In northwestern Chester County, past the historic village of Eagle, the busy traffic on Route 322 gives way to the quiet streets and sprawling properties of Glenmoore. It’s where you’ll find Grist Mill Farm Alpacas, marked by a small sign.
Surrounded by acres of mostly untouched land, it’s easy to miss. Following the lane through a lightly forested stretch, you eventually come upon an elegant home and an unexpected sight: a herd of alpacas. The moment you approach the circular driveway, long necks crane to look, black, brown and white heads bob, and large eyes gaze curiously.
Members of the camelid family, alpacas are native to South America. Terri Silvester and her husband, Peter, stumbled into the business 10 years ago while attending a match at the Brandywine Polo Club, where a woman had a few alpacas. “We saw these animals, and we were absolutely intrigued by them,” recalls Peter. “They were just so gentle and peaceful and really quite charming.”
The Silvesters had recently purchased the 35-acre site of a former grist and lumber mill, where they were building a home that replicated the 19th-century one that once stood there. As their curiosity piqued, they visited a few other alpaca farms before diving in. “We had no background in farming or agriculture or anything else, but neither of us are afraid to work hard or get our hands dirty,” says Peter.
The herd began with two pregnant females and has since grown to 15. The initial learning curve was steep. The Silvesters had to find out what fence types and heights were most effective. They also learned how to raise baby alpacas—known as crias—and brush up on their knowledge of herd animals in general. Family and friends were initially skeptical, but the Silvesters were undeterred.
Alpaca farming is fairly popular throughout Pennsylvania, with 86 members registered to the Pennsylvania Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. President Chris Works says membership has grown about 10 percent annually for the past 12 years. Nationwide, there are over 255,000 alpacas registered to the Alpaca Owners Association. That number includes the Silvesters’ 15, as well as Works’ herd at his Kendall Creek Farms Alpacas in Bradford.
Works says the relative popularity of alpaca farming comes down to ease of care and designation. “Several years ago, they were removed from the exotic animal [list] and made a true livestock animal by the State Agriculture Department of Pennsylvania,” he says.
This gave farmers tax incentives. It also added alpaca fiber to the Pennsylvania Preferred Program. “Now people are starting to really catch on to the fleece and its qualities,” he says.
If you can spare about an hour a day, alpacas are simple to own. They’re fed grain once a day. Hay and water are also necessary, and there is some mucking. Unlike other farm animals, they don’t even require herding. “They don’t like to be enclosed, so they’re out running around the field,” says Terri, adding that they do need access to a covered shelter. “When I come out, they know it’s feed time, so they’ll come in.”
Pennsylvania also offers a decent climate for alpacas. “Alpacas are highly adaptive creatures,” says Works, who notes that they prefer cooler temperatures but are fine in summer once shorn.
That fleece is quite valuable—and, like the animals themselves, it’s fairly low maintenance. Grooming is unnecessary when it comes to alpacas, as it breaks down the fibers. They’re sheared annually, usually in late spring.
Last year, the Silvesters produced 30,000 yards of fiber from 10 of their alpacas. Terri sends it off to a mill, where it’s turned into yarn, which she sends to knitters around the region. They create an array of products, ranging from hats, scarves and socks to elegant capes and coats, which she sells online and out of their home. Terri supplements her stock with other alpaca items from other sources. She has display racks of the high-end items coveted for their hypoallergenic qualities. “It’s lightweight but warm—it’s a perfect product,” says Terri, who won’t stock anything made with less than 40 percent alpaca fiber.
To get the finest fiber, a lot of decisions go into the breeding process. “We breed for fineness, for fiber length, for density of fiber, for crimp, which is the waviness of the fiber,” says Peter.
The Silvesters enjoy sharing their herd with the community and welcome visitors by appointment. This past year, Anthropologie took them up on that by staging a photo shoot at the farm for its winter line. This fall, they’ll celebrate National Alpaca Farm Day Sept. 29-30.
Just look for the sign.