YELM — When Jean Van Effen and her husband, David Bagshaw, transitioned to civilian life after decades of military service — both as musicians with Army bands — the couple retired to a 10-acre farm in Yelm.
They’d already purchased their first alpaca and knew the prolific, fiber-bearing livestock would be part of their retirement.
Now, with a herd of 25 alpacas, a fencing project on the farm that’s nearly completed, the construction of a fiber production mill beside their home, it’s been a learning experience and a labor of love.
“We’re living the alpaca life,” said Van Effen regarding the name of their farm, “La Vida Alpaca.”
The couple hooked up with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, an organization that supports veterans-turned-entrepreneurs, and is licensed to use its “Homegrown by Heroes” label on products made at the couple’s facility.
La Vida Alpaca will host Alpaca Farmers of the Northwest’s National Alpaca Farm Days event at the farm, 15631 159th Lane SE in Yelm, Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event includes ranchers and alpacas from area farms, as well as activities, crafts, an alpaca selfie booth, opportunities to see how alpaca fiber is processed and items for purchase.
So, how did this Army band percussionist, Bagshaw, and French horn player, Van Effen, end up as alpaca farmers?
Both are originally from the Midwest. Bagshaw grew up on a family dairy farm in Henryville, Ind., and Van Effen grew up in Escanaba, Mich. They each joined the Army and met playing music together at Fort McPherson, a former military base in Atlanta, in 1988.
They married 27 years ago. Bagshaw has four adult children and five grandchildren.
He retired from the Army in 1997 and worked as an administrative assistant at Madigan Army Medical Center until his second retirement one year ago. Van Effen retired from her Army assignment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2015.
She was previously stationed in Panama and traveled to South America for missions with the 79th Army Band. That’s when she saw a news story about raising alpacas in North America and her dream began from there.
“Alpacas are the perfect animal,” she said. “They are gentle and totally cute. They provide a nice product, and they are kind to the land and don’t eat off too much of the grass.”
Many alpaca farmers raise herds for specific colors, and animals can be quite pricey, based on the more rare shades. Van Effen said she prefers the pure white or solid black alpacas, as the white fleece can be dyed to other desired colors for products, and the black fleece is a striking shade that makes for beautiful pieces.
Their herd has a variety of colors, from white and black to fawn, beige and silver gray. Some are purchased and others are rescue animals. Van Effen also serves on the board of directors for Cross Creek Alpaca Rescue in Tenino.
Networking with other alpaca farmers led to building the mill, she said. In July 2016, the couple went to an alpaca fiber seminar in eastern Washington. There they met with owners of an alpaca mill who offered to help the couple get started with a mill, as they had more business than they could handle, Van Effen said.
“All the way home, we kept trying to talk each other out of it,” Bagshaw said, adding that soon after they were on the way to building the mill.
At the mill, felted products, rugs, yarn and even dryer balls are made. The dryer balls are similar to fabric softener sheets only with a little added personality — including painted on faces — designed by Bagshaw’s sister, Linda Steadman, of Lacey, who started working at the mill recently.
The couple doesn’t plan to make millions of dollars in the small family operation; however, they are enjoying making products other people can use.
“We make yarn for other people and offer a service to others,” Van Effen said. “We’re enjoying what we do and living the life.”