dozen horses on the farm when the 53-year-old Duffy died unexpectedly in 2009, and amid the sorrow and confusion Brewster said there was only one thing she knew for certain, and that was that she was done running a horse farm.
"I just knew I couldn't handle the farm after Michael died, and I knew I did not want to do thoroughbreds anymore," she said.
Brewster shipped the horses to a broker in Kentucky to sell for her, and wiped the slate clean at Stillmeadow Farm.
"People must have thought I was nuts," she said. "I knocked everything down, including the big indoor ring. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I needed a change."
She leveled a 36-stall barn, the massive indoor riding ring and some outbuildings. Then Brewster set her mind to deciding what she would do with the almost 300-acre property - 98 acres of it pasture - that her late father, William Brewster, had bought with the intention of preserving as open space in the early 1960s.
Over the five decades the Brewster family has owned the property, it has mostly housed horses. First as a riding school established by Pam Brewster's late mother, Helen, after the death of William Brewster in 1966. And then when Pam and Michael Duffy took it over after their marriage in 1979, as a business brokering equestrian sport and race horses.
Today, Stillmeadow Farms - "Shhhh, just listen. It's still," said Duffy, holding an index finger to her lips when asked how the farm got its name - is home to a herd of Huacaya alpacas, 64 to be precise, but the number is growing, sometimes daily.
The farm is indeed serene, with various paddocks situated on both sides of rural Al Harvey Road and old maples spreading their branches to form canopies for shade. There are ponds, a new barn now, and other buildings, including Brewster's home.
Working as a team with farm manager Sylvie Remingol, who first met Brewster when she was hired as a nanny for Pam and Michael Duffy's daughter, Kate, about 25 years ago, she is establishing Stillmeadow as a producer of top-notch alpacas.
It was not a straight path from horses to alpacas, a species of South American came lids first imported to the U.S. in 1984.
Brewster tried or considered Scottish Longhorn cattle, milking cows and rescue donkeys before Remingol, who had most recently worked on a horse farm in Kildare, Ireland, suggested alpacas.
"I just wanted to find something that was profitable and did not involve the slaughter of animals," said Brewster, who admits that after her original introduction she was quickly smitten with alpacas.
"They're just very easy animals. They don't require a lot of work, and the more you're around them, the more they grow on you," she said.
Remingol, who had been in discussions with Michael Duffy before his death about returning to Stonington to work at Stillmeadow, came to work alongside Brewster in May 2010 and not too long afterward Brewsterbegan investing in alpacas.
Both admit they started somewhat naively, buying their first two alpacas more on impulse than making an educated, business-like decision.
But the two started to learn everything they could about the animals that produce one of the world's finest and most luxurious natural fibers. Today, the national Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association boasts more than 4,000 members who collectively own more than 160,000 registered alpacas in North America.
Focus on fleece
Every alpaca at Stillmeadow is micro-chipped and registered. They are shorn annually and their fleece analyzed by a Denver testing laboratory that counts microns in the fiber, its variation, spin fineness, mean curvature, comfort factor and more.
Stillmeadow sells its fleece to a co-op, where it is combined with fleece from other farms, and some of it ends up at fashion houses like Loro Piana and Ralph Lauren.
The focus now is producing "the creme de la creme" of alpacas, said Duffy, who explained the value of the animals is not just their fleece, but stud fees paid for top-quality sires and the sale of some offspring.
Remingol, who is French, runs the daily alpaca operation, including breeding, which in the alpaca industry is called "settling" or "getting them covered." Last year, 17 crias (baby alpacas) were born at Stillmeadow, and that number is growing. Brewster said she'd likely top out at about 90.
Every alpaca at Stillmeadow gets a name - Sage, Hero, Bling, Talullah, Truffle, Gandhi, Deliah and Tina -to name a few.
And they share the farm with eight dogs, two miniature donkeys, two cats, laying hens and three horses for riding.
When alpacas want space, or food, they sometimes spit, but otherwise they're easier to care for than the dogs, said Brewster. In spring and summer they are satisfied with grass in the pasture and water, and in winter, they require about a bale of hay a month, said Remingol.
At Stillmeadow, there are open sheds where the alpacas can go in and out as they please, and the dams (females) and herdsires (breeding males) are housed in separate paddocks. When a new cria arrives, he or she is isolated in a separate pasture with the mother until the baby is mature enough to join the rest of the herd.
Sometimes Brewster or Remingol will revert to old horse terms, like calling a dam a mare, but mostly they're fully engaged in the alpaca operation now. They expect to open a small shop offering socks, sweaters and other items made from fleece at the farm by the fall.
Brewster is convinced that her father, who bought the property more than 50 years ago to protect it from development, would be pleased with what she's doing now.
"He was a real naturalist. He enjoyed his Sunday walks," she said, "and I miss him terribly."
But she said just like her late husband had an eye for a good horse, her father had an eye for pristine property.
"This is just a special piece of land, and he didn't want someone else to buy it and develop it," said Brewster.
Over the decades, she said she's come to realize that Stillmeadow is different.
"I don't know what it is about this place. Maybe it's something in the water, or in the ground, or in the air. I'm not sure what it is, but the animals are at peace here," said Brewster. "Whenever there is a troubled animal and they bring him here, he is at peace."
The alpacas certainly seem satisfied. Newly shorn, Remingol said they look like lollipops, loping around the pastures. They're curious when a visitor arrives, gathering at a fence to get a look at her. And then they're off again.
"They're very happy here," said Brewster, who said she is happy, too, with her new business venture.
There are two types of alpacas - Huacaya and Suri
They typically live 15 to 25 years
On average a mature adult weighs 160 pounds
Fleece comes in a variety of colors from white to ivory, shades of brown, silver-grey, rose-black and black
Each animal will produce 3 pounds to 10 pounds of fleece annually
Females begin breeding at 15-18 months and males can "settle" a female at about 3 years
Females produce one baby per year (twins are uncommon) and have a reproductive life of 10 to 12 years
In addition to color, fleece density, uniformity, fineness, luster and staple length affect the value of fleece
Animals are shorn annually and fleece is analyzed by a laboratory
Source: Alpaca Owners & Breeders Association
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