Welcome to the only state where pigs outnumber people seven to one. Agriculture in Iowa is often thought of as strictly cornfields, soybeans, cattle and swine. But it’s also home to a growing population of alternative livestock – alpacas. Rusty Stars Alpaca Farm, located in Winterset, Iowa, is helping put these unique creatures on the map.
Aron and Kari Shultz started alpaca farming in 2007 with their three trusty alpacas. Expansion skyrocketed, and now they’re up to 32.
The Shultzes first got into the alpaca business for breeding. “Our original plan was probably like most people at that time – to breed and then grow a herd and then eventually sell some of the animals to other alpaca farms,” Aron said.
That was their dream: to have property with enjoyable animals that could turn a profit without sending them to the slaughterhouse. But it became something even better.
An Agritourism Destination
Alpacas haven’t been in the United States for long. The first were imported in the 1980s and a high demand for alpacas in the early years sent prices skyrocketing. In the early 2000s, an alpaca that today would sell for $6,000 sold then for around $40,000. Like most people, Aron was hoping to make money by selling alpacas at these prices.
With time, alpaca prices adjusted and fell, and the Shultzes re-examined their business model. But money wasn’t the only motivator. Alpacas are sold once they’re adults, and selling an animal they raised after it developed its personality was hard.
“Every time we sold an alpaca, it felt like we had lost more than we gained,” Aron said.
That’s when Rusty Stars made the switch from breeding to agritourism. The practice of agritourism, according to the US Department of Agriculture, is a commercial enterprise that uses the agricultural production of a business – a farm, in this case – for the purpose of entertaining and educating while generating income for the business.
“The fact that people were coming here, getting to see the alpacas, and then returning to see the same alpacas became what made us happy,” Aron said. “There’s just an enormous amount of support in our local community for what we’re doing.”
Locals aren’t the only ones visiting Rusty Stars, though. While Des Moines brings in a big crowd, Kari said people often drive two or three hours for a visit. People have even visited from outside of the country. One couple, traveling to their wedding in Texas from Oregon, planned their route specifically so they could visit the farm.
“We keep saying we need to have some sort of a sign-in book or something,” Kari said. “We meet the most amazing people.”
In the summertime, it’s not uncommon for Rusty Stars’ visiting hours to draw in crowds of up to 300 people. “Of those people, I would say 90% of them have never seen an alpaca before,” Aron said. “They’re unique. People don’t understand what they are, how they’re used or why you would have them. When they leave here, we hope that they have that bit of understanding.”
It’s true – one visit is all anyone needs to have an appreciation for these animals. They’re soft, friendly and love to eat snacks right from your hand.
“There’s one named Stella, who everybody meets,” Aron said. “She’s one of our older alpacas, but she’ll just kind of follow you around. She has this way of trying to convince you to give her some of your food.”
When Aron and Kari relocated to Iowa 11 years ago, they would get excited when 10 people came out to Rusty Stars on a Saturday to visit. Once the pandemic hit, that number grew exponentially. People were looking for things to do outside.
“You would look out there and you couldn’t see the alpacas – it was just people,” Kari said.
The influx of crowds led to quite the learning curve. Instead of giving visitors bowls of feed, they get little cups to make sure the alpacas don’t eat too much.
“Stella doesn’t know when to back off,” Kari said. The old alpaca would be full and laying on her side by sunset during those early days of bottomless feedings. She’s now content with following around visitors and inserting herself into the path of other unsuspecting alpacas to snag a snack.
From Farm to Fashion
While visits to Rusty Stars are free, Aron and Kari have an on-site store where they sell alpaca products. They have branded t-shirts, alpaca dolls, alpaca socks and, most importantly, alpaca yarn. Though alpacas are adorable to look at, the fiber they grow is the real money-maker.
Alpacas are sheared once a year. And the fiber, like sheep’s wool, can be made into yarn. Once sheared, the fiber is separated into two different sections: the blanket and the seconds. The blanket is the “saddle section” of an alpaca where the best fiber is found. The seconds are made up of fiber from the neck and legs and are typically coarser, shorter and less consistent than the blanket. The fiber then goes through a process called skirting, where coarser hairs and debris are removed. This is done entirely by hand at Rusty Stars. The blanket fiber is then sent to a mill, where it’s turned into yarn.
“It’s very minimal, really, what it requires to turn it from raw fiber into yarn,” Aron said. “There’s no chemical process. It’s just cleaning it then spinning it, and that becomes yarn.”
Alpaca fiber is moisture-wicking, meaning it draws moisture away from the skin, and is hypoallergenic. It’s also anti-microbial, so clothing that gets worn once shouldn’t smell bad the next day. It’s even more insulating than other wools. An alpaca sweater feels lighter, yet it’s just as effective at keeping someone warm.
Of course, Aron and Kari never intended to get into the yarn business. Early on, when they were focused on breeding alpacas, any shearings were just for upkeep. The fiber: bagged up and forgotten about. But when visitors started inquiring about alpaca products, that quickly changed.
Now, all the fiber of Rusty Stars alpacas is reserved for yarn. In fact, each skein of yarn is labeled with the alpaca it was sourced from, so visitors can even pick yarn from one they met.
But ultimately, for Aron and Kari, selling yarn and other alpaca products isn’t the rewarding part of business. It’s the education they can provide visitors. People come to the farm, meet the animals, and come away with a better understanding of creatures they might not have ever encountered otherwise.
“They’re supporting what we think is ideal by actually increasing the awareness and alpaca products in the world,” Aron said.
And rain or shine – even snow – Rusty Stars is open for visitors to keep spreading the alpaca gospel. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for hours and events to come (the alpacas will take on the Blank Park Zoo this summer). Stop by to pet some alpacas, learn about these unique animals, shop alpaca socks, and most importantly, feed Stella. She’ll appreciate it.