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A Warm and Fuzzy Feeling

A multitasking approach at Meadowgate Alpacas

AUGUST 2022

by Steven Johnson, Staff Writer

When Suzy Gammell opened her Mother’s Day present, you could hear her cries of delight in just about every corner of Ashland, Va.

“Andi’s mine! Andi’s mine!”

Nicole Phillips takes Pippa for a walk. (Photo By: Laura Emery)

Andi is a curious, 3-year-old female alpaca who lives on a 10-acre farm in Beaverdam, north of Ashland. Gammell’s family gifted the self-described “alpaca freak” with a yearlong sponsorship of Andi and a private visit with the gentle, nuzzling tower of black fiber.

“It’s like a living, breathing cartoon character you want to touch,” Gammell says. “You want to be quiet and slow because you don’t want to spook them. They are just so amazing.”

Her unbridled enthusiasm was just what Stephen and Nicole Phillips, founders of Meadowgate Alpacas, were hoping for when they entered the alpaca business five years ago. If they have not quite broken the conventions of alpaca farming, they have certainly bent them with an approach so intimate that Stephen can not only identify all 30 alpacas from his office window, but can also tell what kind of mood they are in.

“In addition to being soft to the touch, they’re soft to the heart, as well,” he says.

PASTURE ORNAMENTS

Phoenix enjoys a neck scratch. (Photo By: Laura Emery)

The seeds of Meadowgate Alpacas were sown when the Phillipses relocated to Virginia in 2005 from the Boston area, where they grew up together on the North Shore. Initially, they tended to a handful of horses at their property in Ashland.

But the daily demands of equines, four children and jobs got to be too much. They stepped away from tending to four-legged animals for a couple of years, though it was hard to let go. “You miss seeing these faces in the field, your pasture ornaments,” Nicole says.

They purchased property tucked among stands of oaks and pines near the Newfound River; their first alpacas, a mother and two daughters, actually arrived two hours before they closed on the house.

“It’s really hard not to fall in love with them once you meet them,” Nicole says.

From the start, the Meadowgate business model was designed to be different, with the kind of critical analysis you would expect from math and psychology majors — Stephen at the University of Massachusetts and Nicole at Boston College. They visited other farms and found them to be either too large and impersonal or solely focused on wool.

They wanted to be smaller, yet they also wanted to do more with their tenants. “We believe disposition is an important quality to getting full enjoyment out of these animals,” Stephen says. “We knew we definitely wanted to be more interactive with the animals and focus in on the fact that can be really friendly and lovely animals, in addition to being productive.”

MULTITASKERS

Pippa stares back. (Photo By: Laura Emery)

As it has evolved, then, the Meadowgate world encompasses agritourism, alpaca showings, a breeding program, animal therapy, alpaca products and a wedding here and there, among other things.

There are never more than 30 alpacas on the farm, and each has two or more tasks, from medium-fawn-colored Cinnamon, who loves scratches and cameras, to Apollo, who throws cups in the air with his mouth. It’s easier to multitask, Nicole says, because having four or five horses is much more work than herding 30 alpacas.

“They’re not morning people and you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to go out and milk the alpacas,” says Stephen, otherwise a U.S. Army account manager at Intel.

Shearing alpacas every April is high on the list of duties. Each one yields five to 10 pounds of wool that is shipped to mills and returned in the form of scarves, socks, hats and other wearables. Keeping with the Phillipses’ familial approach, the product is accompanied by a little card that includes a picture and information about the donating alpaca

Meadowgate also uses its alpacas as therapy animals, a program that daughter Grace, now at William & Mary, conceived as a service project when she attended Patrick HenryHigh School. Students from Nest Academy in Richmond have visited with the alpacas, and the Phillipses envision veterans’ groups as another outreach.

“Some of them have an innate ability to really recognize what you need in that moment. If you need stillness, they kind of get it,” Nicole says. “Then you add in the fact that they’re soft to touch and they’re so cute and the size is perfect.”

The therapy is not limited to in-person visits. During the pandemic, the Phillipses used free virtual alpaca visits to calm and heal visitors in need.

“That took off with lots of doctors, scientists and people who were both on the front line and trying to help those on the front line and were so overwhelmed. They needed something completely out of the blue to talk about a world that wasn’t theirs,” she notes.

A BREED APART

Phoenix is enjoying a neck scratch. The 7-year-old, medium-fawn-colored male is prominent on the farm because of his comfort with photo shoots and weddings, and the fact he is a herd sire.

He was part of the second wave of alpacas a Meadowgate. The Phillipses first encountered Phoenix at another farm; upon their arrival, all the alpacas scattered except for him. “I immediately said, ‘That’s the guy. He’s coming home,” Nicole says.

Meadowgate is a business, after all, and trying to improve on the next generation of alpacas is always high on the priority list.

Phoenix, who has won several show event awards is desired for the shape of his head, his full fleece, and his shape and structure, known as confirmation. He is past his showing days — males are judged until about age 4 — but Stephen says the input of outside judges is essential to Meadowgate’s breeding program.

“It gives us an idea of whether this animal is even going to even enter a breeding program. Maybe the judges picked up on some things we didn’t see and we won’t pass along,” he says.

The result of a successful breeding program is more alpacas, and Stephen acknowledges the pain in selling young alpacas to keep the farm at its desired occupancy.

In those cases, it comes down to whether he and his wife envision an alpaca as being able to assume more than one role.

“The babies are adorable and there’s no denying how cute they are, but they don’t always all fit in the program,” Nicole says. “They might not have fiber that’s suitable for breeding or showing, or a conformation we think is worthy of that.”

ALPACA GROWTH

FAST FACT: Alpacas get vitamin D by laying on their backs and exposing their bellies to the sun.

The Phillipses meet as a family every year to review their operations, their plans and their product lines. That includes daughter Grace and son Daniel, also a William & Mary student, who take an active role in the business. Corporations and leadership groups have become Meadowgate’s biggest market for online visits. After all, you can only produce so many scarves from Cinnamon’s wool.

“We do want to expand the business but we’re not necessarily looking to become an alpaca mill,” Stephen says. “How can we change slightly here or there?”

At the same time, Nicole says it’s important to remain true to the farm’s core mission, “I think alpacas force you to stay present in every day and in what you’re doing. COVID was a great example of that. Life went on because the animals didn’t know. You still had to go out and take care of them.”

So the alpacas at Meadowgate represent a centering point for their human family, not to mention the visitors who drop by for their first alpaca experience.

Like when Gammell visited the farm last December, when her daughter, Megan Marshon, took her to the Meadowgate holiday showcase, with booths, photo opportunities, decorations and alpaca goodies. She won a gift basket in a raffle, setting the stage for her Mother’s Day present.

“I was just so excited when I saw them in the field. We spent hours here,” she says. “I was beyond thrilled.”

For more information about Meadowgate Alpacas, go to meadowgatealpacas.com.