Alpaca: The cute meat

Local farmers test the local taste for a healthy burger alternative

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They were chasing wild geese when yet another real estate listing in an endless stream of disappointments caught their eye. The Sapp family was looking for a home in “God’s country” and had no idea what was just around the next bend.

“We had driven 3,000 miles in a week and had found nothing,” said Jan Sapp. “We had a very long, specific list that we needed to fill to meet our needs.”

The crew had been driving forever, pouring across the landscape like pioneers. The 2,300 miles from Florida to northwest Wyoming seemed easy compared to the journey through property listings hidden in a basin only vaguely familiar. Jan’s father was a park ranger at Yellowstone decades ago, a part of his long list of national park property assignments. His last stop was the Everglades, and that’s where Jan and her husband Eddie had eventually raised their family.

Driving up the wide lane in the Penrose area — a small sale sign on one side and a flat, well-groomed, fenced field on the other — they saw a woman working in the yard. The doors to the van swung open and erupted with Sapp family members asking questions. “Is the farm still available? Can we take a look around?”

The owner hesitated due to the sheer numbers piling out of the van, but soon invited them in. Jan and Eddie Sapp had never heard of Powell or seen the majestic flat-topped mountain to the west. But they knew the quiet city had a place to buy groceries, linens and even had two bookstores. Wyoming was Jan’s heart’s home. As they looked around at the property, she knew they had found their resting place.

Prior to the move the couple had a serious talk with their three sons, along with their wives and fiances, telling them of their plans to move out West.

“All of them said, ‘We’ll come, too,’” Jan recalled.

Not only would the Sapps be moving the entire family, they were also looking for a well-fenced area for their new business: alpacas.

“The alpacas are Jan’s thing,” Eddie said.

There had to be lots of room, and the former cattle operation on Bitter Creek had everything. The rest is a blur of history.

“I know it was divine intervention,” said Jan.

Eddie had previously traveled to Peru as a volunteer missionary and brought home alpaca products. Jan fell in love with the wool.

“I knew about the products before I even knew what alpacas looked like,” she said.

They bought some female alpacas in Oregon and invested tens of thousands of dollars in a stud. Then they hung a sign out on the lane leading to their homes, calling their new business Arrowhead Alpacas.

That was 13 years ago — and they didn’t stop with alpacas. Now the Sapp farm has chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, cows, goats, llamas, camels and more than 120 alpacas.

The Sapps name every one of their farm animals; with more than 10 dozen alpacas, the entire family takes turns choosing names.

The Sapps’ sons built new homes for their growing families on high ground along the creek. They harvest their own hay and sell farm and clothing products — much of it at Jan’s downtown Powell store, Heartworks. The store, celebrating its third anniversary this week, is a co-op for local artisans.

Alpaca meat

Always looking to increase their list of products, and having a self-replenishing herd of Peruvian alpacas, Jan recently bought a huge industrial chest freezer and started selling ground alpaca meat. (She won’t kill the chickens or ducks on the farm and the small herd of cows are her son Paul’s.)

Jan won’t say who exactly is in the freezer, but it is full of 1-pound packages of the ground meat. (If you buy 5 pounds, you get a free keychain.) Opening the chest, she explained the current stock comes from 13 geldings.

“I know every one of their names, but I don’t know who’s who in here. And I don’t want to know,” she said.

The alpaca burger is mild in flavor, with just a little bit more body than hamburger. For the lack of a better comparison, Jan says the meat tastes like elk, but not as rich.

“Health-wise, it’s amazing. It’s lower in cholesterol and lower in fat than turkey. They’re grass-fed and are higher in protein [than hamburger] and ... delicious,” Jan said.

There’s enough fat content in alpaca meat — called hummburger — to easily make patties that hold their shape. Jan said they only harvest alpacas for food if their wool isn’t high enough quality to make into soft, ultra warm wearables. Jan is sensitive, yet practical.

“Why keep feeding an animal that isn’t producing top-notch fiber?” she said.

Her favorite seasoning for the meat is Windy Mountain spice, created and sold at Heartworks by local artist Lynn Richardson. The Powell resident was forced to stop using salt and decided to make his own spices. Containers of the spicy concoction of several proprietary ingredients sell right next to the framed photographs for which Richardson is known.

The multitude of products that can be made from alpacas is why Jan chose to raise the animals. They are the easiest stock to raise, she said.

There are two breeds of alpacas: Huacaya and Suri. Both sources of fiber are luxurious and highly regarded in the textile trade. There are more than 20 natural alpaca colors — one of the most diverse color spectrums of any animal on earth. While they look quite different, they are physiologically identical in every other way. There are three grades of fiber, from high quality wool used to make silky soft clothing items, to low grade fibers used to make alpaca rugs.

While not as cuddly as they are cute, alpacas also have impeccable manners, other than occasionally spitting in protest.

Other stock on the farm — that will never likely end up on a dinner table — have jobs. The poultry produce eggs. The llamas act as guards against predators. The camels were just for show, often appearing in parades. But now Jan has a new plan for Carrie, their lovable, kissable female: She hopes to breed Carrie and eventually retrieve some camel milk.

“It’s easier than milking a goat,” Jan quipped. “It’s easier on the back and knees.”

Unless the Sapp family dramatically increase their camel herd, there probably won’t be a lot of milk to go around. But Heartworks does offer the alpaca meat: As part of the store’s anniversary celebration, Arrowhead Alpacas is offering free hummburger meatballs today (Thursday) to everyone who comes in.

For more information, visit www.heartworkscrafters.com.

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