A light rain begins to drizzle over the green grass of Debbie and Narvel Pettis’ 9-acre Plant City farm.
“They’ll be coming in now,” Debbie says of her livestock. “They don’t like the rain.”
The couple sits in their stable, waiting for the clean stalls to fill up. But the stalls aren’t the shelter of cows or horses. The Pettises own Sweet Blossom Alpaca Farm.
Sure enough, the long-necked animals hoof their way through the gate, led by a guard llama named Winona.
Winona hightails it into the first stall. She knows there’s a stranger in the stable and wants to make sure everyone is safe. Her youngster suckles at her teat as she stands tall.
But it’s Debbie’s favorite alpaca, Lily, that gets a closer look. She is allowed out of her stall to roam the stable freely. Her dark fawn coat is barely damp from the sprinkle. She approaches a table set out with bags of alpaca fleece, first-place show ribbons and alpaca clothing products.
When Narvel grabs an alpaca stuffed animal off the table, Lily skits away cautiously.
Debbie bottle-fed Lily herself after Lily’s mother died four years ago. Lily was their first alpaca.
“There’s some that I will never sell,” Debbie says. “It’s just fascinating to raise these guys.”
Debbie’s love of alpacas grew from a newspaper article she read about the animals. When she showed Narvel a picture of one with just the neck and head in the frame, Narvel couldn’t believe his eyes. She started talking him into visiting a farm.
“I said, ‘What farm? What is it?’” Narvel remembers.
“I thought what a strange-looking animal,” Debbie says. “I just fell in love with them. They are such beautiful creatures.”
The couple began to do research on alpacas and visited farms to observe their behavior and care. At the time, Debbie held a full-time position at a consulting firm in IT global management. The peace and tranquility of the farm was what she needed.
“That’s what drew me to this,” Debbie says. “I sit in an office on the phone. Coming out here when I need a five-minute break, it relaxes me.”
So, four-and-one-half years ago, the Pettises started their own alpaca farm.
“I jumped on board,” Narvel says. “They were different. They really grow on you. They all have their own personalities.”
The Pettises named their farm Sweet Blossom Alpaca Farm to pay tribute to Plant City’s strawberry heritage.
Today, Debbie knows all her 48 registered alpacas by name.
Alpacas are prized for their fleece. A single alpaca can produce five to 10 pounds of fiber per year.
Sweet Blossom alpacas are all Suri alpacas. Their fleece is less crimped than Huacaya alpaca fleece, and it hangs in loose locks like human hair. The Suri fleece is better suited to be woven, and even famous designer Armani has been known to design suits and expensive products using Suri fleece.
At their farm, the Pettises sell wholesale goods, such as socks and scarves, made from alpaca fleece. They also send their own alpaca fiber to a mill to be woven into thread.
Shearing season in Florida is around April. In the northern part of the United States, the season occurs in May or June.
In addition to the fleece, the Pettises also sell alpacas. Some of their females could fetch up to $8,000 and sometimes even much more.
When the Pettises sell an alpaca, they take great care to investigate where it is going.
“It’s almost like their being adopted,” Debbie says. “We raised them.”
It’s easy to see the love they have for their alpacas. The couple freely gives kisses to those who will tolerate it. Some like it more than others. Lily enjoys following Debbie around the stable.
Customers come in for different needs. Some just want an alpaca for its fiber, while others want them for breeding or shows.
When it comes to shows, it’s all about the bloodline. Debbie’s goal is to raise the quality of her herd by purchasing highly valued herdsires. There are two types of competitions. Competitors can send in alpacas fiber, or they can bring the actual alpaca into be judged.
With 22 different alpaca colors, there is an extensive criteria by which fiber is judged. The Pettises have been to at least 20 shows and have sent their fibers out to even more. They have won close to 100 ribbons.
“Now that I have these guys, I don’t think I could live without alpacas,” Debbie says.
Contact Amber Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alpaca National Farm Day
The Pettises will open their farm for Alpaca National Farm Day Sept. 28 and 29, at 4102 Flaming Arrow Drive, Plant City.
The Pettises will offer a cookout and tour of the farm.
For more information, call (813) 335-7387.
In addition to the 48 alpacas on the farm, there are also three donkeys, chickens and two llamas.
One of the llamas, Winona, is a guard llama. She leads the alpacas in and out of the stable and scans the pastures for trouble.
Her mate, Zippy, is less alert. The Pettises joke that he is a “stable potato,” who likes the comfort of his shelter.
WHAT IS PRONKING?
It’s common for alpacas to pronk in cooler weather. Pronking is when an alpaca hops high into the air, lifting all four feet off the ground.
The Sweet Blossom alpacas often do it in unison.
Alpacas pronk to escape a predator or simply when they are happy. Many crias, or babies, pronk because they are playing.
The Pettises sit on their porch watching the alpacas for pronking. Each time offers new excitement.
They also have a bumper sticker on their SUV that reads, “Honk if you Pronk.”