A crisp Vermont morning on the farm

ARTICLE FROM EXOTIC & LIVESTOCK MAGAZINE - 1997

The Callens would probably be the last people in the world who would be expected to find Alpacas as the solution to what to do with their retirement years, but they have become deeply immersed in the development of what promises to be an exciting avocation and business. Mettowee Valley Farm, located 15 miles north of Manchester, Vermont off Route 30 in the town of Pawlet, is positioned on a rather steep hillside looking down the beautiful Mettowee Valley with the river of the same name running through it. Lyn and John Callen purchased the acreage in 1987 with the intention of building a home in which they could spend the majority of their time and escape from the 37 years John spent as a metropolitan area of New York commuter, but becoming an operating farm was not part of the original plan.

Lyn and John Callen The Callens, both native New Jerseyans, have been involved in Vermont for over 20 years, but have only lived in the state full-time for the past 12 months. John spent the first 19 years of his career with Burlington Industries, Inc. at its New York marketing headquarters, and when he left the firm, was President of Burlington Sportswear, a major supplier of denim and corduroy fabric to the men's and women's sportswear trades.

The next 19 years he spent with Ward Howell International, Inc., a worldwide executive recruiting firm where he was Chairman of the American portion of the company for his last 3 years. Lyn, his wife, was very active in civic matters in the town of Rumson and Monmouth County, New Jersey, and was the first female council person in the community serving 14 years in that capacity. Together they raised 4 children, 2 girls and 2 boys, now all adults and there are currently 4 grandchildren.

The decision to become an alpaca breeder came to the Callens very suddenly, and was the result of a visit by John to an Alpaca and Llama Bazaar one day in May 1993 in southern Vermont. After spending the day talking with the 2 alpaca breeders present, the rest were all llama owners, he came home and announced to Lyn, "I know what we are going to do when we move to Vermont full-time!" Six weeks later the Callens were the proud owners of 5 alpacas -- 3 bred females, a gelding and a junior herd-sire. The animals were purchased with the proviso they remain on the 2 farms from which they came until July 1, 1994. John Callen spent the next 10 months, as he was winding down his business in New York, visiting 14 alpaca farms and ranches across the country, and came away from that experience with an idea as to how Mettowee Valley Farm should be set up to receive the initial alpacas purchased. A medium sized barn was designed and built specifically for housing, breeding and showing alpacas, and about 10 acres were enclosed on the hillside with 2" X 4" wrapped mesh fencing and a hot wire above. " We were seriously concerned about the threat of coyotes and dogs from the hills around us, but because of our cautious approach, we have had no predator events to date". The Callens learned from their many farm visits the benefit of constructing a series of smaller fenced in areas and paddocks which has helped farm operations immensely.

A handsome pair Mettowee Valley Farm, as of March 1,1997, has 31 alpacas with another 11 due next spring and early summer. "I would say there are three main factors that have permitted us to grow much faster than planned in just two and a half years", says John Callen. "The first and foremost has been the level of commitment of our youngest son, Hunter to the project from day one. He has caught on in a hurry, and instinctively has related to the herd in a way that is truly remarkable. Aside from farm operations, the condition of the entire farm with 4 outbuildings and the main house including landscaping (his college major) are his responsibility", continues John. The second important factor to the farm's growth has been the close association developed with Stephen Purdy, DVM from Chester, Vermont. There was very little experience with camelids among the local veterinarians, but Steve, early on, convinced the Callens he had a serious interest and commitment to make this breed an important part of his practice. He has followed through in spades and, besides becoming a breeder of alpacas himself, has established the best veterinary hospital in the area equipped properly to handle camelids. The third factor in the farm's development has been the involvement and strong interest of the Callen's older children, two of whom live in the Boston area and are frequent visitors to the farm. They are not only investors in animals making breeding decisions, but do not hesitate to offer their strong opinions to Dad when they feel he needs their help!

Often the question is asked of the Callens, "What are your objectives and how far are you going to take Mettowee Valley Farm?" John prefers not to deal in specifics when this question arises, because he really doesn't have that answer. To him, size has never been the measure of greatness, and he would rather deal in principles. Some of these, as pertains to his alpacas follow: number one, you've got to stay current, even if in a small way. As example, Mettowee Valley Farm originally purchased alpacas of Chilean descent, but as Peruvians and Bolivians became available, the farm purchased animals from three of the Peruvian import programs in addition to the Bolivian program. Aside from growing his herd separately in these country categories, they will be crossed with the ultimate aim of producing what he describes as his "Norte Americanos", combining the heavy bone, fiber density and fineness of the Peruvians and Bolivians with the colors from Chile. Another important principle, buy and develop the best herdsires you can, and then breed them only to your best females. The theory that an outstanding male will produce excellent cria from less than outstanding females can not be depended upon over the long term. As example, the Callens recently purchased Peruvian Tardis, an outstanding Accoyo from the estancia of Don Julio Berrada near the Macusani region of Peru, and he has settled 10 females for cria to be born next spring and early summer. Breed the best to the best! The last principle, do not underestimate the importance of breeding for superior fiber results in terms of micron, standard deviation and coefficient of variation, particularly if you are in the early formation of your herd. If you get off to a bad start in this area, it will take years of proper breeding to recover! After all, the long term value and ultimate purpose of alpacas in our national herd will be to supply the best alpaca fiber in the world for products to be marketed for export as well as domestic consumption. Unless we as an industry concern ourselves now with fiber quality, it will be difficult if not impossible to compete with South America and Australia who understand this principle, as we go down the road.

As a final note, both John and Lyn agree that the biggest surprise and greatest pleasure they have had in becoming part of the alpaca industry has been the opportunity to meet and make so many new friends, all of whom have been so helpful in getting them off to the right start. The Callen's feel that alpaca business in New England is beginning to come of age, and will probably grow at a faster rate than the rest of the country for the next several years. The signs are there, and of course, the climate and environment could not be better suited for camelids.

 

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