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.

Rick Carlson says his most famous llama is Zorro, pictured, who starred in an eHarmony commercial. 
Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. 
Emily Beal / Agweek
Rick Carlson says his most famous llama is Zorro, pictured, who starred in an eHarmony commercial. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek
“It’s turned from a pet to a business. Everything we’ve done has just happened. I didn’t plan on doing birthday parties, weddings. It’s just all evolved,” Carlson said. “It’s amazing. One word I would use for all the things we do would be rewarding.”

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.

Lovable llamas

Newsletter signup for email alerts

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.

One of the most popular things Carlson's Lovable Llamas offers are farm visits, where visitors can come out and learn all about llamas. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. 
Emily Beal / Agweek
One of the most popular things Carlson's Lovable Llamas offers are farm visits, where visitors can come out and learn all about llamas. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek
Carlson’s Lovable Llamas is an agritourism business that offers an array of llama filled activities. From bringing llamas to elementary schools, nursing homes, weddings, hosting birthday parties out on their farm and farm visits, there is something for everyone to enjoy.

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.

The llamas at Carlson's Lovable Llamas are sheered in the spring to help them regulate their body temperature during the summer months. The fiber that is collected is then processed into yarn that visitors can purchase. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. 
Emily Beal / Agweek
The llamas at Carlson's Lovable Llamas are sheered in the spring to help them regulate their body temperature during the summer months. The fiber that is collected is then processed into yarn that visitors can purchase. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek

“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.

4-H Founder

One of the attractions on the Carlson's Lovable Llamas is the gift shop where visitors can purchase llama items and accessories. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. 
Emily Beal / Agweek
One of the attractions on the Carlson's Lovable Llamas is the gift shop where visitors can purchase llama items and accessories. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek
Growing up on a dairy farm himself, Carlson was well versed in livestock and agriculture. Due to his positive experiences in the 4-H organization, he wanted his children to have the same experience within 4-H as he did. So, he started the Carver County llama 4-H llama project 20 years ago. It became wildly popular and the Carlsons began leasing out their llamas to fellow 4-H members who wanted to participate in the llama project. Though Carlson’s Lovable Llamas is something the Carlson family enjoys, it was a business created out of necessity. Their agritourism business allowed them to foot the steep vet bills, feed costs and other necessities needed to house that many llamas.

Before Carlson embarked on starting the project, there was no llama 4-H project in the county or even in the state of Minnesota.

Rick Carlson says llamas are extremely docile animals and are often misjudged. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. 
Emily Beal / Agweek
Rick Carlson says llamas are extremely docile animals and are often misjudged. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek
“One of our objectives is to give an opportunity that they never get to experience with animals. 4-H has been a huge one with that,” Carlson said. “All these kids come from the city, we might have a few country kids that are in 4-H, but it's pretty much all city kids that come out and work with the animals and learn a lot.”

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.

Great Impact

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.

Maren Kerfeld was able to purchase her llama, Holly Cow, from Carlson after leasing her for her 4-H project. 
Contributed photo
Maren Kerfeld was able to purchase her llama, Holly Cow, from Carlson after leasing her for her 4-H project. Contributed photo
Kerfeld fell in love with llamas at her seventh birthday party, which was held at Carlson’s Lovable Llamas. She quickly knew she wanted to show llamas through 4-H, and with Carlson’s help, she did just that. Kerfeld is now 15 years old and still showing llamas in 4-H.

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.”

Carlson's Lovable Llamas now houses around 65 llamas. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. 
Emily Beal / Agweek
Carlson's Lovable Llamas now houses around 65 llamas. Photo taken Nov. 2, 2021 in Waconia, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek
Carlson was recently recognized for his dedication to 4-H and 4-H youth by being awarded the Friend of 4-H Award. Though it takes up much of his time, it is a labor of love.

“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.