On the Farm: The Huacaya alpacas share space on the farm with registered polled Herefords and a feed business
ALDERGROVE, B.C. — The quest for quality drives every operation at Kensington Prairie Farm.
Owned by Catherine Simpson and her husband, Jim Dales, the picturesque property at Aldergrove, B.C., is home to 60 Huacaya alpacas, 35 registered polled Herefords and an agriculture services division that produces high quality hay and silage, as well as custom forage services and manure spreading to local farmers.
In 20 years at this farm, they have come a long way from their former careers. Dales was in the mining industry and Simpson worked full time running a government funding program. Life on the farm is busier than they ever imagined.
They learned the livestock business from the bottom up and Simpson got involved in agriculture groups that included being co-chair of the B.C. Animal Care Council and the National Farm Animal Care Council and president of the Canadian Llama and Alpaca Association.
During her tenure, the association initiated a study into the future of the camelid business to build a Canadian fibre industry and ultimately a meat market. The study did not move forward but she went ahead to develop a fibre business and started a meat business.
The farm site is on about 40 acres and they rent another 400 acres for their hay production business. In recent years, the succession plan has welcomed their granddaughter, Dee Martens, who manages the livestock and general operation of the farm. They have two full-time staff and hire young people through a work and travel exchange program.
While the custom farming aspect is the major part of the operation, the retail and tourism side is growing.
Simpson and Martens breed for white alpacas because the fleece takes dye better and the micron size of each piece of fibre is finer.
“It was always about breeding my best and white was always my best,” Simpson said.
The meat business happened by chance when a local veterinarian called to tell Simpson about a group of alpacas that were underfed and neglected. She and a friend assessed them and decided there was no future for them.
“They began my meat program,” she said.
In the last 10 years, she estimates they have rescued about 80 alpacas. A few have stayed in the herd but others arrived thin, sick and often full of parasites. They rescued 20 last year and most ended up in the meat program.
“Our animals are livestock animals. They are not pet animals,” said Martens.
“When you start getting these rescues that are really afraid of you, you can’t work them. It takes so much time working with them so you can manage them,” she said.
Fibre samples are collected in March each year from all their animals and are assessed in Australia. The results are analyzed and compared. Further consideration is given to animals that may have had birthing issues or poor milk production or other problems. If the fleece is not viable, they are selected for slaughter. The slaughter animals are not sheared so the high-value hide can be tanned and sold.
While Simpson and Martens only breed a few each year to maintain quality, they admit they have a few retired animals that will not go to the meat market.
They process 15 to 20 alpacas a year and the meat is sold through the on-farm store.
“Once people fall in love with the sausages or the mince, they come back and we give them steaks,” said Martens.
Customers also have a choice of verified Hereford beef, promoted as grass-fed and grain finished. The meat business has grown to the point the store freezers are being expanded.
The farm is open for tours by appointment three days a week and the store is open on weekends.
The store sells Kensington Prairie Farm labelled yarn as well as imports from Peru with a range of yarns, garments and blankets. It has grown so popular they are expanding the retail space and adding a restaurant.
In addition to alpaca products and meat, their daughters supply honey and a friend from the Okanagan consigns soap. Another venture is starting an online marketing program.
Simpson also travelled to Peru last fall and has commissioned some items with her label on it.
There are no apologies for the prices and the products continue to sell for hundreds of dollars.
“It has been my motto since I began. Alpaca is a lifestyle and it is a luxury brand,” Simpson said.
“This store is hugely successful. We are almost to the point where we could be open seven days a week.”
She is fussy about what is sold in the store.
“I want the quality because people won’t come back and buy more. We are destination place for gifts and wedding presents. I have all kinds of luxury items but you have to pay for them. We are forever hunting for the best quality,” she said.
Retirement has not been discussed although Martens is taking over more of the day to day work.
“I guess I’ll keep going. It is a labour of love,” said Simpson.