Shear delight Finding a new passion in midlife

By Mary Helen Darah

Graphic designer Julie Verhelst is in shear delight—pun intended—with life on the farm. The Boomer owns Sunny Meade Alpacas, located at 7770 Prov. Neapolis-Swanton Road, in Swanton, Ohio, with husband, Bill Verhelst. “I started out as a graphic designer,” recalls Verhelst. “A farm called me to design their logo. While at the farm, I was asked if I wanted to see a new baby cria alpaca that had been born. She was amazing. I grabbed my mother and headed back to the farm for another visit. Amonth later I purchased and subsequently owned the baby named Amber, who is still a resident here. She is now the oldest alpaca on the farm.” Verhelst grew up raising American Saddlebred horses. “Livestock was not new to me,” she states. “I took care of the farm for almost five years on my own after I was divorced. I loved the life so I took over the responsibility of it. I did all the work on my own when I was in my late forties. I would hire someone to help me with hay but as a middle-aged woman, it kept and keeps me very active.”

Have you ‘herd?’Angelina loves being on the farm.
Have you ‘herd?’Angelina
loves being on the farm.

Stay focused
Verhelst wasn’t intimidated by owning livestock, enjoyed living on the farm and appreciated the tax advantages that came with her new midlife career change. “The alpacas are what got me through my change in circumstances,” she states.” I had to get up every morning no matter what the weather. They are what helped me to move forward. They were a positive, great focus during that time.”

Co-owner Bill Verhelst enjoys maintaining the farm.
Co-owner Bill Verhelst
enjoys maintaining the farm.

Enter Mr. Bill
Seven years ago Bill Verhelst came into Julie’s life. “Bill had always wanted to have a farm and came out for a visit,” states Verhelst. “On the day he came out, he witnessed a birth that day. Bill was really taken by the animals and how beautiful they were. I would like to say that I was the attraction but the alpacas played a major role.” The couple married two years ago and Bill has since retired as a train engineer for Norfolk Southern. He likes to refer to himself as the “hired hand” but his wife calls him what he is—her partner. “Bill truly is my partner in owning and maintaining the farm,” she states. “He has focused on improving the structural elements of the farm. He also enjoys going to shows and growing the business. He has certainly brought skills that I didn’t have. I am good with animal care and he is great at upkeep and improving our facility.”

Boomer, appropriately named, is thrilled to smile for the camera.
Boomer, appropriately
named, is thrilled to smile
for the camera.

Shearing and shipping
Every spring the alpacas are sheared for their incredible fiber that is comparable to cashmere. The fleece is then purchased individually and some is processed as part of a coop. “A fiber co-op ships our fiber out of state. It will then be shipped to Peru for processing,” explains Verhelst. “No one in U.S. processes fiber on a large commercial scale.” The couple recently expanded their business to include fiber arts classes. “We used to just shear and ship,” she states, “but with the increase of knowledge and awareness about the fiber business in the U.S., we decided to purchase a loom. People no longer ask me if an alpaca related to an emu. We now have a fiber arts studio, built by Bill, and classes. Every person who takes a fiber studio class also gets to meet the alpacas. It’s the full farm experience.” The couple purchased a FeltLOOM that was designed by a woman in Kentucky in collaboration with the University of Kentucky. There are only 171 owned worldwide. The FeltLOOM is a needle felting machine that produces and creates felt from batts of fiber. “It’s really exciting to be on the front end of the usage of a FeltLOOM,” she states. “I enjoy the classes and would like to offer more. We only have room for five people. I see it as another option for people who want to be creative on a smaller scale and in a more intimate environment.”

Julie Verhelst begins a new creation on the FeltLOOM.
Julie Verhelst begins a new creation on the FeltLOOM.

Spreading the love
Between caring for the alpacas and her continued graphic design work, Verhelst is one busy woman yet her alpaca aspirations are endless. “I want to educate kids, and I’m researching how to create lesson plans for children,” she states. “Homeschoolers could come see the animals and learn how the fiber is processed. We will also continue our work with Bittersweet Farms. We donated six alpacas for them to use so adults with autism could benefit from farming. They walk with the animals and care for them and use them as therapy. We also make fiber ‘nesting balls’for birds with the Epilepsy Foundation. Our alpacas have also visited nursing homes. I am that artist that has all these ideas floating around—so you just never what I’ll come up with. I highly recommend being open to new ideas and adventures at any time in life.”

For information on “I Feel like Scrap,” FeltLOOM Fiber Arts Classes, call 419/875- 5582, visit sunnymeadealpacas.com or email sunnymeade@windstream.net