Features

Breeding Business on Fertile Ground

Breeding Business on Fertile Ground

photo by Andy Duback

Only hours after giving birth, Penelope is looking a bit weary as she tends to her newborn, Ajax. Jennifer Lutz greets her sympathetically, patting the recently shorn mother with a reassuring gesture before taking the f leecy white son out for a moment to be weighed. Lutz knows firsthand how difficult labor can be—after all, she has given birth to two sons of her own. She finds that her experience as a mother comes in handy. “Being in labor, having a baby—I can really identify with the girls,” she says.

And there are plenty of “girls” grateful for the support. On a sunny May afternoon, 170 are scattered about the barn, the outdoor pens, and the nearby pastures. Some are only days or hours away from giving birth. Others have just had a romp in the hay—actually, shredded recycled cardboard— with some of the 100 male residents of the wooden barn just down the hill.

All are alpacas—not so much a herd as a collection of individual creatures. Each has a name, a personality, a story. For Lutz, her husband, Ian, and their sons, Sam and Max, the fuzzy creatures are part of a larger family at Cas-Cad-Nac Farm in Perkinsville, Vt.

This agrarian setting on the slopes of Mount Ascutney is just about the last place Lutz imagined herself ending up when she was a student at WPI. Having grown up on a farm in Woodstock, Vt., Lutz explains, “I ran away from the farm. That’s why I went into engineering.” She never did 4H as a child and never showed animals. Civil engineering was going to be her life’s work, not the care and feeding of a bunch of barnyard inhabitants.

The alumna was well on her way to her chosen career when her MQP took her to Ecuador. By then she and Ian, a high school classmate, had been dating for several years. At a study site a drive away from Guayaquil, Lutz and the other members of her group were investigating gold mining contamination. As she journeyed back and forth to places made hazardous by mercury and cyanide, she would catch glimpses of llamas. She fell in love with the quizzical-looking animals and joked with Ian about getting a llama for the backyard.

After graduating in 1994, Lutz quickly found a position as an environmental engineer with a firm in Lebanon, N.H., working on remediation and tank removal. She and Ian married a year later. Shortly thereafter, at an agricultural fair in Killington, the camelid family reared its adorable head once again. This time the beasts were alpacas—smaller cousins to the llamas that Lutz had seen in Ecuador. She did her homework. By the time she and Ian bought their first five animals in 1997, they were ready— or so they thought.

They soon discovered that farm life means always being prepared for surprises. “I wear many hats in a day. I never do just one thing,” Lutz says. “I could wake up and find two babies. Or I could do paperwork in the office. This morning I played midwife to Penelope. I also play accountant, businessperson, salesperson, veterinary technician. We do a lot of our own veterinary work.” In her medical room—stocked with Vaseline, Pepto-Bismol, thermometers, rubbing alcohol, latex gloves, and syringes—Lutz reaches for a splint she created to fix the crooked leg of one brown twin born recently. She fashioned it out of a spoon, some PVC pipe, cotton, and duct tape. The materials were unconventional, but the splint did the trick.

If her career seems far removed from her WPI course work, Lutz says she still uses skills she developed back then. “I learned about how to think and not think linearly, to think in a lot of different directions,” she says of her college training. “I learned to multitask.”

Inside the barns, Lutz has tapped into her engineering skills to design a flexible system of partitions that responds to the changing needs of the herd. Expectant mothers are housed together. A newborn like Ajax will spend a day in a bonding pen with its mother, listening to her buzzes and clucks, so that the two can get to know one another before entering the bustle of alpaca society.

Outdoors, Lutz strings fences and opens gates to create a rotating series of pastures for the animals. In the winter months, when the alpacas tend to be indoors, and babies aren’t being born, she haunts an upstairs room filled with puffy garbage bags. These contain the treasure for which alpacas are rightly famous: a tawny rainbow of f leece so soft and luxurious it makes wool feel like sandpaper. She and her husband shear all the animals during the springtime, leaving them with coats that resemble furry corduroy. In her off hours and off months, Lutz grades the f leece, which might end up in a severalthousand- dollar Italian suit or rug or blanket, depending on its fineness.

Cas-Cad-Nac Farm, whose name means Ascutney in the Abenaki Indian language, has won many prizes for its f leece and its animals in shows across the country, and the Lutzes sell both from their Vermont home. Jennifer Lutz’s office is brimming with purple ribbons, as well as trophies featuring metal sculptures of curly-haired alpacas. A road trip to shows—such as the Nationals held in Louisville, Ky., in May—is a production involving a truck and a trailer that is a work of art in itself. A larger-than-lifesize image of alpacas—Reality, Evangeline, Lustroso, Buttercup, and a young Sexy Sadie (so named because that was the song playing when she was born)—along with Sam Lutz as a toddler, adorns the exterior of the vehicle. The vinyl picture, produced by a Utah company that usually wraps buses, not livestock trailers, captures the essence of the passengers riding inside. On the highways of America, this might be the first encounter drivers have had with alpacas. But as Lutz knows well, these creatures are not easily forgotten.

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