Jerry and Carolyn Ayers fell in love with llamas at the 1998 Rare Breed Exposition in Knoxville, Tennessee. The brilliantly colored fiber, slinky bodies and mystic personalities of those noble camel cousins so captivated the couple, they decided to purchase two right then and there and take them back to their small farm in Chuckey, Tennessee.
Now, eight years later, their 10-acre spread is home to more than 50 llamas. “We are llamaholics,” Jerry declares proudly. “We’re addicted to their serene nature and beauty. Our passion for llamas has become a business.”
Close to 30,000 llama farms can be found nationwide. The couple’s Walnut Ridge Llama Farm and Store is the second largest such farm in Tennessee.
Located on a hillside along the Chuckey Highway between Greeneville and Limestone, the farm welcomes visitors who can go face to face with the llamas and browse through the Walnut Ridge Store. They quickly understand why the Ayerses like these extraordinary creatures so much.
A tale worth telling
The Ayers operation was founded about a decade ago with Suffolk sheep and Nubian goats, but now, except for one emu, one miniature horse, one pot-bellied pig and a flock of chickens, the family is living the full-fledged llama lifestyle. Jerry still maintains his position as principal at Greeneville High School, but Carolyn, a former fourth-grade teacher, has now dived into the llama business full time.
“People are enamored by the llamas,” says Jerry, describing the animals as the perfect alternative livestock. “They’re cheaper to raise than cows or horses and require less maintenance.” For the price to feed one horse, the Ayerses can feed six llamas.
“One of the most spectacular things about llamas is the fact that you can walk among them,” Jerry says. Go head first, he advises in the pasture. Llamas will get to know you if you put your head up to theirs. At Walnut Ridge, visitors can walk through the herd and become a part of it. “What other animal can you stand behind and feel safe?” he asks.
And about that spitting, don’t worry. “Our llamas are more likely to spit on each other than to spit on humans,” Jerry says. “They spit on each other to show dominance. It is very rare for them to spit on humans, but occasionally we get caught in the crossfire.”
Walnut Ridge Farm’s principal business is breeding. “We put together the best possible bloodlines to produce the most valuable crias (babies),” Jerry says. Walnut Ridge is home to both silky and suri llamas; two types distinguished by their fiber.
Llama fiber is sturdy and smooth, and does not mat or knot. The Ayerses’ herd has shiny, silky and soft fiber, which is sheared, sent out to be processed, and made into scarves, shawls and rugs that show off the many colors of llama fiber. A llama can have a multi-colored coat, with white, black, brown, tan, gray, red and more. The store also offers quilts, honey and other local products.
A plan for business
Llamas are multipurpose animals that were used by the Incas in South America for transport, fiber, hide, bones and meat; the Ayerses’ marketing plan includes selling breeding stock, shearing stock and fiber. Demand for their products is still on the rise.
In 2005, the couple sold 17 llamas. In the first five months of 2006, they sold 12, with prices ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 each. Jerry says their typical customers are 50 years old or older and retired or semi-retired with expendable income. In spite of lagging llama sales nationwide coupled with significantly lowered prices, the Ayerses say they prevail because of their passion and creativity. The couple also sell locally made llama shawls, artwork featuring llamas, jellies, candles, antiques, gourmet coffees and other items in their rustic log-cabin-turned-store.
After only eight years in the business, this llama-loving family has turned the “perfect alternative livestock” into a successful, enjoyable lifestyle.
“These wonderful creatures have allowed Carolyn and me to enjoy an even closer bond with each other during a time when most couples are stressing about their jobs, retirement and the empty-nest syndrome,” Jerry says. “Llamas have given us a conduit to share our passion with others, enjoy new lifelong friendships and develop a lifestyle that enhances our quality of life that will extend into our retirement years.”
The only fear the Ayerses have is that the farm will get too big.
“We realized a couple of years ago that we cannot compete head to head with larger farms that have the assets to promote their operations and llamas nationwide,” Jerry says. “We will always be three steps behind in chasing the latest fads in llamas. We do not want to follow in the footsteps of a successful llama farm model with large assets; instead we are following a farm model that fits our personality and income.”
Current low prices, now about 20 percent of those a decade ago, are negatively impacting many llama entrepreneurs. For the Ayerses, this has been a plus.
“Carolyn and I feel that if prices for llamas hadn’t come down to the current levels, we would never have been introduced to the lifestyle,” Jerry says. “We are an upper middle-class family who has turned a passion for llamas into a passionate business.”
For more information or to arrange a visit, point your browser to www.WalnutRidgeLlamas.com.
Robert Sorrell is a freelance writer based in Greeneville, Tennessee. From there, he writes on the joys of farming and rural life, as well as homes, culture and history for several regional and national publications.