A year ago this summer, tragedy hit a novel farm that's tucked away like a secret on the north end of New Lenox.
Like any other day at the Hickory Creek Alpaca Farm, the entire Neimeier family was on call. Chase, the family's 11-year-old son, was taking care of one of the horses, and as he was moving a fan over to a horse to help cool it down, he was electrocuted.
“That has hurt our family tremendously,” said Chuck Neimeier, Chase's father. “He was my best helper, my best friend.”
No Ordinary Farm
Chase's death was a brutal reminder of the challenges faced in life, and the daily hardships faced of life on a farm. Chuck grew up on a 160-acre dairy farm near Hampshire, and for 17 years his daily life included milking 82 head of cattle twice a day.
“We didn't go in to town very much," he said. "We made our own cream and milk, butchered our animals.”
So Chuck's transition to owning his own farm later in life was no stretch, but then again, this was no ordinary farm and it's not been without its own new set of challenges. Located across the street from The Sanctuary Golf Course, just a short mile or so away from busy Route 30, a visit to the 10-acre alpaca farm means finding a quiet country remnant amid the ever-expanding village development.
The farm started life in New Lenox as a full boarding facility for horses. Currently, the Neimeier have three family horses and board six others. But it was about six years ago, very late at night, that Chuck's wife, Gina, saw an ad on TV for alpaca. She was intrigued, especially since she had wanted one as a pet, and later at a fair saw a woman spinning the animal's fiber and selling the product.
Originally, Alpacas were imported from South America. The importation was limited by the government to a select number of the animals because it wanted U.S. farms to begin breeding and building a domestic population instead of continuing the importation of the animals.
“Initially, it was just going to be a few alpacas," Chuck said of his farm. "More of a casual thing. But then all of a sudden it just blew up into this full breeding and boarding facility.”
The government has also helped the industry get off the ground in the form of significant tax benefits. Unfortunately for the Neimeiers, those benefits will soon be gone. With the economy being as it has, Chuck and Gina have been thinking of moving their enterprise forward and filing as a not-for-profit organization.
“That will still allow us to file for government grants and continue our educational programs," Chuck said, referencing programs the farm puts on when inviting area students to tour the farm.
In addition to the removal of tax benefits, the industry itself has taken a hit despite being a useful product. Once a year, their Alpacas are sheared and on average, each animal will produce about 10 pounds of fiber. Alpaca fiber is warmer, softer and stronger than wool. It's also completely non-allergenic.
“It's a very marketable product," Chuck said. The downside right now, though, is that there are not enough animals in the U.S. to warrant the textile industry to convert its large production mills over to Alpaca.
Chuck explained that the family still struggles to find buyers for the raw fiber. The Great North American Alpaca Fiber Co-Op was formed about five years ago, but it is still in the process of organizing and becoming a legitimate buyer and seller of the fiber. The family recently received its first dividend check from the co-op.
Part of the Community, Here to Stay
Outside of the already busy farm life, the Neimeiers have lots to do. Chuck is a firefighter for the City of Aurora and also coaches baseball, football and wrestling at Lincoln-Way West. Gina also has a full time job as an office manager for a Joliet medical practice. When one of them is at work, the other is usually at home watching the farm.
The farm isn't just a business, but also an education opportunity for the community. The family conducts educational programs on its farm, bringing in bus loads from schools or hosting groups of people. Part of the two-hour program includes showing what's required to take care of these animals on a daily basis. At the right time of year, you might see a shearing take place, or even see an Alpaca being born. Several crias (babies) are due in the next month or two. The once a year shearing is also due to take place any day now.
Because of the connection to New Lenox and Chuck's football coaching, the service for Chase was held at Lincoln-Way West on the football field. It's the sign that even while hidden in what's becoming a more unrecognizable part of New Lenox, the family has had a deep impact on the community.
The work never ends on a farm, and the whole family takes part. The sister, Gianna, loves to take Alpacas to shows where she can get socks and clothes made out of Alpaca fiber. The brother, Reese, likes to walk the animals and especially likes to see the babies being born. Both, as you might imagine, do not like to clean up the poop.
It's a life few people know but many can admire because of the challenges the family has faced. Since Chase died, the family has thought about selling and moving on to a more traditional life, but they insist this is their home.
“It's the only place both Gianna and Reese have ever lived," Chuck said. "We couldn't imagine living anywhere else.”
You can contact Hickory Creek Alpaca Farm at 815-791-2447 or email@example.com.