NARY, Minn. - What came first, the chicken or the alpaca?

Ten years ago, Mike and Sarah Karvakko left the city limits with their growing family to embrace country living. They wanted to have land for their children to explore and seek out new experiences.

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Today, their Karvakko Family Farm covers much of the family's 40-acre property and boasts sheep, chickens, turkeys, pigs and alpacas.

"We wanted to go back to the basics, to raise our own animals and raise our own food," Sarah said. "We started with just a few little chickens. The chickens were our gateway animal."

With assistance from their five children, ranging in age from 4 to 16, Sarah manages the day-to-day operation of the farm. Mike, owner and president of Karvakko, an engineering and architectural firm headquartered in Bemidji, builds fences and takes on other construction projects as needed.

But while the family has a menagerie of animals, the Karvakkos have become most known for their alpacas. They first took in three alpacas about seven years ago. Related to llamas and camels, alpacas are endearingly cute, friendly and sociable.

They also offer functionality. For the Karvakkos, Sarah uses the fiber, or alpaca fleece, to spin it into yarn, from which she knits hat and shawls. The alpacas are sheared once a year in late spring to allow their winter coats to grow in before it gets too cold.

"The fiber is very functional, useful and valuable," said Sarah, who sells both the raw fiber and yarn spun from the fiber.

While some farmers may consume alpacas for their meat, the Karvakkos do not. Sarah said it is not typical to do so in this region since the animals are pretty valuable here. Further, they tend to be rather bony.

"They're easy keepers," she said. "The basic maintenance on them is: They need their toenails clipped every couple of months, they need to be sheared once a year, and their teeth need to be shaved every couple of years. They're pretty easy."

4-H fun

The Karvakkos today have 12 alpacas, though only 10 are currently at home.

The family is active within the Beltrami County 4-H program and works with interested participants to make the alpacas available for 4-H learning. Two of their alpacas are on lease for the summer to another family down the road that has active 4-Hers.

"This will be the fourth year of the Beltrami County Fair that we've had alpacas there," said Sarah, the alpaca superintendent for Beltrami County 4-H. "The first three years it was just my kids. But now there are six participants and only two are my kids. It's exciting to see the program grow."

Valerie Davis, 19, is one of the 4-H participants who has taken an interest in the alpacas. This is her last year as a 4-H competitor, though she's been involved for about 13 years. She visits the Karvakko farm about once a week.

"They keep it here, and I'll come here to work with it," Valerie said.

"Alpacas like to be in herds," Sarah explained. "They like to have a buddy."

Valerie, who is on summer break from studying precision agriculture at Colorado State University, has a lot of showing experience with 4-H, having previously worked with nearly all of the traditional 4-H livestock, except cows.

"(Alpacas) are cute. They're friendly, and it's not the same as all the other livestock. They're social," she said.

"They have personality," Sarah said.