MEXICO, Mo. — Several wide-eyed, toddling children decked in coats, boots and hats surrounded a two-foot-tall baby alpaca named Sweet Pea in Saturday’s early morning chill. They reached out carefully to pet her soft hair.
The sight is a familiar one for Sandy Binder, who owns and operates Mid Missouri Alpacas, a farm in Mexico, Mo. This is the fifth time she’s participated in National Alpaca Farm Days, an annual event featuring tours and live music that took place Saturday. It's sponsored by the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.
According to Binder, Sweet Pea is one of roughly 50 alpacas that roam in fenced fields. She also hosts about 30 more “boarding” alpacas from other farmers. Some come from as far away as Las Vegas and as near as Jefferson City.
Binder primarily runs the farm, but Saturday’s event was a family operation. Her adult children traveled in from Orlando, Fla., Indianapolis and St. Louis to help, much like they do during family get-togethers and holidays.
Binder’s first stop was a barn located on the corner of the property, where her daughter, Angie Binder, and her nephew, Will Binder, helped her harness and lead three of her boarding alpacas around inside.
Isabella Binder, the 3 1/2-year-old daughter of Sandy Binder's son, Mike Binder, assisted her grandmother, while her father manned a coffee and popcorn stand out front.
“We saw some alpacas at a farm show back in the early ’90s, and we just said, ‘We’re going to get some,’” Sandy Binder said as she gently tugged on a rope harnessed to an almost 1-year-old alpaca named Lila. “The first alpaca I had was a big teddy bear.”
The Binders didn’t get that first alpaca until 1999, when their children were out of college. As Sandy Binder’s interest in owning alpacas grew, so did the community of alpaca owners in the Midwest. Binder said there are now 111 alpaca farms across Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois.
“People in Missouri used to meet in each others' homes,” she said. “Now we have to rent facilities.”
Binder’s farm is also home to an apple orchard, and there is a store that features a collection of scarves, hats, gloves and sweaters, most of which are made from her alpacas’ hair.
Binder said she’s always loved to spin and weave, an interest that she said goes hand in hand with alpaca farming.
Saturday, Binder met a group of about five families at the gate to the farm’s barn, the first in line just after 10 a.m. for a tour.
She led the families to a fenced area she calls the “maternity ward,” where three female alpacas stood with their babies — called cria — two of which were just weeks old.
The rest of Binder’s herd roamed other fenced parts of the fields. Binder said she keeps the males separate from the females to avoid breeding problems and pregnant alpacas are also separated from the rest.
Binder swept up a two-week-old black baby alpaca in her arms and carried her to the children, where she let each one pet the animal. The baby, called Houdini because she escaped four times from her pen, elicited amazement from children and parents alike.
A lone male peeked in on the group from an enclosure. He is a womanizer, hence the separation, Binder said.
“He cuts through the fence, and he heads for the females,” she said.
Clark Andelin, who was visiting with his wife, Jessica, and three children, Olivia, 4, Isaac, 3 and Helen, 1, said he enjoyed the chance to get outdoors with his family.
“How often do you get a chance to meet people that are raising alpacas?” he asked as he walked back from the fields and toward the bluegrass jam session that had started out front.
“I’ve always thought it’d been fun to have a little farm and on some level raise animals," he said. "I think there’s something therapeutic and connects you more with nature than the average suburban life. It would be good for kids, for one thing.”
Jessica Andelin, his wife, already had the perfect alpaca picked out.
“I want one, baby. I want that one,” she said, pointing at the male who’d been fenced off by himself.
As Clark Andelin surveyed the Binders' farm, which had become more and more lively with children's laughter, barking dogs and country singing, he smiled.
"This is what community should be all about," he said. "People coming out with their guitars and people eating apples that are locally grown and raising animals, not because you're going to make a mint but just because it's fun."