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No, that's not a llama

A handful of alpacas on Ahjoomas Alpaca Farm hurry toward their owners, Cherol McManus and Sarah Balser, after McManus calls for them.

CANNON FALLS -- For many people, telling the difference between an alpaca and a llama is a little tricky, but for alpaca farmers Cherol McManus and Sarah Balser, the distinctions couldn't be easier to spot.

Both animals are members of the camelid family, but they aren't as similar as people think. To start with, llamas are much larger and sometimes a couple hundred pounds heavier. Also, llamas were originally bred to be pack animals while the purpose of breeding alpacas was to get their fleece.

Those explanations and additional alpaca facts are just some of what McManus and Balser will be able to provide to people this weekend when they open up their farm, Ahjoomas Alpaca Farm, to everyone -- whether they be fiber enthusiasts, livestock producers or families on a fun outing.

McManus and Balser will have refreshments, games and activities available, as well as alpaca yarn and roving for sale and an endless supply of alpaca knowledge to share with their visitors.

Assisting with the alpacas

Having nearly 20 alpacas, three dogs and a handful of cats roaming their rural Cannon Falls farm may seem like a lot to manage, but McManus and Balser get a little bit of help. The farm next door gives them use of pasture space and the family's kids even pitch in.

"We employ the neighborhood," Balser joked.

Actually, 9-year-old neighbor Allison is crazy about the alpacas and contributes any time she can, whether it's helping with the alpacas directly or going along to farmers markets to sell yarn and other items. And as families drop by the Ahjoomas Farm on Saturday and Sunday, Allison will be on hand yet again.

"She said, 'I'll help you at the farm tour every year until I go to college,'" McManus said with a smile.

All about education

McManus and Balser primarily like taking part in the farm tours because they enjoy educating people on what alpacas are like, what kind of effort goes into taking care of them and what types of things their fleece is used for after sheering.

"In this day and age it's hard for kids to know where things come from," Balser said.

But it'll become much clearer for the kids once the weekend rolls around and the farm tour begins, because they'll have the opportunity to view different skeins of yarn at the same time they're observing the animals from which the fiber came. When McManus and Balser put together a skein, the package even includes a picture and the name of which alpaca supplied the fleece.

"People are surprised. 'Really, you have names for all of them?'" McManus said she often gets asked. "Absolutely."

From something more traditional like Maggie to something more unique like Miss Winfrey -- a tribute to Oprah -- each alpaca has its own name, not to mention its own disposition.

"They all have these weird, quirky personalities," Balser said.

While some walk right up to people out of curiosity, others shy away a little more or give a bit of a blank stare.

Area tour stops

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, visitors will get to see the varying personalities of alpacas not only at Ahjoomas Farm but also at Bluff Breeze Farm near Cannon Falls and Fossum Family Farm in Northfield. And it'll be easier than ever to travel from one to another.

"We give directions to the next farm and they have directions to the farm in Northfield," McManus explained.

Plus, the excitement will stretch much farther than a 50-mile radius since the farm tours are part of an annual nationwide event appropriately named National Alpaca Farm Days.

There are 41 separate alpaca farms holding open houses in Minnesota and Wisconsin, in addition to more than 200 others in a majority of the other lower 48 states and Hawaii.

But no matter where people travel to get educated on alpacas, one question that typically occupies everyone's mind will no doubt get answered.

"Yes, they spit," McManus said.