The season in review

It’s surprisingly cold now, in late November, although dry and clear. As always, we’d love for some of the snow blanketing other parts of the country (hello, six feet in Buffalo!) to bestow its generosity upon us here, but nothing shows in the forecast as yet. Days are crisp and blue, and nights definitely require extra quilts. The sunroom is still full of cardboard trays of slowly ripening tomatoes and peppers; this unheated room works perfectly for cold storage and allows these vegetables to ripen slowly with sunlight but without so much warmth that they’d rot. Certainly something is sacrificed in terms of flavor when crops aren’t allowed to ripen outside, but we have a reasonably short growing season here so we have to work with what we have – and it’s a lovely treat to enjoy our own fresh tomato salads well into winter.

Those cardboard trays are slowly transforming into rustic, delicate ristras and canning jars of salsa and sauce; seeds are mostly dried and packed away. The winter squash bounty hasn’t been tapped into yet; that will carry us through the coldest months and into fragile spring with warming soups and curries. New planting rows for next year have been plowed and filled with compost. The plants we pulled out have been mowed into bits to break down into compost over winter; the beds have been mulched with spent straw and next year’s garlic has been planted. In all ways, our season is gradually winding down and we’re more than ready to tuck ourselves in for a couple of months of much-needed rest.

We’re still reviewing our season, cataloguing our successes and noting what changes and improvements we plan to make for next year. This year certainly had its challenges, but it definitely offered wins, too! Read on for more about the 2022 growing season.

We grow three traditional raspberry varieties plus ‘Anne,’ a yellow cultivar.

Our four rows of raspberries produced spectacularly this year! Early in the season we actually thought we’d lost these plants, but they rallied and for a period of weeks in September we were harvesting a pound or more every morning. Considering the cost of fresh organic raspberries in supermarkets these days, our own homegrown abundance qualified as a cash crop! The rows have some holes where canes have died, so we’ll replant these in the spring and would like to introduce blackberries, too.

Ripe ground cherries are bright yellow with a papery tan husk.

We grow many familiar fruits and vegetables, but we like growing unusual things too. Ground cherries (also called pineapple tomatillos or husk cherries) are absolutely delicious, drought-tolerant and easy to grow. Unlike traditional tomatillos, which grow on tall vining plants similar to tomatoes, ground cherries grow – as you might imagine – on the ground. The tiny fruits are sweet-tart, crisp and delicious, especially once the papery husks have turned from green to beige. They’re also a terrific source of Vitamin C! I’ve saved a lot of seeds this year and am hoping to substantially expand our plantings of this unusual fruit next year.

Quick pickles are so easy and rewarding to make.

Our sweet and hot peppers produced remarkably well. I’ve never before harvested so many green peppers pre-frost – like the tomatoes, these were late starters – and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how well these green peppers have ripened to red. This weekend I quick-pickled a mix of sweet and hot peppers for a bright, tangy, fresh condiment to use on soups and beans. Many of our hot peppers are dried and turned into chile powder; some are fermented into Tabasco-style hot sauce. Capsaicin is never in short supply here.

A colorful calendula mix bordering one of our raised beds.

We’ve expanded our flower plantings to create beneficial habitat for pollinators, naturally repel insects and because they’re just such a joyous visual pleasure. We primarily grow a mix of calendula, marigolds and cosmos; they’re drought-tolerant and easy to grow, but will be adding hollyhock and zinnia next year. Our area showcases gorgeous self-seeding orange poppies every spring; we’ve not yet had success with these, but I’m hopeful that 2023 will be our year. Flowers bring such simple, uncomplicated joy to our lives here on the farm that I want to plant them everywhere.

Aphids run amok on kale leaves.

This season had some serious challenges, too. Our growing season started late thanks to cool temperatures well into June; the tomatoes were therefore badly stunted and didn’t start producing until early September. We also experienced our first bout of tomato viruses; in our high-plains desert climate, viruses are thankfully rare but this means we don’t have much useful experience in identifying or treating. Our best guess is that many of our plants suffered from beet curly top virus (BCTV) which is insect-vectored and was apparently endemic in our area this year. As a result of this infestation, many of our one hundred tomato plants either didn’t produce at all or produced only a handful of small, inedible fruits. We also struggled with soil nutrient issues, and as a result will be moving all tomato plants to a different growing area next year in order to let the soil rest. After last year’s utterly staggering tomato harvest, this year definitely felt like a bit of a letdown – but it’s also a good reminder that crop rotation and soil health matter – a lot. We successfully grew a few new tomato cultivars, including Amana Orange, Principe Borghese and Evergreen, all of which performed well enough to be added to our seed bank.

And of course the aphids went crazy on the brassicas, as shown above.

Silvery squash bugs and their thousands of coppery eggs are easy to recognize.

While we’re on the topic of crop rotation, we also learned the hard way that moving the squash plants just a few yards to avoid the devastating squash bugs we first noticed last year DOES NOT WORK. Because of climate change, squash bugs are now proving much more of a problem – their larvae can actually overwinter in the soil, as winter temperatures are no longer cold enough to kill them (much like the mountain pine beetle). So the terrible squash bugs that we had at the end of last year were a far bigger problem this year, as they were absolutely everywhere. As a result, squash yields were far lower than expected; on the positive side, I learned how to identify and handpick the coppery eggs off the leaves. As with the tomatoes, we’re relocating the entire patch west of the animal corral next year in a valiant attempt to eradicate our hungry nemesis. I’m not too sad about the loss of the zucchini, but the winter squashes do play a key role in our off-season diet so our poor yields are disappointing, to say the least. Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson and can improve next year.

Definitely not thrilled about this paparazzi experience.

We’ve had some unusual wildlife encounters recently, including a bear, a great horned owl, feral cats, numerous hawks and raptors, badgers and this little guy – the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). Fun facts: the porcupine is North America’s second-largest rodent after the beaver (Go Beavs!) and the scientific name translates to ‘quill pig.’ They can climb trees and are excellent swimmers. You will likely be the most popular person at your holiday gatherings when you bust out these super-useful trivia tidbits. (Porcupines are also primarily nocturnal, so all credit to N for capturing this incredible photo!)

Such funny creatures – inquisitive yet skittish.

And finally, our four rescue alpacas and our stoic, elegant llama (can you spot him?) remain content, healthy and as stand-offish as ever. We’re so glad to have them, even if our dreams of an alpaca petting zoo will likely never come to fruition.

Thanks for reading, dear friends. We love having you here, too.

Farm update: November 22

Hello and what’s new in your world? Here at Quiet Farm we very much wish that winter would appear already. We haven’t had even a dusting of snow since that frost back in October, and it’s barely cold enough to freeze the animals’ water or kill off all the aphids on the kale. Far too warm for late November – but don’t you worry, our trusty politicians are taking care of that pesky climate collapse issue even as we speak.

Our fall harvest has all been successfully preserved; the last of the ripe tomatoes went into the sauce pot yesterday. Chiles are drying in the sunroom, ready to be pulverized into chile powder; pumpkins and squash are neatly stacked on shelves; apples and onions remain in cold storage in our insulated woodworking shed. We are stocked and ready, and we invite Serious Winter to show up immediately if not sooner.

Here are a few more things we’ve been up to recently, if you’d like to see:

Bright, tart pomegranate seeds make these amazing waffles even better.

Obviously we’ve discussed the waffles previously, but yet here we are again. I made a fresh batch last weekend and since holiday brunches and family gatherings and all sorts of festivities are lurking just around the corner, I must evangelize the waffles once more. Please, dear friends, if you do not make one other thing from scratch this holiday season, please make these waffles. I know this level of devotion to a seemingly innocuous breakfast food seems a bit over the top, but trust me – these are the best waffles ever, and you can stop Googling ‘best waffle recipe.’ Plus they’re very easy to make, and they freeze beautifully – you can just have fabulous homemade toaster waffles any time you like, and you can also stop buying expensive processed frozen waffles with mysterious ingredients! The recipe hails from Fannie Farmer by way of Marion Cunningham’s brilliant The Breakfast Book, which I highly recommend. (But seriously, go make these waffles. Do it now.)

Hot sauce doesn’t have to be just painfully ‘hot.’

Making hot sauce is always part of our farm preservation work each year. Although I’ve experimented with lots of different types of hot sauces, for the moment I’m keeping it simple – one fiery-sweet red version, very loosely based on Sriracha and this Melissa Clark recipe, and one fermented serrano version, a rough knock-off of green Tabasco. The red hot sauce is definitely milder, with a gentle undertone of sweetness from the red bell peppers, while the green is a tangier, sharper vinegar-based sauce, used more sparingly. As a personal rule, I don’t love aggressive, punch-in-the-face hot sauces; I want a bit of heat but would still like to taste whatever I’m eating. Hot sauce is simple and inexpensive to make at home, keeps indefinitely and is a thoughtful consumable gift for anyone on your list who likes things spicy. (P.S. If you buy classic Sriracha, save, wash and reuse the iconic squeeze bottles for your own homemade hot sauce.)

Small part. Big impact.

I don’t in any way fancy myself an influencer, but if I can influence you to NEVER, EVER buy GE appliances, please allow me to do so. We have a full suite of GE appliances in our kitchen – all of which came with the house – and every single one has failed at least once. Most recently we found ourselves without a functioning oven, which is quite challenging for someone who bakes on a more or less daily basis. Some investigation and a few helpful YouTube tutorials later, we ordered a new igniter. (Of course, I foolishly ordered the first igniter from GE and it arrived pre-broken, thanks to their careless packing. The second igniter, from an entirely different company, arrived in perfect condition, but obviously it was now two weeks later. Thanks again, GE. You’re tops.) We successfully installed the new igniter – a five-minute job, though gaining access to the compartment and putting everything back together neatly made it more like an afternoon – and lo and behold, we thankfully once again have a working oven. As always, successfully learning to repair things ourselves goes a long way towards our goal of self-sufficiency.

Crispy, salty, savory and delicious hot or at room temperature – galettes are winners.

And of course with a working oven, we can once again make delicious meals like galettes! Like the waffles above, we’ve extolled the virtues of galettes previously – they can be sweet or savory, hot or cold, made in advance or pulled fresh from the oven – and they lend themselves well to using up whatever odd bits and ends you might have on hand. They’re also beginner-friendly, if you’re intimidated by all the perfect pies you’re seeing right now; galettes are designed to be “artisanal” and “rustic” which – fun fact! – are both Latin for “messy” and “imperfect.” This time of year our galettes are most likely to have fall flavors, like delicata squash, caramelized onion, peppery goat cheese, sage and rosemary – but honestly, you can put pretty much anything you want in one. If you’ve got a couple rounds of pastry dough in the freezer you’re halfway there; galettes are easy to prep for holiday gatherings and perfect as a vegetarian main dish or as a simple, impressive dessert.

Available now as an NFT: “Untitled: Llama and Alpacas at Rest, 2021”

And finally, it’s always nice to observe our camelid herd lounging peacefully in the pasture; if they’re at rest, it means they’re getting plenty to eat. We’re regularly challenged by this rebellious bunch of feral miscreants, but they add a certain flair to Quiet Farm, and we’re glad to have them here.

Wishing you all the best during a tough time of year, dear friends.

Farm update: October 18

And in the space of a few days, our season went from lush abundance to a frozen wasteland. Such is the nature of growing food at over six thousand feet in a high-plains desert.

Our first hard frost arrived this past week, and with it a few light dustings of early snow. Up on the mesa we were thrilled to see a solid fifteen inches show up on the Sno-Tel! All of our irrigation water, of course, comes directly from the mesa, so we are always in favor of as much winter moisture as possible to boost next year’s irrigation allotment.

Our sunroom looks like an unusual farmers’ market!

Temperatures dropped into the high 20s overnight, which is far too cold for summer crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. (Don’t worry, the kale is fine. The kale is always fine.) Prior to the freeze we harvested everything we could – nearly four hundred pounds on Monday alone; now comes the task of preserving all of that food to enjoy through winter and spring. The cruel irony, of course, is that once the storm passed we quickly returned to bright bluebird skies and comfortable daytime temperatures in the mid-60s, which likely means we would have gotten at least another two or three weeks in the growing season. But when a hard freeze announces that you’re done, then you’re done – and there’s not much arguing.

One of our gated pipes with the season’s final run.

Our irrigation season runs through the end of October, but we balanced our account this year to fortuitously end just before the cold snap arrived. Running irrigation later in the season is already a chilly task; combine that with a hard freeze and it can be downright miserable. We were very pleased with how we managed our irrigation in a drought year and though of course we hope for higher water shares next year, we know that with smart planning we can make even a low allotment work for our land. It’s incredible how much we’ve learned in only three short years here.

A friend’s trial orchard, where new apple varieties are tested.

Prior to the hard freeze we’d picked nearly two hundred pounds of local apples for winter storage. One box has already been transformed into applesauce; the remainder will stay reasonably fresh in one of our insulated but unheated sheds. This delicious fruit will provide snacks all throughout the winter; I’ll also bake with the apples as well as dehydrate a few pounds for adding to granola. As always, the bounty of incredible local fruit is one of the greatest benefits of living where we do.

Adelaide, Paris, Paihia and Fiji contemplating the change in seasons.

Although the damp, freezing weather makes the corral a bit of a sloppy mess, the animals are entirely unfazed by the cooler weather. They’ve put on quite a bit of fleece since their shearing, so they’re ready for winter, too.

And with that, we’re off to sort produce for canning. Wishing you a calm and peaceful week, friends.

Farm update: September 20

Autumn is very much on its way here at Quiet Farm. Overnight lows plunge to the mid-40s, though our daytime temperatures remain in the mid-80s. The plants are all starting to look a bit tired, a bit yellowed, a bit lackluster. The seasonal transition has begun, and we are looking forward to the slower rhythms of late fall and winter. This remains an exceptionally busy time for us; here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see.

One day’s harvest of an easy twenty-five pounds.

Despite a rough start, we’ve had a spectacular year for tomatoes. We planted about sixty tomato plants of about fourteen different varieties, and our yields have been simply staggering. We’ve grown full-size heirlooms that I never thought possible, believing that our growing season was simply too short, and the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes have done well too. Every night for weeks now there’s been a fresh tomato salad with supper, and we’ve put up sauce, soup and salsa for a warm and nourishing winter. I never, ever tire of fresh tomatoes, and since we don’t eat storebought tomatoes, we’re getting our fill now. We will miss these gorgeous things until next summer.

Spotted on an evening irrigation check.

As we’ve spoken of many times here, we focus our efforts on improving our land and our soil, and one of the best ways we can do that is by encouraging both native plants and the pollinator population. Monarch butterflies are an iconic pollinator species; the western U.S. monarch population is currently traveling south on its fall migration. The monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) shown above feeds exclusively on milkweed; once the caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly, it has a much more varied diet. Unfortunately, milkweed is also toxic to livestock, so ranchers regularly treat pasture milkweeds with toxic herbicides – which is why the monarch population is declining, because the larvae cannot survive without these plants. We keep camelids here at Quiet Farm, and have spent hours worried about our animals becoming ill from consuming milkweed in our pastures; obviously, we’re not going to spray and we don’t particularly want to pull all these host plants.

After extensive research, our solution – for the moment – is to let things stand as they are. Hardy alpacas and llamas, native to the high Andes, aren’t nearly as delicate as domesticated cattle and sheep, so are far less likely to become sick. Plus, we’re intentionally cultivating a mixed pasture, with lots of different plants for our animals to graze; the likelihood of any of our animals eating enough milkweed to become seriously ill is slender indeed. There are never perfect methods of pasture management, but we’re working hard at figuring out what we can do to maintain balance.

Beautiful photo. Terrible plant. Just look at its horrible weaponry!

One thing that is very much not in balance is our puncturevine population. The farm is absolutely overrun with this heinous plant this year, and we’ve spent countless hours trying to eradicate it – pulling by hand, obviously, as dousing the entire farm in glyphosate is clearly not an option. Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) is an invasive weed, uniquely adapted to our desert climate, that grows where few other plants will; most infuriatingly, the seeds can remain dormant in the soil for seven to ten years. While we’re happy to let neutral weeds, like purslane and mullein, grow freely, the puncturevine burrs are harmful to humans and animals – and bicycle tires, too. For reasons unknown to us, this year conditions were absolutely perfect for puncturevine to take over our land and so it has. We are hoping that we’ve removed most of it, but we know that some of those viciously sharp little seeds are simply biding their time until next year. Or the year after that. Or the year after that. The battle continues.

The Quiet Farm pumpkin patch.

We’ve done well with winter squash this year, though as usual there are some squashes that didn’t exactly breed true – always a risk with saved seeds and limited isolation practices. Squash plants are a reliable harbinger of fall; ours usually start showing signs of powdery mildew, and the vines themselves start to fade and turn a bit crispy. I usually trim immature fruit so that the plant devotes all its energies to ripening the larger fruits, but this year I’ve mostly left the squash patch to its own devices. Depending on the variety, most pumpkins start out dark green with stripes; the fruits turn the classic bright orange in the same way leaves change color on deciduous trees. These jack o’lantern pumpkins yielded nicely; they’ll be cured for winter storage and won’t be carved but instead used for soups, curries and muffins.

As with other annuals, the bean plants will also clearly demonstrate that they’re nearly finished for the season. These are labeled as ‘Aztec White’, but based on the small size I suspect they’re more along the lines of a true navy bean. Dry beans can stay on the vine until frost threatens, a huge bonus for the time-starved farmer; if there isn’t time to shell the beans immediately, they can be tossed into repurposed feed sacks and stored in a cool, dark, dry place, away from pests and damp. Shelling dry beans is a perfect project for a crisp, late fall day, when the more pressing tasks have been completed! Once they’re shelled I’ll hopefully have a better idea of the variety, although when it comes to heirloom beans I’m not hugely bothered about specifics, especially when seeds are freely shared amongst local growers. If the beans grow well and taste delicious, that’s really all that matters.

Farm candy.

And to end on a sweet note, we’re pleased to share that our raspberry patch is finally producing. It’s taken us a couple of years to get these canes established, but we’re now harvesting enough raspberries to actually bring a few inside, rather than just eat them all in the field. We’re hopeful that we’ll have a few more weeks before a hard frost, so that all of the unripe berries will have a chance to ripen, but we’re thrilled with anything we get – these are like candy. As with tomatoes, the difference between just-picked raspberries, still warm from the sun, and those sitting in the cold case at your local supercenter is night and day, and we’ll eat our fill for as long as we possibly can.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead.

Farm update: July 26

And here we are at the tail end of July, scrambling to complete everything that needs doing. Each night before sleep finally arrives I focus on designing bright, colorful quilt patterns in my head – calming mental Tetris – rather than running through all of the tasks I didn’t complete during the day. The tomatoes need to be pruned and re-staked, again. The arugula and lettuce seeds need to be harvested, the straggly plants composted and the beds reseeded. The garlic needs to be pulled and cured. The mallow, bindweed and puncturevine are threatening a total takeover. And on and on and on. I feel a thousand miles behind on everything, and I remind myself to complete one task at a time. Also, I regularly remind myself to enjoy the moment I’m in, rather than race on to the next without even pausing for breath. (Easier said than done, no?)

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

Admiring our seasonal plants is a great way for me to stop my frenzied rushing for just a moment. Many of our flowering perennials didn’t bloom this year, thanks to the drought, but we do still have a few. Echinacea, or coneflower, is one of my favorites, and the bees love it, too. (Our pollinator population is also greatly diminished this year, likely due to the lack of blossoms in the neighboring orchards.) Echinacea has been touted for years as an herbal remedy for just about any ailment, including the common cold, but legitimate scientific studies on this are lacking in substance, to say the least. Still, the coneflowers grow well here and I’m hopeful that I can expand their presence on the farm in future years.

Just one day’s harvest…

Late July and August are the months we eagerly await all year – when the vegetables start rolling in. The flipside of that, of course, is that then you need to have a plan for what you’re going to do with all of that glorious food. Onions and kale are easy to deal with; they are garden stalwarts and stay fresh for weeks. Carrots and beets need to have their greens removed, at the very least; I usually don’t wash them until just before I’m ready to use them. The zucchini, of course, is where things start to feel overwhelming. Anyone who has planted zucchini knows full well that through some mysterious garden trickery you can check the plants twice a day and still end up with overgrown monsters. I like to harvest the squash when small and use it in salads, galettes and pastas; I also shred and freeze it for muffins. And our tomatoes are just now starting to come on; we’ve had a couple of early Juliets, plus a Lemon Boy and a Black Krim. The real bounty will start showing up in about ten days, and as with every year, I’m looking forward to an absurd excess of tomatoes. They never go to waste here.

So fresh! So crisp! So delicious!

We had a ridiculously abundant crop of peas this year! I adore fresh peas, but they often struggle here because we typically move so quickly from winter to summer, and peas generally like cooler, more moderate temperatures. This year, however, the plants just kept on producing, even when the temperatures accelerated into triple digits. Many, many peas were simply eaten fresh outside as a garden snack while doing chores, and many more made it inside for salads and stir-fries. The plants are mostly finished now, the peas starchy and the vines slowly crisping and browning, and all the peas still hanging will be dried and saved for seed. This year was such a roaring success that I’m very seriously considering giving the peas their own special home next to the raspberry beds, and saving the space in the raised beds for other spring crops like carrots and onions.

Neatly stacking hay bales is definitely a cardio workout.

We are thrilled to have our winter hay stores for the animals laid in. We completely guessed at the number of bales we bought last year – never having overwintered livestock – and actually came pretty close in our estimate! The animals are mostly on pasture right now but get hay in the evenings; come winter, however, this will be all the food they have. The drought has forced many producers to cull their cattle and sheep because the land can no longer support that many head, and the lack of water means that hay is obviously much more costly, too. Our hay cost fifty percent more than last year; in all honesty, we were prepared to pay double. Our focus, as always, is on ensuring that we don’t overgraze our pasture and that we always have emergency feed reserves stockpiled.

Our sunflowers are cheerful and abundant, too.

And with that, we’re off to tackle our neverending task list. Do tell, though – if you have an excess of zucchini, what are your favorite ways of using it up? I always enjoy hearing how others move through an abundance of garden produce.

Wishing you a lovely week, dear friends.

Winter descends

“In a year that stripped life to bare fundamentals, the natural world has become our shared story. Seasons have offered the rare reminder that the world moves on even as our sense of time blurs.”

“The undeniable hardship of this winter is a reminder that for much of human history, particularly in colder climates, winter was a season simply to be survived. Winter is a primal time of death and loss, and a time for grief. It reminds us that darkness, not only light, is part of the recurring rhythm of what it means to be human.”

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Farm update: September 28

Aspens Fall

How are things in your world, friends? It’s officially autumn here, with clear bluebird days and crisp, cool nights; the destructive Pine Gulch fire, sparked at the end of July about seventy miles away, is thankfully entirely contained. Our neighboring orchards are nearly all harvested, and our task list is packed with tidying, organizing, preserving, cleaning and stocking up for what we hope is a very snowy winter.

Hay Delivery 01 sml

Hay for animal feed has to stay dry at all costs.

The winter feed for our alpacas and llama has been delivered and safely stored in our de facto hay barn. As this is our first year with the animals, we had to guess on quantities and are hoping that we won’t find ourselves out of hay in frigid January with no green pasture on the near horizon – in a situation like that, a hay farmer will be able to charge us whatever he wishes, and rightfully so. Our llama, Kingston, has already figured out that with some crafty contortionist maneuvering he can reach the fresh bales through the corral panels. Bless his tenacity, and his flexible neck.

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Let’s learn about alpacas and llamas!

Alpacas 04 sml

It’s a creative remake of The Sound of Music.

Some of you may recall that we expanded the Quiet Farm team a few weeks ago. We now have five alpacas and one llama on our farm, and they currently spend the majority of their time grazing placidly on our pasture. We’re new to livestock, and are doing as much research as possible, and we thought you might be interested in learning more about our new residents, too.

Alpacas 08 sml

See you at the old watering hole?

First, what even are these odd creatures, anyway? Llamas (Lama glama) and alpacas (Vicugna pacos) are both members of the camelid family, along with their wild cousins, viçunas and guanacos. (Collectively, this group is known as lamoids.) Camelids actually evolved in North America; some of their ancestors migrated to Africa to become the desert camels we’re familiar with. Other ancestors migrated south to what is now South America and evolved into the llamas and alpacas we associate with indigenous tribes of South America. As bison were essential to the Native Americans, so were llamas and alpacas to the indigenous peoples. These animals provided food, fiber, grease, draft power, fertilizer, fuel, leather and protection.

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