Our editor weaves her way across the state to visit five sheep and alpaca farms that you can visit, too. Alpaca and sheep farmers think fiber is fun, and they are passionate about the critters they care for. 

Photo by Gregory Holden


If sheep are supposed to be timid, Hugo missed the orientation lecture. Perhaps this attention-seeking brown sheep felt like a black sheep in a barnyard filled with smaller, lighter-colored companions, but he seemed determined to claim his 15 minutes of fame from a visiting magazine editor.

He nudged the other rams away as I reached out with handfuls of feed. He always moved into the shot when I tried to take a picture of the other sheep. I fell hard for that clever clown, and if I had a bigger backyard, I might have tried to negotiate with his owners. Instead, Hugo remains in the loving care of Donna and Bob Putnam of Spinning Sheep Fiber Farm near Holden, Mo.

Donna and Bob, like all the fiber farmers I met as I crisscrossed the state, turned a hobby into a business built on their affinity for gentle, wool-bearing sheep and alpacas.

​​Christopher Columbus brought sheep to America in 1492, and sheep were a fixture on the farms of the earliest colonists in the New World. These versatile animals provided milk, meat, and fleece that was spun into yarn for clothing. Sheep’s wool was even used as insulation, and that all-natural material is starting to regain interest among homeowners in the United States.

Alpacas, on the other hand, are newcomers to the United States, only arriving in this country in 1984. They originate from South America and were domesticated in Peru by the Moche civilization more than 2,000 years ago. Although still comparatively rare in the United States, they continue to grow in popularity as income-generating livestock. They produce fiber that many consider superior for clothing because it is both warmer and lighter than sheep’s wool. The fiber is hollow, which boosts its insulating factor. Alpaca wool is also hypoallergenic as it does not contain lanolin like sheep’s wool.

But it gets more complicated than that because there are more than 200 distinct breeds of sheep, each with its own fleece characteristics. There are only two breeds of alpacas—Suri and Huacaya—but the quality of the fiber can vary greatly from animal to animal.

Here is a full photo gallery from Editor Sandy Selby’s visits to the fiber farms.

Ann Mayes of Alpacas D’Auxvasse near Auxvasse, Mo., explains that Suris and Huacayas are identical except for their fiber. “Most alpacas you see are Huacayas. Only about 10 percent of the world’s alpacas are Suris. The quality of Huacaya fiber is determined by the crimp, fineness, and uniformity of the fleece,” she says as she picks up some unprocessed Huacaya fiber to show the tight zigzags in the hair, not unlike what women were pressing into their hair during a 1990s fashion phase. Suri alpacas have longer, silkier locks than their fluffy Huacaya counterparts, and although fineness and uniformity remain important in Suri fiber, the crimp is not an asset; luster definitely is.

“Suri is more trouble to process,” says Ann, who has two Suris in her alpaca herd. “It’s harder to clean. It’s harder to turn into yarn. When you send it to the mill, the mills charge more to process it. But the end product is more than worth it with an incredible luster, softness, silky feel, and beautiful drape that makes it perfect for lacy scarves and shawls.”

Sheep wool varies widely, too, as anyone who has splurged on clothing made of Merino wool can attest, but that level of softness is the standard at Ed Crowley’s Mesta Meadows in Glenallen, Mo. His flock of Rambouillet Merino and Cormo sheep yield fleece that is in high demand. “We’ve shipped to all 50 states now,” he says. “We’ve shipped to Canada, and we’ve shipped to Ireland.” Kept separate from the luxe fiber bearers is a flock of milking sheep, whose fleece isn’t nearly as soft or sought-after. But it does have its uses, according to Ed, including as insulation for beehives.

Processing sheep and alpaca fiber is an arduous process that starts with shearing the animals. Many fleece farmers hire professional shearers to come in once a year. A skilled pro can shear a sheep or alpaca in two or three minutes, and that pace keeps both the farmers and their animals happy. From there, the fiber is sorted out by quality, and fiber farmers make the choice to process the fiber themselves or send it to a mill. The fleece must be carefully cleaned of dirt and debris, then carded (a technique for straightening and separating the fibers). The processing may end once the carded fiber is turned into batting or worked into long, narrow ropes called roving, which is used by spinners to create yarn. Sometimes a mill handles that next step, both spinning and dyeing the yarn into a finished product.

Penny and Doug Moore of Wellspring Acres in Sarcoxie, Mo., use a mill for a portion of their fiber but also do some of their own processing. “Especially the white,” Penny says, “where I can wash it, card it, and then I dye it.” Penny is a fiber artist who uses the alpaca fleece the farm produces for her own felting projects and also sells to other artisans. In general, white fiber is more desirable because it can be dyed any color. Although less versatile, the beautiful, natural-colored fibers in brown, gray, and black have plenty of fans and willing buyers.

Neither sheep nor alpacas are adept at defense. Coyotes are their worst enemy, and that’s where guard animals come in. Some dogs, like Border Collies, excel at herding, but when a vigilant protector is needed, most of these farmers turn to Great Pyrenees dogs. These gentle giants stay with their flocks day and night, and when danger slinks in, they become fierce bodyguards. Llamas are sometimes used as guard animals, and at Randy Jones’s farm, Papa’s Alpacas in Green Castle, Mo., he has called upon miniature donkeys to keep his flock safe by braying out an obnoxiously loud warning to any trespassers.

Protecting those vulnerable sheep and alpacas is essential because the end game for these farmers is healthy animals producing desirable, high-quality fleece. Yet, that’s not what keeps these men and women heading out every day—rain, shine, or blinding snow— to count their sheep and check their alpacas. They may not have been looking for it, but they’ve found a profound calling in their care of these animals. You can feel their passion as they tell their stories.

When Ann Mayes sold her house in a subdivision and moved to a farm in 2003, her children had some concerns. “I always wanted to farm,” she says, “and my kids moved out. They got married and went their ways, and I said, ‘If I’m ever going to do it, now is the time.’ I put the house up for sale and bought a farm. My kids thought maybe Mom went off the edge or something.”

There’s nothing crazy about Ann’s decision. She found her happy place on an acreage east of Auxvasse, Mo. She admits that she didn’t know a lot about farming going in. One thing was nonnegotiable when it came to the animals she raised, though, and that’s why she chose alpacas. “I didn’t have to kill them,” she says, although she fesses up to a bit of hypocrisy. “Nobody likes a good steak better than I do.”

Ann’s barnyard is bustling with crias and their attentive mamas, all of who regard their new visitor with curiosity and a bit of suspicion. Alpacas are known to spit, but these were more interested in getting fed than sending a messy message.

“I think of myself as the hotel maid,” Ann says. “You know how you’re glad when she shows up and makes the beds and brings your food, but then you’d really like her to get out? Well, that’s me.” Every creature in Ann’s care has a name, including her four newest crias—Ollie, Apollo, Diana, and the irresistibly cute Corky. The gestation period for alpacas is 11 to 12 months long, and alpacas can breed any time of the year. These four crias were born in early fall.

The male alpacas reside across the field in another paddock. Most are neutered males, or “fiber boys,” whose only purpose in life is to produce a beautiful coat each year. Their idle existence makes for excellent fiber. “They’ve got so much nicer fiber than the girls do because the girls are raising babies. They’re working a lot harder than the boys.”

Three other males, the machos for those who prefer the Spanish term to the English term sire, are penned separately and always ready to mingle with the hembras. They can get rowdy at times, but on this day they are friendly and eager to take food from a stranger’s hand.

Keeping a herd healthy takes vigilance, particularly with alpacas who often don’t show signs of illness until it’s too late, but Ann keeps the dangers at a minimum by limiting her livestock to alpacas, their guard dogs, and a couple of barn cats. Parasites that might not cause much of an inconvenience for another animal, like a goat, can be deadly for an alpaca. Ann may not have credentials as a veterinarian, but she has honed her skills as an alpaca midwife and giver of vaccines.

She has devoted the basement of her home to retail space where she sells alpaca fiber, yarn, and finished products. There are toys, dryer balls, socks, gloves, sweaters, and shawls for those who prefer their crafts already completed, but she also sells yarn and roving. Ann welcomes tours to her farm and shop with advance notice, and she takes her products to fiber fairs and craft shows. Recently, she added a new service to her farm’s offerings: providing campsites for travelers who are looking for a quiet, secluded place to park their recreational vehicles. In exchange for camping privileges, the guests agree to buy products from Ann’s shop. “It’s been more lucrative for me that way than packing everything up, going to a show, and paying for a hotel.”

In Ann’s 19 years on her farm, she’s seen the alpaca market expand and become more accessible. “The price has really come down. These days, an average bred female would go for $4,000 to $5,000. But for my first three alpacas, I spent $35,000. There went my retirement.”

The price ultimately hinges on the animal’s physical conformation and the quality of the fiber the animal produces. Ann compares it to buying a horse: “You can get a horse for a million dollars, or you can get a free one.” But she isn’t interested in going into the breeding business, except to add to her own flock. “I probably wouldn’t sell one of my girls.”

Keep up with Alpacas D’Auxvasse by visiting AlpacasAuxvasse.com.

Old McDonald’s farm has nothing on Ed Crowley’s Mesta Meadows, where there’s a “baa, baa” here, a “moo, moo” there, a quack, a gobble, a cluck, and a thriving wool business. Ed grew up on a dairy farm, but his career took him far from the milking barn. “I had a really great career in high tech and starting companies. I worked in about 52 countries around the globe, so I got to see the world. But then, in 2016, the kids had all left for college, and my wife and I were in Kentucky at the time, and she said, ‘Let’s get a few goats.’” Ed agreed with one condition. “I grew up on a dairy farm, so I said, ‘Okay, as long as I don’t have to milk.’ So, we got Nubian dairy goats that we have to milk,” Ed says with a laugh.

While seeking some education about his new goats, Ed also learned about sheep and added some of those to his Kentucky farm. Three years later, Ed and his wife, Terri, moved to an acreage in Glenallen, Mo. Ed took a “semi-retirement” job as a professor of entrepreneurship at Southeast Missouri State University and spent his spare time putting up fences and preparing the farm for animals. Mesta Meadows includes Highland cattle, an assortment of ducks, geese, turkeys, goats, and milking sheep. But the stars of the farm are grazing contentedly on the hill behind the house. “We have Rambouillet, which are a type of Merino sheep, and we have Cormo, an Australian breed. Our big focus is producing really, really high-quality wool.”

A lot of preparation goes into producing top-notch fiber. “We breed for quality,” Ed says, so every sheep has its wool tested annually at a specialized lab in San Angelo, Texas. He explains that quality is judged on several criteria, including the length of the fiber, the crimp, and the micron (diameter). “Anything that is next to the skin that is below 22 microns is considered good wool. You get over 26 or 28 microns, it gets scratchy and that’s what we consider coarse wool. Our flock average is 19 microns. We have three ewes now that have pretty consistently been at 17, and 18 microns. It’s incredibly fine wool.”

The shop building at Mesta Meadows features a recently opened retail space where the Crowleys sell their wool and wool products along with Highland beef, sheep cheese, and a variety of other locally produced food items. The back of the shop includes an area for storing the raw fiber. Labels on the shelves note the quality of the fiber in every section, from the utility wool produced by the milking sheep to super prime, or “Super Duper” as Terri has dubbed it. The per-pound price of the raw wool at Mesta Meadows ranges from $10 for utility wool up to $38 per pound for most super of the super-duper Cormo wool. The softness of that super prime fiber, even in its raw, unprocessed state, is nearly beyond imagining. It is no doubt destined for an exquisite article of clothing. “About 70 percent of our wool goes through Etsy,” Ed says. “About 30 percent goes through fiber festivals.”

One of those festivals is Mesta Meadows’ own Ozark Highland Sheep & Fiber Festival, which is set for March 24-25 this year. The festival features fiber vendors, live music, shearing demonstrations, and opportunities to meet and pet the animals. The farm offers tours throughout the year by appointment and those tours are free, but donations to defray the cost of animal feed are welcome.

Ozark Highland Sheep & Fiber Festival
March 24-25, 2023
Mesta Meadows farm
Glenallen, Missouri

It’s no wonder that a man who teaches entrepreneurship sees untapped potential at the farm. He has plans to develop sheep ice cream, add horses to his menagerie, and offer overnight accommodations for farm visitors. And one more thing …

“I would love to start a woolen mill here,” Ed says. “In Missouri, In Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, and Tennessee, there are 1.4 million pounds of wool produced a year. There are only enough mills to process 17,000 pounds of wool. It’s not a small deal, but we would absolutely love someday to be able to do that.”

Explore Mesta Meadows and its online store at MestaMeadows.com.

Randy Jones was a 20-year-old college student when he found himself at a fork in the road of his life. Should he stay in college where he was studying to become a veterinarian, or should he buy his family’s farm with its picturesque view of rolling, northern Missouri hills? The allure of that farm located near Green Castle, Mo., was too strong, and he purchased the house and the surrounding 200 acres. He has since expanded his operation to 520 acres. His fascination with farm life has kept Randy tethered to this place, but his business plan looks nothing like it did when he was a young man starting out with a herd of dairy cows.

A rocky farm economy in the 1980s meant Randy had to juggle farm chores with a full-time job. When he retired from a 27-year career with the US Postal Service in 2017, he began backing out of the cattle business and taking his farm in a new direction. “I wanted to have something other than a regular cattle farm for my grandkids,” he said. “I wanted to have something special, so I just started buying different kinds of animals. I started out with sheep and a few goats, then alpacas and miniature donkeys.”

He has succeeded in creating a paradise for his grandchildren at Papa’s Alpacas, but not just for them. Groups of children and adults, sometimes hundreds all at once, frequent the farm for tours and an opportunity to interact with his herd of 28 alpacas, two nanny goats, and a friendly miniature donkey named Speedy. Even the catfish are sociable, as Randy demonstrates when he tosses food into the pond and his fish friends rush to the surface. He says kids love to pet the fish and the fish don’t mind. Only the barn cats remain indifferent to visitors.

Although Randy sells the alpaca fiber he harvests each year, the animals are far more to him than just a source of wool. He spends time with every alpaca, circulating calmly through the barnyard as they eat, and petting each one so that it gets used to human contact. “By nature, they don’t want to have anything to do with people,” he says. “But if I’m going to have farm visitors, I want them to come up and feed the alpacas and pet them.”

His technique must be effective because, despite alpacas’ inclination to spit, he’s never been a direct target. “Sometimes they spit at each other, and I happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says.

Tours are an important part of Randy’s mission with Papa’s Alpacas, and he is adamant that those tours will remain free. “There were five kids in my family, and we didn’t have much money,” he says. “And we didn’t get to do a lot of things. Some farms you going to want to charge $10 per person to come out, and a couple with five kids can’t do that.” He does accept donations and puts that money back into his operation.

When students and other alpaca fans can’t come to the farm, he brings the farm to them, loading up some of the animals and taking them for an unforgettable show-and-tell at schools and regional festivals.

The Papa’s Alpacas retail shop and its online counterpart feature knitted items like socks and sweaters, grapevine balls packed with raw fiber for birds to use in nest-building, and a few items that Randy has made himself, including woven rugs and wall art. Recently he opened five campsites, complete with utility hookups, on the farm. It’s a convenient base location for hunters and a serene spot for campers looking to get away from it all.

As idyllic as Randy’s farm is, he is turning over the idea of buying some land a little closer to the beaten path so more people can experience the joy of petting catfish, taking selfies with a miniature donkey, or running their fingers through the soft curls on an alpaca’s back.

Discover all Papa’s Alpacas offers at PapasAlpacas.com.


Before Donna and Bob Putnam had sheep, they had a Border Collie named Gabe.

“We got him to do agility training with,” Bob says, “and the guy I got him from said, ‘I’ll give him some free herding lessons.’” Gabe was not exactly born to the life of a sheep-herding dog, and the pup would sometimes come trotting happily back from a training run with a mouthful of fleece. “Which is not really kosher,” Bob says. “I’d hand those little bits of fleece over the fence to Donna, and she started fiddling around. I went and bought her some processing cards, and I made her a couple of drop spindles. Within two weeks she took one private spinning lesson and then went and bought a wheel, 75 pounds of fleece, and took the express elevator to the top floor.”

Today, Donna is an expert spinner and enjoys teaching the technique to students who come to her workshop at the couple’s Spinning Sheep Fiber Farm in Holden, Mo. Donna’s classes include spinning, dyeing, and wet felting. Teaching was a professional pursuit for both the Putnams—he taught art, she taught science—and they were Kansas City urbanites when Gabe first began his illicit wool-gathering, but farm life was a long-time dream. “I’d wanted to live on a farm since I was seven,” Donna says. “We hit 59 1/2 and I said, ‘We’re leaving now.’” It was a lucky Friday the 13th in December 2013, when their farm dream became reality on 35 acres.

Aided by US Department of Agriculture grants that helped the Putnams purchase fencing and a watering system, they were able to get the farm up and running. Less than a decade later, their fields are filled with Finnsheep, a docile breed of short-tailed sheep native to Finland. They are small, with full-grown rams weighing around 150 pounds, and ewes coming in 20 or 30 pounds lighter. They are also prolific. “Finnsheep have litters of lambs,” Donna says. “They don’t just have one or two. Our girls average 3.5.” One ewe, who Donna calls her “wonder girl,” gave birth to five lambs last year.

The color, luster, and softness of their wool is valued by spinners like Donna, and as she pauses at a table piled with raw fleece, she describes the sheep behind each fluffy bundle. “This one is Hannah’s, and it’s very crimpy and very long. A lot of what you’ll find is five to six inches; some of her wool here is eight to nine inches.” She moves to the next bundles. “This is Fiona. She’s all shiny, shiny white. And this is one of our ram’s fleece. He’s super crimpy but also kind of stinky because he’s a ram.” Donna markets the farm’s fleece on Facebook and sells out quickly to spinners who are eager to get their hands on such exceptional raw material, but this year Donna is holding on to some for her own projects. “These could go for $30 a pound,” she says of the fleece on the table. “I could sell Hannah’s easily for $35 a pound.”

Most of the sheep on the farm have names, except for some of the lambs. A couple of young rams who are currently known only as 124 and 127 are sweetly vying for attention. It’s tempting to stroke their adorable faces, but Donna cautions against it because when you touch a sheep on the head, the sheep thinks he has permission to touch you with his head.

“There’s a problem with this breed,” Donna says with some be- amusement as she weaves her way through the adoring throng of thigh-high youngsters. “They’re extremely social so it’s really easy to say, ‘I can’t sell this one, and I can’t sell this one.” Numbers 124 and 127 are pleading their case even as she speaks. As with their fleece, the Putnams use Facebook to market rams and ewes they are able to part with. They’ve also built a strong clientele through the Finnsheep Breeders Association and word-of-mouth. The adult rams are in another field. Amid his Finnsheep brothers is Hugo, a Teeswater/Wensleydale cross who is bigger and bolder than
his companions. He also presents a fascinating lesson on the differences between breeds because his coat is much curlier than that of his mates who are competing for the same handful of food. He’s a rare breed on this particular farm and seems to know he’s exceptional. He’s one of 62 sheep at Spinning Sheep Fiber Farm, sharing space with a few alpacas, guard dogs, and sheepdog-in-training named Dan who is learning to gather his flock without gathering their wool.

Watch SpinningSheepFiberFarm.com for upcoming classes.


Penny and Doug Moore admit they knew nothing about alpacas before they threw themselves into the alpaca business in 2008.

The couple was taking care of a farm in Sarcoxie, Mo., that Penny’s Dallas-based parents had purchased as a retirement destination. “My mom put out the question, ‘What do we do with it?’ ” Television commercials featuring alpacas captured their attention, so they attended a fiber festival and met Liz Mitchko, owner of Whirlwind Ranch near Lebanon, Mo., and alpaca guru to the clueless.

“We went to her farm and bought four fiber boys. We knew nothing about it, but she’s a good mentor. She had us taking a parenting class before we could take them home,” Penny says with amusement. At every turn, the Moores found something new to learn about the animals in their care. “We had our first shearing, and we had all this fiber,” Penny recalls. “What do we do with that?” They made a connection with a processing mill and sent the fiber off to be transformed into yarn. Doug says they aren’t aiming to produce the most luxurious alpaca fiber available, but there’s no such thing as useless alpaca fiber.

“All alpaca fiber can be used for something, but the fiber with a lower micron is generally what clothing is made from,” he says. “So it’s not like we have to have $50,000 animals, which some people do. We are able to do what we want with our fiber.” The Moores have become true alpaca evangelists, extolling the virtues of their fiber. “There are small air pockets in the fiber that are more insulating than sheep fiber,” Doug says. “And it will heat or cool, so you can wear it in winter or summer.”

The next part of their journey, alpaca breeding, was undoubtedly inspired by Penny’s job as an obstetrics nurse. “I decided I had to have babies,” she says, “so we ended up buying a stud from another farm close by, and then we bought some girls from another farm and started breeding—not for high-quality fiber—we just wanted to dabble in it and learn as much as we could. And then when we had some little ones, I decided I wanted to show. I just wanted to do everything!”

The Moores welcome the feedback they get at shows and use that knowledge to improve their breeding program. While they have continued to seek out better breeding stock, their primary focus is on having fun, raising pet-quality animals to sell, and using their alpacas to educate people who come to their southwest Missouri farm for tours.

Wellspring Acres is currently home to 22 adult alpacas, one cria, and two llamas. Two more crias will join the herd in the spring. Because they take their alpacas to shows and sometimes out into the community to visit schools, Doug and Penny train the animals to be haltered, walked, and trailered. Some take to their training more readily than others. In general, Penny says, the females are more temperamental than the males. “Some don’t want you near them and if you start doing something with them, they start getting that stuff up in their throat and wanting to spit at you.”

And speaking of spitters, it’s not unusual for alpaca farms to employ guard llamas. The two that roam with the alpacas at Wellspring Acres aren’t there for that purpose. “Both are rehomed,” Penny says. “Our boy llama came from a farm that was leaving the state. He’s actually out of champion parents but had a brain injury when he was born. He walks a little shaky and he shakes his head, but he’s the sweetest, sweetest llama. He will let you come in and love on him and hug him.

“And then we have a rehomed female llama. She’s got a … personality,” Penny says as she struggles for a nice way to describe the cranky newcomer. “She likes to stick her nose up in the air and if you’re in her space, you’re going to get spit on. But she’s starting to warm up to us and is letting us get a little closer.”

That haughty llama may be tough to please, but Penny is getting a more encouraging response from farm visitors to her latest venture: fiber sculpting. As the Moores were discovering how to market their fiber, Penny delved into its many uses. She began taking classes in both wet and needle felting techniques. Her skills have progressed steadily; the evidence is in the whimsical art pieces displayed on the farm’s website. “I feel like I’ve really grown,” Penny says, “and I can call myself a fiber artist now.”

See Penny’s fiber art and arrange a farm tour at WellspringAcresAlpacaFarm.com.