by Laura Johnson
Before finding the perfect place to call their own and raise their alpacas in Grassy Creek, Ralph and Rachelle Bridges lived very different lives in Florida. They both had long-term ties to North Carolina, though, and they both loved the mountains. Their lives were destined for a turn when Rachelle caught her first glimpse of an alpaca about 15 years ago and fell in love – before she and Ralph had even met. Later, they made trips together to alpaca farms on both coasts, somewhat spontaneous visits that Rachelle calls serendipitous. “I was totally hooked,” Rachelle recalled.
Years later, she and Ralph decided to raise alpacas in the mountains, where they could find a “rural, more placid and slow-pace life,” Rachelle explained. After boarding a few alpacas for a couple of years, they finally found their place in Grassy Creek. “We just fell in love with people in this town,” Rachelle said, explaining that she and Ralph felt welcome and at home in the beautiful West Jefferson area. They own approximately 18 acres, mostly wooded with two of them cleared for the barn and the alpacas, of which there are now 15. All different ages, sizes and colors, there is one word that must be used to describe them all: cute. (I must have said it at least 75 times during my five-hour visit to their farm in May. You just can’t help it.)
That Ralph and Rachelle deeply love and care for their alpacas, just as they do for the land and the community, is clear. “These animals we love like our children,” Rachelle beamed. “We know each of their personalities, and they’re fun and we get a lot of enjoyment out of that.” Taking care of them in a way that keeps them happy and healthy is reflected in their end product: beautiful, quality fleeces. Their fleece has won a number of awards; the blue ribbons can be seen lining the walls of their on-farm Paca Palace Fiber Shop, along with their award-winning (and internationally circulating) alpaca photographs. The shop features yarns from their own alpacas, both hand-spun and mill-processed, along with a variety of yarns, scarves, gloves, hats and more that were imported from Peru. Ralph and Rachelle said that local fiber artists have been thrilled to find such gorgeous, quality materials to work with in a variety of natural colors, right here in Ashe County. At the same time, local farmers can use the “Paca Poo” as organic manure, feeding into the health of the land and the community.
The Bridges welcome year-round visitors to their farm to meet the alpacas and browse in their shop – just give them a call to check first! They’ve participated in the High Country Farm Tour in the past and are really looking forward to it again this year – for their tours they set up with educational displays, allowing visitors to see before-and-after shearing photos, learn about the shearing process, touch different types of fleece, watch regional artists working with the fleece, browse for gifts or souvenirs and, of course, meet the alpacas – including their newest addition, Fellaman, just born in May!
"These animals, we love like our children."
Ralph and Rachelle hope to educate the public about what alpacas are used for and how easy they are to keep. “They’re a gentle, easy animal,” Rachelle explained. “And they can be raised in a way that’s easy on the environment … They are a green animal, they don’t require a lot of vet keep, and beside the fiber you also have this end product of incredible manure, which can be turned around and used in produce farming as well.”
Beyond that, the cute factor just has to be re-emphasized. And the fun factor. “Introducing the alpacas to people is fun,” Ralph said. “Like watching you meet your first alpacas today, that was fun!” Fun indeed. I could have spent hours with these adorable creatures – especially Smudge, who immediately took a liking to me and showed it with kisses and some heavy ear breathing. But I won't take it too personally - Rachelle says that Smudge "gives kisses to babies, old folks and everyone in between!"