ST. JOSEPH — From the road, it looks just like all the farms that surround it. A large, white house sits just off the lane with a dirt path leading to the big, red barn out back. It's not until you pull a little closer that you start to see a bit of a difference.
Instead of the traditional barbed wire, there's wood and metal fencing. Large water tanks are replaced by smaller, more personal ones, and instead of cows and calves grazing in the fields, animals native to the Andes munch quietly nearby.
Owned by Patricio and Veronica Mujica and managed by their son, Pat Mujica, the Aconcagua farm has been sitting near Agency only for the last five years, but it's already emerging as a powerhouse in the alpaca industry.
The family got its start in alpaca farming in 2002 when Mujica's business partner bought his first animals, which are valuable for the fiber they produce. Now the farm has over 70 alpacas.
"One day, dad called up and said, 'I like them. You want to go to a show with me?" Pat Mujica remembered. "So we went to our first show, and I was like, 'Wow!' For one thing they're cute, cuddly things, and then we went to an auction and we saw what they were bringing, and we were like, 'You have got to be kidding me.'"
The pair jumped at what they thought was an investment opportunity — visiting farms, talking with breeders and buying their first pair of pregnant females. But as soon as the babies, or cria, hit the ground, the family was hooked. Four years later, they moved the operation to northwest Missouri, where the costs to feed and house the animals are nearly half of the cost in the northeast.
Today, Aconcagua is home to Naruda, a national fleece champion in 2000 and 2001, and the farm is concentrating on the elite side of the business, using the national champion to produce high-quality cria that can be sold for thousands of dollars at national shows.
"You have to go out there and show what you've got in order to get people to say, 'OK, that's a good quality,'" Pat Mujica said. "You have to go to shows to show what you got and get color champions and stuff like that. And you've got to sell."
The Mujicas aren't the only ones establishing an exotic farm in the region. According to the Midwest Alpaca Owner and Breeder's Association, Aconcagua is one of 81 such farms in Missouri and Kansas.
"There are so many people attending these shows they have to get bigger and bigger and bigger facilities and more convenient for everyone in the area," Pat Mujica said. "In this area, you see more and more Alpaca farms cropping up."
Diane Howard owns one of those farms. After her husband died, the Effingham, Kan., woman decided to fulfill a life-long dream.
"My husband always promised me I could have livestock when we lived at the farm full time," she remembered. "After he was gone, I realized that I needed something I could handle on my own. I looked at sheep and goats, and then came across a magazine in Tractor Supply that talked about alpacas. That got me started because they were cute and fuzzy and all of the traditional reasons that you might fall in love with them."
Despite her enthusiasm, Howard took it slow. She visited several local alpaca farms to see how it all worked. After almost a year of research, she decided to get a taste of farm life, so she grabbed her son and volunteered to help a couple of farms with one of their most difficult chores — sheering. That's when she finally made her decision.
"I don't have an ag background," Howard admitted. "I wasn't raised on a farm, so this was all very new to me. We spent two days sheering at other farms because I figured I wanted to know the bad side, too. We both came out of it even more enthused. Yeah, there's hard work, but there's a lot of reward and payoff, too."
Howard purchased her first few animals, four females and two males, and grew from there. That was in 2006. Now she has 27 animals on the farm.
"I've taken on some rescue animals, those other people didn't want or need anymore and just wanted to be done with," Howard said. "That's one of the reasons I grew so quickly."
And she can't imagine life any other way.
"It's something I can share with them," she said. "My grandson just loves them. He loves to help me out in the barn with the animals."
Pat Mujica agreed.
"For me, this is definitely a lifestyle," he said. "You walk out your back door and go to work. You look up and your kids are playing right there, but you're at work. And when you have a rough day, you can get out your lawn chair, come out here and watch the little guys bouncing around in the fields. The juveniles are like little kids. They're spunky, they get to hopping around like Bambi, in synchronization across the field. They're adorable.