Nestled in the green pastureland just outside of Milford, Indiana, local folks are seeing something new when it comes to dairy animals. Camels can be seen leisurely grazing at Luke and Amber Blakeslee’s River Jordan Camel Dairy acres on any given day.
“It is funny to watch passersby stop and do a double-take,” Amber laughs.
Jenny, Daisy, Ginger, and Journey, their four camels, officially arrived in June of 2017, but only after Luke and Amber had spent two years researching and fund building to make sure that this venture was the right choice for them and the camels and that it was feasible. Today their camel soaps and lotions are making a name for themselves and Luke and Amber couldn’t be happier with their business choice.
Ironically, it all started when Amber was mowing lawn one day. “Five acres are a lot to mow and I was thinking how senseless it was to mow it week after week when it could be put to better use. Even though we had previously had horses, we wanted something that would not only keep the grass down but also give back in other ways.”
They both grew up in the area and they both loved animals. Luke’s experience was more with goats, ponies and chickens while Amber’s mini farm consisted of horses, cows and pigs. Time and again their research pointed to camels as their animal of choice because of camels’ adaptivity to new situations and surroundings, both mentally and physically. Camels are not flighty, they take things in stride, easily figure out new routines and do not have many natural predators. Camel milk is naturally low in lactose and has been medically proven to help heal autism by healing the digestive tract.
Even with all these pros, they made numerous visits to a camel dairy in Shipshewana, Indiana, and attended a hands-on clinic in Michigan with Marlin Troyer as their mentor where they actually worked with the camels to make sure they were comfortable with the animals. They left confident that this is where God was leading them in life.
First of all, their 5-acre mowing job was gone. Camels eat orchard grass, hay, regular grass, thistles, thorns and all the leaves and bark off trees up to 8 feet high where they can reach. They are just as happy eating hay out of feeders in trees. The lactating mamas and calves do get non-GMO grain supplements, alfalfa pellets and sunflower seeds.
Contrary to popular belief, camels store fat in their humps, not water. Because of this, they can turn this fat into energy and go without eating or drinking for long periods of time. As far as needing water, camels drink a lot when they do drink. One camel can drink 30 gallons of water in a span of 15 minutes. They also get moisture from the grass and other sources that their body soaks up and stores. One thing that they do need is lots of salt. The camels on the Blakeslee’s farm eat Himalayan salt, to be precise.
Although Jenny, Daisy, Ginger, and Journey are American born and bred, they are Arabian camels and have all the characteristics of their Middle Eastern relatives. They have thick lips and no upper teeth in front, they have long eyelashes and have the ability to close their nostrils and still breathe, allowing them to keep out the sand. Their ears are small and filled with numerous little hairs, which is another trait that affords them protection from the Middle Eastern blowing sands. Perhaps the most peculiar characteristic is the third set of eyelids they have that are clear so they can close them and still be able to see.
All in all, they are pretty hardy animals. With their thick winter coats and the uncanny ability to raise and lower their body temperature by 10 degrees, they actually don’t mind the snow. The only downside is if their diet changes drastically or if they are stressed, they tend to get loose stools. Eating too much alfalfa or eating grass that is too wet makes them more prone to parasites.
I had to ask if it were true that they spit at people like llamas do sometimes. Amber laughed, “Only if they are excited or upset. They are really very gentle, docile animals.”
However, a couple months after they got them, they hired camel trainer Jason Martin to “home school” their new charges. “It’s not that they were behaving badly but they needed to learn to respect us and to know what we expected out of them. It was also so important that we learned how to safely work with the animals. Jason actually lived with us for a week and taught them how to walk nicely and to lay down. Camels are happiest if they have one or two “jobs” to do so he even taught Ginger to be a ride animal,” Amber explained.
Their camels have only one hump and the custom-made saddle is placed behind the hump and supports the back. “At some point we want to offer camel rides to get the public more familiar with these gentle animals,” Luke points out.
However, that won’t be for a while as their main focus at present is making soaps and lotions from the camel milk. “Our initial goal was to sell the milk,” Amber recalls. “Now, as demand has increased for the soap, that goal has changed. I had never made soap before but you learn as you go. One of the main reasons I got into it was that our daughter has had eczema really bad although she is only 3. We heard that camel soaps helped the condition and, since we have been using them on her, it has all but cleared up.”
Milking a camel can be quite a chore as they have to have their calf suckle first to let the milk down and then they only drop it for 90 seconds at a time. They get about a gallon per day and it takes a pint of milk to make 16 bars of soap. Each bar’s ingredients are made up of 25 percent milk. The active ingredient is alphahydroxy acids and camel milk is rich in these as well as vitamins A and E. Camel milk has three times the vitamin C as cow’s milk and 10 times the iron.
Amber is always experimenting with different recipes for the soaps. She incorporates her own designs, which are works of art, and plays with various fragrances by adding different essential oils. In a busy week she can do 300 bars but she must also plan ahead as the bars have to cure for four weeks. “They are amazing for anyone with skin sensitivities and they are so soft to the touch,” Amber relates with pride.
As if the soaps didn’t keep Amber busy enough, she also offers her own line of camel milk lotions, which requires three times as much milk by volume as the soaps do. The lotions are silky and smooth without the greasiness of other lotions. One of the main reasons for this is the tapioca flour that absorbs any greasiness and helps the other ingredients to bind together. “She is real picky on her products and she won’t make anything that she won’t use herself,” Luke adds.
Between the soaps and lotions, Amber and Luke stay pretty busy. August through December is their busiest show season and they do eight to 10 shows a year, many in Shipshewana, Indiana. They also sell off their website, firstname.lastname@example.org, and have soaps as far away as Branson, Missouri. “It’s really taking off!” Amber beams.
They chose the name “River Jordan” very carefully as Luke explains. “To give us a daily reminder of where the Lord had led us. The Jordan River is a symbol of healing and restoration in our lives, and we hope each of our products can reflect that in their own way.”
From the beginning, they wanted a venture that would incorporate family, their life’s passion and a lot of blessings. The camels give them that. “It’s a business but we want it to feel like a hobby,” says Amber. She, along with Luke, enjoys spending time with each other and their two toddlers most of all.
What does the future hold for them? They are already thinking of expanding to a total of six camels, with a couple of males with the purpose of giving rides. They would also like to train a couple of them to pull a wagon. “Camels are such good investments since they live between 30 and 40 years,” Amber says. “These four are already such a part of our family and they have brought so much joy to us that we want to share that joy with others.”
It is amazing how River Jordan Dairy was born from a task as mundane as mowing the yard. What an amazing journey it has been for them so far and they have only just begun.