The mention of a rural Minnesota county fair and its 4-H barns may evoke images of chickens, pigs, goats, cows and even horses. With the showing of six animals at this year’s Mille Lacs County Fair, however, llamas may soon find themselves on that list of popular barnyard critters.
For 12-year-old 4-H’er Austin Eberhardt, the decision to show a llama at the fair was pure cosmetic.
“I just think they’re cute,” Eberhardt said, giving the llama, Booty, a hug around its long, soft neck. “I wanted to do something fun for 4-H and llamas sounded fun.”
She and Bria Lehr, also 12, along with a troupe of fellow llama loving 4-H’ers, have been enjoying their time this summer caring for and showing Princeton man Scott Wachs’ llamas. The girls and boys help clean their pens, refill their water, bathe, groom and train the animals.
“We use regular hair brushes, but we have to make sure (to) get their undercoat,” 13-year-old llama shower Cayla Courteau said.
Depending on how matted their fur becomes, each of the llamas at the Mille Lacs County Fair sported either a barrel cut that removes all of the fur around the llama’s midsection, an off-the-hip cut that leaves the bushy tail, or an all-around cut that removes all of the longer hair from the neck back.
Some of the 4-H members showing llamas this year knew each other before taking up the unusual hobby; others became friends through their shared love of llamas.
“Llamas bring everybody together,” Wachs said.
Wachs’ passion for the gentle beasts began more than three years ago when he met his first llama love, Cloud.
“We rescued her from a really bad situation in northern Minnesota,” Wachs recalled. “I didn’t even like llamas then. But she went ‘wah’ and butt her head in my chest, and I just had to take her home.”
Since then, Wachs has gone on to rescue or otherwise acquire several more llamas, bringing his total count up to seven — including a fresh one born just more than a month ago.
Along with the llamas, Wachs cares for horses, pigmy goats, chinchillas and has provided a rescue home to up to 70 reptiles at once.
“We have a small zoo,” Wachs said, laughing.
Most people may not think of a llama as a vicious guard animal, but Wachs said they are a very protective breed and have adopted his farm cat and other four-legged friends around the farm.
“Once they get to know your critters around the farm, they’ll protect them,” he said.
The llamas have helped around the Wachs property in another way as well.
“We haven’t mowed our lawn in three years,” he said, grinning. “It’s short. It’s green. It’s well taken care of by these guys.”
One question Wachs and his 4-H helpers are constantly fielding is: Do llamas spit?
“They do, but you have to get them really, really mad,” Wachs said. “I’ve only been spit on twice in four years, and they’re dead accurate with their spit.”
Mille Lacs County has not one, not two, but three llamas entering the Minnesota State Fair this year — no small feat considering how long the local program has been operating.
“Our program started last year with two people,” Wachs said. “This year, we have two people working with each llama because we don’t have enough llamas.”
Wachs said he’s happy to share his newfound love for llamas with youngsters and hopes to see the program grow.
“It’s really fun. It’s great to see these guys grow,” he said. “It’s a testament to how hard these guys worked all summer long.”