Apple Hill Farm Spreads Alpaca Love
It was 2000, and Lee Rankin was taking her then 1-year-old son through the Kentucky State Fair when she saw her first alpaca. “I looked into its eyes and fell in love,” she recalls.
Right then and there, Rankin decided she wanted to move to the mountains and raise alpacas. It took until 2003 for the pieces to fall into place, but she made that dream a reality. Today her Apple Hill Farm offers others the opportunity to share the alpaca love with a robust agritourism business.
“We offered 700 tours last year,” she says. “We are at the top of a mountain. It is really cool; you feel like you found something special.”
When Rankin found her scenic mountaintop property in Banner Elk, the plan was to raise alpacas to breed, show and sell. But in 2004, disaster struck: a wild animal attacked the herd, killing four of her five alpacas.
“It was terrifying,” she says. “We had insurance, but the emotional hit was terrible. I got these animals because I love them. One of them had been a bottle-fed baby.”
Rankin believes the predator was a mountain lion, but experts didn’t agree on what killed the animals. They did agree, however, that the predator would likely come back, so Rankin set out to protect her alpacas differently. She consulted farmers in other parts of the country, reworked her fencing and added other animals, including meat goats, donkeys, goats, llamas and even a rescued pregnant horse, placing them in protective rings around the mountaintop farm.
“That’s when we became a story,” Rankin says. “Everyone wanted to come see what we were doing and see the animals.”
She and her staff enjoyed the visitors and loved stopping to talk, but it wasn’t the most efficient way to run a farm. By 2006, they shifted to an agritourism model, offering tours as often as seven days a week in high season (see sidebar). Now with 43 acres (about 15 acres of which are being farmed), locals and tourists alike come to see the animals, which now include pigs, cows, angora goats, 20 alpacas and livestock dogs.
The tours, which last between 45 minutes and an hour, are educational, guided walking tours. “We do not just let people wander around,” Rankin says.
Guests learn about raising the animals and sending the fiber off to be made into yarn. The alpacas are sheared on the first Saturday in June, which is always open to the public.
A small gift shop carries products made (off site, by a fiber pool) from alpaca, llama and angora goat fiber, including socks, gloves, yarn for DIYers and more. If guests have a connection with a specific animal, they can buy yarn that came from those animals. Apple Hill Farm animals have distinctive names, like Tequila or Bambi, making them even more memorable.
“I think that people are feeling out of touch with what is real,” says Rankin, who is Vice President of Watauga County Farm Bureau. “Agritourism is a chance to put our feet on the ground. We’re at a point in time where people don’t know where things come from. Many people have never been on a farm before. Her guests run the gamut from families who want to show their kids what farm life is like to adults escaping work pressures for a weekend to those simply wanting to take in the mountain air at 4,300 feet.
“Alpacas date back to ancient times,” Rankin says. “They are different animals energetically. They are unique, mystical animals, peaceful and powerful.”
– Margaret Littman
Banner Elk, NC (828) 963-1662
If You Go...
Apple Hill Farm
Banner Elk, NC