by Brianna Paon
After six momentous months of working for the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool, and after the bustling surge of the fall and winter seasons, I was given the opportunity to attend my first alpaca show - the Carolina Alpaca Celebration in Concord, North Carolina. I went along for the 13 hour trek halfway down the east coast with Mike Gula, the primary fiber sorter here at NEAFP. We had some beautiful sunshine for the entirety of the weekend which was a nice escape from our brisk and wavering weather patterns here on the Southcoast, Massachusetts. Upon arrival at the Cabarrus Arena Friday morning, we steadily began building our booth among the alpaca that were trickling in from their time on the road. Even though the show didn’t technically begin until the following day, people were already coming to the booth to drop off their fiber while chatting it up with us amicably. We had encountered plenty of folks who were happy to see us and provided us with an overwhelming amount of positive feedback and praise. This had immediately struck me - it was so interesting to hear this type of feedback in person from the other side, so to speak, rather than from behind an email signature on a laptop. It was at this point, before the show began, that I had known how much I would thoroughly enjoy the following two days ahead.
We finished hanging up all of our products, labels and decor at around 5pm, leaving plenty of time for us to grab some dinner and do some exploring in the area. Not only have I not been to an alpaca show before, but it was also my first time visiting North Carolina - I wanted to make the most of my experience there. We stopped at Chef Thai & Sushi Bar and indulged in some excellent spicy rolls - our waitress nearly had us in tears from how hilariously entertaining she was. Afterward we stumbled upon the historic Gibson Mill, which housed not one but two breweries - High Branch Brewing Company and Cabarrus Brewing Company. The beers and the atmosphere at each of the two breweries were exceptional - so much so that we visited both two nights in a row!
On Saturday morning, the Carolina Alpaca Celebration had officially commenced. I was eager to begin meeting people in person that I had only heard about, or had only spoken on the phone briefly with in the past. Before the day got into full swing, I took some time to walk around, get a closer look at the animals as well as all the vendors. I was still very new to this - my only real exposure to a lot of alpaca at once has been during my handful of visits to Golden Touch Farm in Westport MA, the farm in which my bosses, Chris and Shelley Riley own and operate. I tried hard to contain my excitement around all of the regular alpaca folks but really I was struggling to keep my cool as I internally gushed at every adorable alpaca I laid my eyes on. These animals look back at you in such a way that it’s almost as if they are staring right into your heart and soul.
I feasted my eyes on an array of beautifully handcrafted products, lavish sweaters and shawls and just about every stuffed animal under the sun made from soft, plush alpaca fiber. I was first drawn to an assortment of accessories made by Courtney Tomchik out of Clemmons, North Carolina - her products are mostly accessories varying from buttons to pendants, all handmade from clay. Each individual product has its own original design etched into it. Courtney told me about the type of glaze she uses for her products, and how they afterward need to be fired in a kiln reaching as high as 2,000 degrees to be finished. I was happy to take home a gorgeous pair of abstractly designed earrings and an alpaca-shaped magnet for my fridge. Courtney was only the first vendor I had stopped to speak with and I already wanted to start giving all my money away - I was in trouble!
As the day went on, more and more people continued to drop bags of fiber off at our booth, browse through products that they may have already been familiar with, as well as take a gander at some of our newly featured products that are yet to be released: Classic Cable Alpaca Sweater, Convertible Shawl, and Glittens. It was an enriching experience getting to talk to everyone who either works with or is interested in working with our fiber pool, and to feel that my words were making an impact. It was wonderful to see the joy on people’s faces after having purchased a beanie or new pair of socks for themselves or a loved one. While I had intended to take part in some of the education classes that day, I was too busy soaking in all of the face-to-face interaction, and before I knew it day one was over! That night, Mike and I made some plans with Brianne Harris from Apple Hill Farm to get some dinner, shoot the breeze and have some laughs. It was wonderful to receive insight from her and hear about how she operates the farm. We stopped at Crispy’s Bar and Grill for dinner, which had bacon in just about every single dish on the menu - I certainly wasn’t complaining about that.
Sunday quickly rolled around, day two of the Carolina Alpaca Celebration, and I finally was given the time to further expand my knowledge on the wonderful world of alpaca - especially the areas in which I am not well-versed in (which were most areas). With this being said, I’d like to give a huge thank you to Patty Fuller from Poplar Hill Alpacas for taking the time out of her day to show me around and thoroughly explain the objectives of these shows. She showed me the Walking Fleece judging area which had contained up to 70 individual fleeces. Patty also shed light on what the spin off competition is all about, and elaborated on the differences between fiber samples. Lastly, she brought me over to the halter judging, which was my personal favorite part of the show. I was walking around acting as a “sponge”, as she called me, absorbing as much information as I possibly could with my time remaining.
I imagine that for alpaca farmers, especially for the ones that have been in this industry for quite some time now, it may be easy to forget how this lifestyle is perceived coming from fresh eyes. I can truly say that my first alpaca show went as smoothly and perfectly as it possibly could have - not only did it change my entire perspective of my position, but it also made me even more appreciative and proud to work for a company like NEAFP. I’ve gained so much respect for an industry that I was entirely unfamiliar with less than a year ago. As I had mentioned to Sean, Shelley and Chris upon returning home, “send me anywhere you want!” and boy did I mean it. I genuinely and wholeheartedly look forward to my next alpaca show experience, and many more in the future to come. If you’re in the area for our next alpaca show in Springfield MA, the North American Alpaca Expo, make sure to stop by and say hello - I’ll be the one staring off at a nearby cria with big, googly eyes. See you then!