AFT’s Brighter Future Fund Helps Support Old Homestead Alpacas in the Pacific Northwest
We pulled into Old Homestead Alpacas on an overcast Friday in June. Owner Elaine Vandiver came over to greet us, having just returned from delivering her weekly flower subscriptions; the subscriptions are a newer endeavor that allows Elaine to diversify her offerings and to use the alpaca waste as fertilizer. This attempt to reuse and recycle as much as possible is a common theme here at Old Homestead Alpacas, and part of the trial-and-error approach that Elaine has taken.
Elaine did not grow up farming; raised in northwest Indiana, her memories of agriculture center on what she saw at the county fairs. In 2008 she and her husband Mike transitioned out of their military careers and moved to Walla Walla, Washington, intent on starting a family. When after several years they were unable to conceive, Elaine deeply felt the loss of what could have been and had a yearning to try something new.
In looking for land, they found and put an offer on a 10-acre parcel that included the original home and barn and was surrounded by acres of farmland. Before closing, they were told that the two llamas on the property came with the home, a revelation that Elaine, who at that time read contracts as part of an off-farm job, is certain was not stated anywhere in the official paperwork. Elaine and Mike decided to consider the llamas as built-in lawn mowers and signed the contract. After learning that alpacas, a relative of llamas, were smaller – and in Elaine’s opinion cuter, no offense to llama lovers – they added a few to the mix. By chance, Old Homestead Alpacas was born.
For the first few years, Elaine and Mike settled into a routine of working off-farm jobs during the day and spending their free time fixing the house, the barns, the electricity, the fencing, and a dozen other repairs and updates. The herd grew as they added more animals to their eight acres of pasture. The first years were challenging; there were high startup costs and lots of renovations. Elaine learned how to be nimble, how to market, and how to adjust for increasing shipping costs of feed. She kept moving ahead because she knew this was the life for her.
Once I got accustomed to farm life, and the four seasons and the fresh air and the views, and it was like, gosh, how can I pencil this out so I can really do this…
Farm life is not always idyllic. There are the fun days of yoga on the farm, the joy of selling the alpaca fiber products that Elaine dyes by hand using plants grown and dried on the farm, and the bouquets of stunning flowers delivered to happy customers. But in between those highlights there are resource challenges; for Old Homestead Alpacas the biggest two being time and finance. Economic stresses over the past few years have increased feed costs by 40%, and it can be difficult to keep up with marketing algorithms. Resources are available but limited. On top of all that there are the constants of fluctuating weather, bugs, and disease. Elaine credits her military service with instilling the tenacity that keeps her going.
I think having had that that experience, especially the year that I spent in Iraq was foundational, because here, the farm is 24/7. [The farm] doesn’t care if you’re having a bad day, it doesn’t care if there [are] bugs or if you’re feeling bad… if I didn’t have that military experience, I don’t know if I naturally am that tenacious.. just the grunt work, you know, like pulling weeds, shoveling poop, writing the expansive marketing emails… it’s the full gamut.
In 2022, Elaine applied for a Pacific Northwest Brighter Future Fund award through the American Farmland Trust. For Elaine, wind is a significant challenge to the flower subscription that she offers. Bouquets of flowers need straight stems, and the strong winds that move through Walla Walla batter the flowers. Trellises and other mitigation strategies have helped, but the funds will allow her to put up a strong chain-link slat fence on the property line that will more effectively stop the winds. Leftover funds will go to upgraded corrals for the alpacas, which will increase efficiency in moving them around the property.
As we ended our tour, we walked through the flower beds while Elaine shared some of her experiments in intensive growing and material reuse. She showed us the soon-to-be-replaced wind fence, which had broken and eaten up a lot of time in repair. Her goals for the upcoming year are to continue honing her systems and efficiencies, and to keep building community through on-farm events. At the heart of what she does is a love for her land and the belief that “…we need farmers, because it’s not a glamorous job, you know, definitely doesn’t pay all that well. But we need it, whether it’s fiber, flowers, or food; we need it.”
AFT is committed to supporting veteran women in agriculture throughout the Pacific Northwest through their Veteran Women for the Land project.