PETERSBURG -- Bart and Rhonda Leinberger had an unexpected but welcome visitor at Alpaca Days, held over a late-September weekend at their farm near Petersburg.
It turns out that Star Attraction was, indeed, a star attraction.
The Leinbergers knew one of their alpacas, Heidi, was within days of giving birth. They didn't know she would use the occasion of Alpaca Days -- a chance for hundreds of visitors to get up close with the quirky but congenial cousins of llamas and for the Leinbergers to highlight products made from alpacas' luxurious fiber -- to birth her first cria.
"A little girl said later that (Heidi) stood up, lay down and stood back up and there was a baby," recalls Rhonda Leinberger, who was across the yard at the merchandise table at the time.
It may have been the first public birthing for one of the Leinbergers' alpacas, but it was momentous in that Star Attraction, known simply as Star, was the 40th head of their herd.
That's small potatoes compared to operations like Magical Farms in Ohio that has 1,500 alpacas roaming over 400 acres, but for the Leinbergers, who started with three alpacas after first encountering the animals years ago at the Calgary Stampede, business has been thriving.
They just sold off six head to the newest entry in the field, neighboring Prairie Rose Alpacas, and another two to an upstart business near New Berlin. In fall 2011, the Leinbergers purchased two herdsires, male alpacas used in breeding, "an incredible move up" for the farm, Rhonda says.
Moreover, an array of products made from alpacas' fiber continues to sell well. A line of socks, scarves, mittens, blankets, purses, stuffed animals and yarn has made it into Mia Sullivan's Small Town Charm Boutiques on the main square in Petersburg.
"People swear by the socks," Sullivan says. "They last forever and they say they're the warmest socks they've ever had, especially for outdoor work."
The Leinbergers say their success is a result of hard work and some aggressive marketing. Since early 2009, however, two other area farms -- Southwind Alpacas in Pleasant Plains and New Beginnings Ranch in Hillsboro -- have had to sell off their herds, though in both cases there were extenuating circumstances in addition to the economic downturn.
According to the Illinois Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (IAOBA) website, Prairie Rose, which is owned and operated by Jim Shaw and Barbara Bernardi, is the only other alpaca farm near Springfield. The couple has a six-acre farm near Petersburg.
"I ask people all the time," says Rhonda, who doubles as IAOBA's treasurer and librarian, "what they're doing to market their product. People have to know you're there."
"More people are getting into (alpaca farming) for a variety of reasons," says Don Kent, the president of IAOBA, who owns a 10-acre farm in Marengo. "It's not a breeder's market anymore. I think the fleece (market) has come more to the forefront.
"I see a change in people's mindsets."
Chris Fuchs admits he had never laid his eyes on an alpaca. The 19-year-old student at Lincoln Land Community College had helped with some fence work at Prairie Rose farm, and when a half dozen alpacas were delivered there from the Leinbergers' Indian Point Hills farm, Fuchs was smitten.
"I thought, `These are kind of cool,"' remembers Fuchs. "It didn't take long before I wanted a couple."
Barbara Bernardi says she and her husband, Jim Shaw, have been interested in sustainable agriculture for some time and found alpacas almost the perfect "green" animals.
"For me, personally, there were two big selling points," Bernardi says. "Having worked with cattle for a long time, I was very happy they didn't have hooves. (Alpacas have padded toes, instead.)
Second, the spit test.
"When females are pregnant, if you bring in a male, they spit at him. I'm sorry, that is just hysterical, and I said I had to have some, Bernardi said.
Fuchs got his wish when he bought Victor and Stormchaser from the Leinbergers. The business major says the balance sheet added up in his favor. He had the land -- Fuchs lives on his parents' farm; the animals are relatively low maintenance; and, down the road, he looks to breed alpacas for better quality fiber.
"The fiber is what you're going to make money off of," Fuchs says. "And they're pleasant to look at."
It's an irresistible calling card: with floppy mop tops, elongated necks and thick-as-carpet coats, alpacas are, as one writer noted, "the `it' girls and boys of the ungulate world."
There's substance beyond style. Alpacas are docile and inquisitive by nature, defined by their individual personalities, Fuchs notes.
They also tend to be communal animals. Usually a birthing, like Star Attraction's, is "a big social event," Bart Leinberger says.
Janice Torgerson, a visitor at Alpaca Days, says she jokes about raising goats, alpacas and chickens, but with two kids to get through college, "it's unlikely at this point."
"They have such expressive faces," says Torgerson, of Springfield. "They just fascinate me."
The Leinbergers say there continues to be outside interest in "the new livestock." Alpaca Days brought in those curious about dipping their toes in alpaca farming, people with serious interest in breeding, and repeat customers buying crocheted hats and scarves and even manure.
Once thought an exotic indulgence, there is now practicality, Rhonda says, in a line of products including curtains, slip covers and insulation. The fiber is flame-resistant.
And though there remains what Bart calls "the cute factor" about alpacas, good farms are looking at making good breeding decisions to produce the densest, softest fiber, and sound business decisions, especially surrounding marketing.
"It gives a person a feeling of livestock without having a 1,000-pound steer," he says.
"It's a green (alternative) farming that really appeals to a lot of people."