Odessa, Florida -- When Brenda and Frank Crum purchased a vast plot of land within a half-mile radius just north of Tampa, Florida, they suddenly had a 147-acre challenge on their hands: What to do with all that space.
They handed the land over to alpacas.
About 180 of the cuddly critters now live at the Golden Spirit Alpaca Ranch in Odessa, Florida. Alpacas are bred for their fiber or fleece, the wool that covers them.
"You shear them and take that off, and it can be turned into products," like clothing, artwork and textiles, said Brenda Crum.
"We halter train the alpaca when they're young, so that they learn to be handled and worked with. because we do have to work with them sometimes. But generally, they're in their surroundings and they graze and eat hay and go out and graze more. And we take care of them all the time," she said.
The Crums quickly found themselves fielding lots of questions about life on an alpaca ranch, and that spurred them to open it for educational, immersive tours.
Visitors "learn about alpacas, from the point of questions you may not even know that you had. Not just where they came from, but how did they get to the United States? How many of them are out there? Where are they now? Why are there colors of them," explained Brenda Crum.
"So that's what we do is give them an opportunity for exposure so that they can put their hands on the animal, but also feed them, get great pictures and just see that behavior that curious nature, that herd mentality, the friendships that these animals have with each other and the closeness they develop."
Recently, 11 students from the National FFA Organization and 4H were at the ranch to work with alpacas, which will serve as their show animals at the state fair.
The alpacas must be trained to perform at fair exhibitions, which is not part of their routine at the ranch.
'"We don't work with these animals to do many of the things that they will be doing for state fairs such as going through obstacles, over and under things and around things, doing really different things than they're used to on a day-to-day basis," Crum said.
Mia Moskowitz, a student trainer, appreciates the feeling of pride that comes with training the animals.
"I love the hard work that you get to see when it pays off when you're at the fair, and it kind of shows how much you've been working with them. It just shows how well you've been doing it," Moskowitz said.
Alpacas are gentle, curious animals and somewhat shy. But they can also be a little moody, which can make them all the more interesting.
"We put a lot of work and energy into this effort and to help people understand that whole process, the whole being, is helpful to me. Just to feel like they walked away with that," Crum said.