The road to Florence isn’t long when country music stars are in town. People flock from the East Valley to the Country Thunder music festival, spurring the question: What else is there to see in Florence? It didn’t take long to find an answer — alpacas.
Twenty of the long-necked lamoids will get haircuts April 27-28 at the first Florence Wool and Shearing Festival at JMS Alpaca Farm, and herd owners George and Pat Skelton are inviting anyone and everyone to attend, free of charge.
“We have a shearing table, and what we do is strap them to the table and then pull the table up so it’s level. Somebody holds their head, and there’s a big electric shearer. It takes probably 15 minutes,” says Pat.
From there, spectators can follow the voluminous mounds of shorn fiber over to the machines used to process it.
“We tumble it to get dirt out. Then it’s washed and dried and put through a picker, which looks like a medieval type of machine with a lot of nails. Usually the kids will get involved with the carder; they can’t resist a machine like that. It’s hand turned,” says Pat.
The no-frills affair will also feature a “petting park” with baby alpacas, kid goats and probably some bunnies. Other alpaca farmers throughout Arizona will be there, too, with tents full of scarves, gloves, hats, socks, pet toys and other alpaca-fleece products for sale.
Kids will get to feed the alpacas treats and generally hang out with them. The animals are gentle and easy to handle, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. They don’t have incisors, horns, hooves or claws.
“Kids love animals, and alpacas love kids. They’re not scared of children, and alpacas are so curious,” says Pat.
Eight years ago, when they were new to Arizona and new to retirement, the animal-loving Skeltons thought they might adopt a wild burro or mustang from the Bureau of Land Management. But then they crossed paths with a South American member of the camel family, and that was it.
“You look into those big eyes with their long eyelashes, and you just fall in love with them,” says Pat. “They’re so soothing that they’re actually used as therapy animals in some places. They don’t make any noise other than a hum. They’ll come and give you what we call ‘alpaca kisses,’ where they’ll put their nose to yours.”
The Skeltons’ last shearing event, held last fall when they still lived in Casa Grande, drew 500 spectators. They say they can welcome more people at their more spacious Florence farm, which is about 40 minutes from Mesa.
IF YOU GO
What: Watch 20 alpacas get their hair cut, pet baby animals and pick up goods made from alpaca fleece at the Florence Wool and Shearing Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 27-28
Where: JMS Alpaca Farm, 22795 E. Cactus Forest Road, Florence
Cost: Free admission and parking
Information: (520) 464-6204