Two Rivers farm started in 1880s with wheat, now raises Huacaya alpacas
Kevin Stoer clearly believes in preserving the past. But he also keeps an eye on the future.
He is a fourth-generation farmer, taking over the homestead that's been in his family since the late 1880s. But the alpacas he raises would be sight to see for his great-grandfather Joe, who began with wheat.
"I think he'd be very impressed," Stoer said. "You can't live in the past, you have to adapt and keep adapting."
This is a busy time of year for LondonDairy Alpacas, on State 147 outside of Two Rivers. Stoer, a teacher and natural storyteller, conducts tours, and the gift shop (in the old bottling room and building of the farm) is hopping with Christmas sales of South American wines, alpaca fiber, yarn, mittens, hats, scarves and sweaters. The farm hosted a successful wine and cheese event this fall, and Stoer plans for more. In addition, he'd like to convert the old barn into an events location.
The alpaca farm allows Stoer to continue the family tradition without the backbreaking work of raising crops or cows.
Joe Stoer came from Germany in the late 1880s and married Mary Margaret Goedjen. Her dowry was 13 acres of land, where the couple built a farm. They had 11 children, 10 of whom lived. He raised wheat.
Kevin Stoer's grandfather, Walter, took over running the farm when he was just 14, after Joe died at the age of 54.
"He dropped out of school early to help his mother run the place," Kevin said. "But even with just a seventh-grade education, he knew so much. I learned a lot from by grandfather."
Walter moved from raising wheat to raising dairy cows, which helped get the farm through the Great Depression, Kevin said.
"He realized people who had money were the people with a food source," Kevin said. So his grandfather began to bring eggs, butter and milk to town to sell. He also began building the current farmhouse in the 1920s to '30s, and the old house was torn down. Kevin said the family would work on the house until they ran low on funding, and then stop for a while and continue to work.
Kevin's father, Russell Stoer, an only child, took over the farm in the 1940s. That's when milk delivery really took off, Kevin said.
The family loaded up the horses and wagons, packed the milk on ice, and delivered glass bottles.
"I can remember packing up the milk and covering it with canvasses," he said. You would deliver the milk and people would leave the glass bottles for you to refill."
But that became more difficult in the 1970s, when everyone, including gas stations, began selling milk.
"We couldn't compete with those prices," Kevin said. "The milk routes were dropped. My parents ran a dairy store across the street. They hung on until 1995, then it closed."
His father struggled to find quality help, Kevin said. "Dad was a very hard worker, but not good with help," he said.
Kevin takes over
Kevin has two brothers and a sister. They all helped on the farm. Most kids enjoyed coming home from college for school holidays, but Kevin knew it meant coming home to feeding and taking care of cows, then milking them.
Still, eventually he, one brother and his sister returned to farming. His sister raises sheep, and his brother grass-fed beef. Both are nearby. His oldest brother moved away.
Kevin worked as a teacher and school counselor in Mishicot and Green Bay, and now works as a substitute teacher.
When he decided to take over the farm in 1996, Kevin said he looked at several different kinds of livestock.
"I couldn't raise something I would have to butcher," he said. "I have done it, but I didn't want to do it again. And I didn't want something that would grow so large I couldn't take care of it as I got older."
He did a lot of research in the early days of public use of the internet, and stumbled on alpacas. Back then, they weren't as common as today. "A lot of it was wrong," he said of his early research.
Alpacas come from South America, and resemble small llamas in appearance, although they are completely different animals and are not miniature llamas. They were not bred to be animals of labor, but for the fineness of their fiber. There are two breeds of alpaca; LondonDairy raises Huacaya alpacas.
They don't require a lot of space, and they are hardy in cold weather.
"It really seemed like a win/win/win situation," Stoer said. He also talked to people in Green Bay and De Pere who owned alpacas before taking the leap.
Stoer started out with two pet-quality alpacas.
"I kept waiting for something to go wrong," he acknowledged. "I kept thinking that this is going to be harder than people say, that they are going to require some exotic treatment or some mineral that you can't find in the U.S. But that isn't the case."
Today, the farm has 51 alpacas. The number had been as high as 100 over the years. At least one baby is usually born each year. That's important, because tourists like to see the babies, Stoer said.
He built a bigger building for his animals in 2001.
"The first thing I said to the builder was, 'I want to build an alpaca barn,'" Stoer said. "He said 'What's an alpaca?'"
They are pack animals, and alpacas enjoy being near humans, although they may shy from touch. They do not spit at people like llamas, Stoer noted. If they spit, it's usually one female to another, acting like emotional teenage girls, he joked.
"They are very easy to raise," he said. "I enjoy coming home and sitting here looking at them in their pens. They are curious and expressive."
He realized educating people about alpacas is a big part of his job, which he enjoys as a teacher.
"We decided to do tours," he said.
Then, knitting and spinning resurged in popularity, and the farm opened its shop and began to sell both fiber for spinners and yarn for knitters.
"They come to us for fiber," Stoer said. "It's interesting. Five or 10 years ago, it was something old-fashioned, that your grandma did. Fifteen years ago, we couldn't give yarn away. Now, we sell a whole ton of stuff."
Twenty years ago, Stoer did not envision the extent of his farm's growth.
"I just thought I'd be raising alpacas," he said. "Now, people are more in-tune with what alpacas are, and they realize how warm their fibers are."
LondonDairy also shows the alpacas, which have won numerous awards.
Although the business has taken off, Stoer enjoys the personal aspect of bonding with the animals. They each have fun names such as Triple Play (the third born in one day), High Roller, Hot Pursuit and Sarafin.
"I went through some health issues, and one thing that kept me going was knowing the animals needed to be fed," he said. "I couldn't sit in bed feeling sorry for myself. They needed me."
In addition to enjoying the farm and alpacas, Stoer knows the farm will continue. A niece who is in college studying to be veterinarian plans to take over eventually.
Stoer said, "I think my great-grandfather and my grandfather both would be very impressed."
If you go
The LondonDairy store is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Dec. 10, 11, 17, 18 and 24, and can be open by calling 920-793-4165 to set up an appointment. Tours also are done by appointment.
Visit www.LondonDairyAlpacas.com for more about the farm and for future seminars and events.