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A day on the alpaca farm
Get up close and personal with these fun, fuzzy creatures
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Two of Becky and Lee Eernisse’s children sit with the family alpacas, new mom Donna Juanita and her new cria, or alpaca baby, Stonewall Jackson. The Eernisse’s farm, Glory Ranch, is located at 102 Leatherwood Road in Toccoa. The farm will be open to visitors from 1-5 p.m. Sunday. - photo by For The Times

They have long, shaggy coats, padded feet with toenails and each one has its own personality.

But no, they're not dogs or cats. These fuzzy creatures are alpacas, and this weekend, everyone is invited to see these funny creatures up close and personal at Alpaca Farm Days.

Gilliland's Heritage Alpacas in Hoschton and Glory Ranch in Toccoa are taking part in National Alpaca Farm Days, which includes farm tours, the chance to pet and feed the gentle creatures and the opportunity to feel their fibers before and after they're spun into yarn.

At Gilliland's Heritage Alpacas, six other local farms will show their alpacas as well, said farm owner Angie Gilliland, and the weekend festivities include face painting, an inflatable slide and special appearances by ice cream store Carvel. And every hour, Gilliland will give educational tours of the farm, where 36 huacaya alpacas and two guard llamas roam.

The huacaya (pronounced wa-kai-ah) alpacas are the more common of the two main types of alpacas. They are distinguished by their shorter, fluffier hair. The suri alpacas, which are a bit less common, have longer strands of hair that almost look like yarn and are finer to the touch.

But despite their differences, wool from alpacas is 99 percent hypoallergenic, Gilliland said, and clothing made from alpaca fibers can usually be worn by anyone with an allergy to wool.

Becky Eernisse and her family in Toccoa will also have their eight alpacas on display this weekend at Glory Ranch Alpacas. Plus, visitors can see their pasture-raised chickens and other farm animals on this working farm.

"We're going to have some of our animals out so (visitors) can actually touch the animals, feel the fiber. We'll have raw fleece off the animals so they can actually see what that looks like when they've been sheared. We'll have the alpaca yarns so they can see what it looks like when it's spun, and we'll have some finished goods, also," Eernisse said. "So they can see the animal, the fleece, the yarn and the product."

As part of the day's activities in Hoschton, Gilliland said there will be spinning demonstrations, and she will also be signing up those interested in knitting classes she teaches that are held at the farm. Or, visitors can purchase the robing, or alpaca fleece that has been cleaned and is ready for spinning.

Gilliland said the alpacas are friendly, fun creatures. They don't have hooves like a horse or a cow; rather, they have a padded foot with a toenail, like a dog, that needs to be trimmed once a month.

Eernisse said she and her husband decided to move the family, which includes four children ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers, from Young Harris to Toccoa to start a business in which everyone could participate. After doing some research, they decided alpacas were good animals to raise and let even the youngest child help take care of them.

"We wanted to do a family business, something that everybody could be involved in," she said. "They're gentle animals; they are easy to handle - I'm only 5 feet tall and I look them in the eye.

"The alpacas are gentle, they don't kick, they don't bite," Eernisse added. "I have little, little children and they can go right out and feed the alpacas and there's no problem."

Plus, Eernisse said, it's fun getting to know their different personalities.

"Some are more curious than others, some are more standoffish," she said. "There's a lot going on out there that you don't see just at first glance when you see alpacas grazing; there's a lot of hierarchy and the socialization between the animals that's interesting."

Their coats get sheared once a year, Gilliland said, which isn't painful for them and, in fact, after they get their haircuts, she said, the animals will frolic around the pasture, free of their coat's weight.

"They yoo-hoo," she said, describing the alpacas running around the pasture. "They run and jump and roll because they haven't really gotten to, their fleece has gotten 5 or 6 inches, so they can't itch or scratch their skin.

"Once they're shorn they'll roll in the grass. They really like it, getting that fleece off," she added.

An alpaca will produce about 5 to 10 pounds of fiber a year.

And along with the festival-like atmosphere this weekend, Gilliland said she hopes families can have fun meeting the alpacas, too.

"They're the most gentle animal you'll ever meet."