When Rick Carlson purchased his first set of llamas for his young children, he never imagined it would lead him to where he is today.
But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
And that decision has had an impact on many people, including those whose days have been brightened by his llamas, 4-H youth who get their livestock start with his llama lease program and many more who have encountered his wooly herd.
Fast forward 24 years from that first llama purchase, and Carlson’s small herd has turned into over 65 llamas that are housed on two separate properties. While he may have never dreamed that his life would involve llamas, they take up a significant part of time through his family’s business, Carlson’s Lovable Llamas.
When hosting farm visits, Carlson's priority is for those visiting to leave with more knowledge about llamas and agriculture than when they first step foot on the farm.
“I’d say our goals are education and entertainment. I think llamas are a misunderstood animal because everybody thinks they're gonna get spit on when you see a llama; that just isn’t so,” Carlson said. “We try to make our operation real hands on.”
When visitors arrive for the farm visit, they are greeted by a tour guide whose goal is to educate the group about all things llama. The group will learn about the animal while grooming, feeding and, of course, playing with the lovable llamas. After a fun-filled day with lots of llama loving, there is a gift shop filled to the brim with llama goodies and keepsakes, one of the more interesting being bundles of fiber taken from the llamas each spring, and then being sold as wool. With every bundle of fiber, there is a tag stating which llama produced that specific wool.
“A lot of the kids like getting yarn from their particular llama and then they have a scarf made or fingerless gloves,” Carlson said.
Carlson has also seen some pretty interesting things on his operation, from people visiting all the way from Australia to his star llama, Zorro, starring in an eHarmony commercial, he has seen it all.
Before Carlson embarked on starting the project, there was no llama 4-H project in the county or even in the state of Minnesota.
The 4-H members can lease one of the llamas on Carlson’s farm and use it as their 4-H llama for the year. This gives the urban youth a unique opportunity they would not have otherwise living in the city.
At their peak, the Carlsons had 106 llamas on their operation and 100 4-H members leasing llamas from their farm.
“I never dreamt it was going to be this big,” Carlson said.
Since many of the llamas are leased and not owned, when showing, the llamas are judged on showmanship instead of their confirmation. This levels the playing field for the youth involved. They are also shown through an obstacle course.
It is quite obvious that Rick Carlson has not only made an impact in the llama industry, but with 4-H youth as well.
“Rick is just so open to every kid and lets them try out llamas and see if this is what they want to do,” Maren Kerfeld said.
Her llama, Holly Cow, was originally leased from Carlson. Due to their operation downsizing, Kerfeld was able to purchase Holly Cow as her very own. The two have formed a strong bond and Kerfeld even made her furry friend an Instagram for people to follow for some fun insight into Holly Cow’s life.
“If there was no Rick, there would be no llama project. I am certain of that,” Kerfeld said.
Julie Barden's daughters have leased llamas from Carlson and shown them as a 4-H project. Barden first visited Carlson’s Lovable Llamas through a farm visit with her daughters’ Girl Scout troop.
“Rick is one of the most welcoming people and really shares his knowledge,” Barden said. “His wealth of knowledge is invaluable to the kids.”
“It’s very rewarding to see these kids mature. A lot of them when they first come they are scared, and by the time they leave most of them want to buy a llama,” Carlson said.