SHED: Chetwyn Farms

DSC00762Ted and Shauna are not new to beautiful islands – they used to own their own. But they prefer “Quinte’s Isle” now. They chose Prince Edward County to build a new life which, somehow, morphed from buying a waterfront cottage to buying a landlocked farm, raising alpacas and creating drop-dead gorgeous luxury products. Shauna explains how they came to start Chetwyn Farms 

“We had an island retreat in Lake Nipissing. Ted could go there for weeks at a time, but my job kept me in the city (Shauna is Director of Campaigns, fundraising for regenerative medicine for stem cell research and diabetes) and it took me four hours to drive there. So we drew a two-hour circle around Toronto and looked for property inside that. Our friends Seaton McLean and Sonja Smitts had bought in The County years before and started Closson Chase winery, and they urged us to take a look.

We’ve always been involved in arts and culture, and we missed that in Lake Nipissing. Sonja told us about the arts events and arts community and that there is a professional theatre company, Festival Players. So we came to have a look. I’m on the board of directors of Festival Players, now! But, back to the story. We first visited in the dead of winter when everything is very different, very quiet. We had no idea what Closson Rd. was then or what it would become. But it was beautiful. We used to meet our real estate agent at their home, and we kind of fell in love with that house and farm. So when it came on the market in 2009, we bought it, even though that wasn’t the plan! We had wanted waterfront, but it just happened, so then we had a farm, and four years later we got our alpacas.DSC00777

Why are we raising alpacas? I grew up on the west coast and spent summers hopping island to island, sailing and fishing and crabbing with my family. One of my favourite places was Thetis Island and there’s an alpaca farm there. I took Ted to see it and we both thought they were such gorgeous animals. Fast forward. Now we had a very beautiful barn that looked empty and sad. A barn is healthy when it has animals inside, but aside from horses, what else could we do? We couldn’t keep animals that we would have to kill, that’s not for us. So we thought we’d try alpacas. Although they are used for meat in South America, for us it’s all about the fibre. Being able to shear the animal, make something beautiful from scratch, that sounded more like us.

We started with five, and really 15 is the maximum for us. Right now we have 11 and that feels just right. Our mature males go to another farm that we share animals with. Keeping mature males is a whole different thing, you need very different fencing. We keep the pregnant mares and some of the wee young boys, like our Ranger and Cinammon Toast, they get to stay until they grow and then they have to go.

We have three horses, two we don’t ride any more, one has arthritis and the other is an old school horse, 26 yrs old, but the third horse I do ride. I keep him up in Fallow Field in Trenton, a fantastic place, and my coach Mel Gromoth is a terrific dressage coach and event rider.

We have both been involved in product development, and Ted is brilliant at great retail design, packaging and marketing. But we really did have to learn from scratch about raising alpacas and about turning their fleece into products.

The alpaca world is totally different to equestrian or cows. There are no vet specialists for a start, so it’s very much about the community, there are online forums, too, but it’s all about personal relationships and partnerships in a small world. We take our animals to fairs in spring and winter. We’ve done very well, but it’s not about prizes and accolades, it’s about getting together, finding out who’s got extra fibre? Who’s got a challenge? Who’s got an answer? As soon as something happens we don’t understand, we just reach out to the alpaca community.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm but not a lot of organized effort as far as creating products and taking them to retail. That’s where Ted’s expertise comes in. It’s been a huge learning curve to figure out the steps from shearing to product development. We send the fleece to the mills and it comes back as yarn goods. We have a knitting pool here in The County who produce truly wonderful stuff for us.

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Right now on my porch there’s yarn I have just washed that is drying. When you take it off the animal you grade it into first, second and third grades and sort it by colour – there is a fantastic diversity of colour – you sort it by what you want to use the finished yarn for, then clean it all and ship it to the mill. There is a mill in New Brunswick and just one in Ontario, not enough really, and not all mills work with alpaca. We do a lot of communication with the mills about what we want as end product, we send our fleece with pages and pages of papers. You have to docket it all. Like all farm work, it’s a lot of work. When it comes back it all has to be rewashed. There’s a lot of behind the scenes work.

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Alpaca is a luxury fibre and it’s reflected in the price. When we saw what goes into preparing the finished product we understood why alpaca goods are expensive. Basically one alpaca equals one sweater per year! It’s kind of a crazy business. We had no idea! Not a clue. But we shake our heads and laugh and go on learning.

One of our mares is three weeks overdue and I have no idea why. The breeding process is new to us and it’s really very hit and miss. It’s a drive-by process, we bring in the stud, they mate, it takes about 45 minutes and away he goes. You bring the stud back about a week later and put them together again and observe. If the female spits off and doesn’t go down into breeding position you know she is pregnant. Hooray! If she does go down into breeding position you know she’s not. So they try again. It’s not a perfect science and we spend a lot of time guessing.

We’ve done a lot of work with local tradespeople to build the fencing, and we did the new store pretty much ourselves. Fencing was a steep learning curve. Alpacas don’t stay in one place, they have to move from pasture to pasture. But we were lucky with the barn, which is in great shape, and we turned the old chicken coop into a store. We putter away at it ourselves with the help of family. Our kids are fairly close, but sisters and mum and dad are on the west coast and in the U.S. And, yes, everybody thought we were crazy, especially our kids.

They all love coming here, and our youngest is studying to be a vet. She’ll be qualified next year but, sadly, she’s not doing large animals! It’s a tough job. The County is in need of large animal vets – everywhere is – but she loves the small animals. I keep encouraging her to take courses in the camelids. I can try, can’t I?

So it doesn’t look like the family will be taking over this operation any time soon. It’s like the wineries, it’s a lot of hard work and most people do it for love. We enjoy it. It’s not like we play golf or anything like that. We put our energies into this. Oh, and haying, too. We do our own haying, so we had to learn all about that.

We’re not traditional farmers, of course not. But we appreciate what it’s like to be vulnerable to all the things you can’t control – to nature, to the weather. We have lost our alpaca hay fields twice. If you can’t get the hay dry, you can’t bale it. Even the past winter was mild but with lots of freezing rain. Alpacas and horses don’t go out when it’s too slippery and they depend on us when it’s dry. I go back to the city still for my work and when people there complain about their lawns looking bad because it’s dry I just roll my eyes.

In the big ice storm three years ago, we were without power. Well, we humans were okay, we could go to town and get what we need and buy containers of drinking water. But, what about the animals? We melted buckets and buckets of snow front of the gas fire for them. We learned a lot and today we have a lot more backup in place. Having said that, we actually like The County as much in winter as in summer – apart from the freezing rain. It truly has its own special beauty.

Closson Road now has its own business association because there’s enough new business happening on Closson Rd that you can come out and spend the whole day here easily. There’s wineries, artist studios, the lavender farm, farm-stands and all sorts of home-based businesses. We got together and made a marketing plan that is all about visitors’ experiences on Closson Rd. There’s so much more than you’d expect to find.”

TED AND SHAUNA’S STORY is 1 of a 3-part feature of local entrepreneurs based on Closson Road. Please check out Prince Edward County Lavender & Closson Road Cycles for additional inspiring stories of creative enterprises on this “long and winding road” in The County, and be sure to visit Closson Road’s own website for more news, history, events and trip planning information.

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