This month I am introducing you to Elaine Vandiver and Old Homestead Alpacas. In addition to raising alpaca, Elaine spins yarn, sells mill-spun yarn, sells fiber, and does so much more!
These monthly features of other creative businesses are a way for all of us to get to know wonderful creators. It is a long-time interest of mine to explore how other creative people make their way as professionals.
Old Homestead Alpacas – Who? What? Where?
Q: Elaine, I always start by asking about a mentor or other very important person. Your answer is so surprising. It is a wonderful story, so I’ll just let you tell it.
A: My VIP is the United States Army. I’m sure that sounds odd, as it is not exactly a person – it is more of an entity, and I know a lot of folks have different perspectives on the Armed Forces. But the Army has played a very significant role in my life.
Approaching college graduation without any real plans, drive, or motivation, with a mountain of student loan debt, the news of my mother’s stage-4 cancer hit hard. Then September 11th happened. I found myself at a crossroads, and shortly thereafter, I was at the Army Recruiting Office. I enlisted in the Army and shipped out to boot camp three weeks after graduation.
Thankfully, my mother was able to watch me march the field and graduate from basic training that August. While I was in Virginia for advanced training in September, I received a Red Cross message summoning me home to help my mom transition to hospice. Though I was too new a Soldier to have accumulated sufficient leave to cover this time away, the Army didn’t care: to them, family was important. I was allowed to stay home as long as I needed. Surrounded by my Dad, myself, and my brother, we held her hand in the early morning as she passed away. This was an incredibly hard time for me, but the Army was very sympathetic in granting me the time I needed to be with my family. Looking back I am still in awe of the compassion I received from an organization that trains war fighters.
I was eventually stationed at Fort Lewis with my sweetheart. Not too long after arriving, I was assigned to a combat engineer unit and was on orders to deploy to ‘the Sandbox’. Now engaged with no time to marry, I deployed not knowing if I’d even come home, much less if our young relationship could withstand such a stressful separation. I arrived in Kuwait in February 2003 and crossed the border on the very first day of the Iraq invasion. What was supposed to be 60 days, became 90, then 6 months, and ultimately, was just over a year before I redeployed home. But while deployed, the Army continued to show compassion with daily mail, free calls home, and even a couple of video-teleconferences with loved ones back home. We were fighting a war but the Army never lost sight of the fact we were living, breathing, feeling beings – and it did it’s best to keep me connected to life beyond the war while I was still in the thick of it.
As a result, I find that I approach life, my family, my homestead, and my small business with the same intense compassion the Army showed me.
Okay, that was surprising, and heart-rending, and affirming. So few of us are really connected to people who serve in our military. I so appreciate knowing your story!
Q: I can’t wait to find out what your What is?
A: My what boils down to one thing: Identity.
After making it through war and sustaining a long distance relationship, I thought surely I had met all of my biggest matches and that my ‘happily ever after’ was just around the corner.
Married atop a lighthouse overlooking the Washington coast, I looked forward to becoming a mother, especially with the pain of losing my own still so fresh. What would actually happen, however, was 7 excruciating years of trying to reach that dream. After every treatment under the sun, including multiple rounds of IVF, several miscarriages, and even a failed adoption, I had to come to terms with the fact that a human family was not in the cards for me. Reaching that state in our large, 4-bedroom family home in a suburban neighborhood filled with children and every fertile person on the planet wasn’t going to be easy. I needed space to wallow in defeat and a space that would be the inspiration for finding the new me. I needed a new identity.
Being that our town of Walla Walla was predominantly rural, we set out in search of a piece of acreage. It was probably our hastiest decision, as neither of us come from farming backgrounds, nor did we have a plan for the 10-acre farm we purchased! But it just felt right and, like we always seemed to do, we jumped in. After closing and taking possession, the seller disclosed two important bits of information that would forever alter the trajectory of our lives.
The first was that she intended to leave behind the two, somewhat gnarly looking, neglected llama. The second was that this property was part of an original homestead from back-in-the-day.
The llama. Since the entire real estate transaction to acquire the farm was anything but typical and the fact we were more than ready to get on with our new country life, we decided not make a big deal of her leaving the llama. We figured we didn’t own a lawn tractor to cut the grass anyway so might as well keep them so they can help us in that regard. Those two critters, LeRoi and Loretta Llama, which we still have today, would end up helping us fall in love with their little camelid cousins — alpaca.
The homestead. The seller produced a packet of paperwork which held copies of documents detailing how the land under our very feet was conveyed to the original homesteader back in 1875. These documents were purposefully sought after by an owner five times previous and researched long before the advent of the internet. Marveling at these documents in their handwritten, cursive glory, and doing a bit more research ourselves, I instantly developed a very deep respect for the pioneering ways of our ancestors. Seeing how the documents chronicled our farm’s heritage, and imagining what it must have been like to cultivate the land (which was 164 acres originally) before electricity and before many modern conveniences – I was simply blown away. And when it came time to find our business name – that was easy: Old Homestead Alpacas.
Renovating the old farmhouse and witnessing how skillfully and intentionally built it was, also became another pivotal moment for me. The old wooden floors, covered by years of linoleum and carpet, once uncovered and given some love – stretched out straight and strong as the day they were first laid. I walk across those floors every day and still think of the original homestead mother who paced across them so many years ago, and who birthed 8 children, probably right here in this very house. Three of her children died young, victims of the harsh reality of life on a homestead, when a fever and a flu separated the living from the dying.
It put my own unsuccessful journey to motherhood into a whole new perspective. I also think the Army’s conditioning of intestinal fortitude, honor, integrity, and service with compassion impressed upon me the desire and the energy to carry on the heritage of this homestead. There are days when the work is hard, back-breaking, and seemingly endless, which occasionally overshadow my great fortune in calling this home. But my Army experiences play a large role in those moments, reminding me that I have overcome so much more, and that surely whatever the day requires is not insurmountable. That hard work reaps the reward – the new identity: Farm girl, fiber artist, and alpaca mama. I don’t think I could be any luckier.
I might also add determination to your What. You seem to have a fair amount of it!
Q: Elaine, you are quite a storyteller! I can’t wait to hear you tell us about your Where!
A: It goes without saying that the homestead is my most meaningful place. Not only does it support my burgeoning farm business, it is my respite from regular life. Being here forces me to slow down. There are so many sights to take in and reflect upon – like the big 150+ year old silver leaf maple tree, the quaint old milking parlor, my big beautiful rough-hewn barn. The sounds of progress are so different they command your attention – the chugging of tractors in neighboring alfalfa fields, flocks of geese squawking overhead, ducks splashing in the creek, pheasants roosting, starlings and warblers singing all day – and of course, alpaca, happily humming in the pastures. I look at this homestead, this farm, in the same regard as growing a family. It might not have 10 cute fingers and toes, but I care for it and nurture just the same – in the heat of the summer and in the darkness of winter, when farm guests are here and when no one else is around. This homestead has given me a sense of purpose and direction as well as a sense of identity that I am very proud of and one I thought I might never find.
Q: Please tell us what is going on in your business now, and any exciting projects you have going on or coming up.
Old Homestead Alpacas has a lot going on right now. This is our second official season. We are continuing the operation of our small farm store where I offer my farm-raised fiber products – fine mill spun yarns, some of my textured hand spun yarns, raw fleece, roving, and alpaca compost. Since my farm store is seasonal, I sell the majority of our fiber online via Etsy.
We are currently preparing for our 2nd Annual Open Barn event on June 18th. This is a free, open-to-the-public event to promote these wonderful creatures and their useful products, as well as a way to share the homestead heritage with others.
We are also really excited about our newest venture in agritourism. We host a number of private tours by appointment: perfect for families, groups, friends, clubs, youth groups, wine tourists, schools, and just about anyone interested in alpacas, homesteading or both. With my freshly planted garden filled with veggies and dye plants, I also plan to offer heirloom and culinary herbs at our local farmers market and to local restaurants. I have aspirations of hosting creative/fiber arts retreats and gatherings, maybe a romantic farm wedding, local wine maker’s dinner, or other special event sometime in the near future.
Our other big project involves our own personal take on the B&B. Instead of bed and breakfast, I refer to it as our Bed & Barn. A farm-stay getaway, if you will! You bring the bed (sleeping bag, cot, camper, RV or just your car) and we’ll provide the barn! This is a private camping experience in the heart of Washington wine country, which can be reserved on AirBnB. We hosted our first guest in early May and we’re hooked! I am already making plans to renovate our old creamery to become a cottage for farm-stay guests.
Thanks Elaine. I am so curious–I might have to visit you.
I’ve put links to all the Old Homestead Alpaca online places so you can check this for yourself.
Old Homestead Alpaca
Facebook – Old Homestead Alpacas
Instagram – Old Homestead Alpacas
Etsy – Old Homestead Alpacas
AirBnB – Old Homestead Alpacas Bed & Barn