Gillette woman finds new purpose in life thanks to alpacas and their manure

GILLETTE - Two years ago, Heidi Nation was looking for a purpose in life.

She had moved out to the Oriva Hills subdivision in the spring of 2021 after years of living in Gillette.

"We came out here, and there was, like, nothing," said Nation, the owner of Spirit Nation Alpacas.

But even before the move, "I was in the same kind of predicament," she said. She needed something to do, she needed someone to take care of.

Then one day, Betty White, Gary Busey, Kevin Hart and Wanda Sykes walked into her yard, and her life has never been the same since.

These four weren't actually the comedy legends, but rather just a few of the alpacas that wandered onto her property one spring morning.

It was serendipitous, Nation said.

She'd wanted alpacas "forever," ever since she was a child. She grew up on a ranch, where she took care of horses and cows, but for some reason, "I always was fascinated with alpacas, just their looks, just because they're so cute."

"All of a sudden, these alpacas showed up," she said.

In the past, when she approached the topic of getting alpacas, her husband Tri would say no. But this time his tone was different.

"Here they come, they just walked in the yard, and we both agreed to it," she said. "He asked me, he said, 'Do you want them?' I said yeah."

They closed the gate so the alpacas wouldn't wander off, then put word out in the neighborhood that someone's alpacas were missing.

The alpacas belonged to then-Campbell County Attorney Mitch Damsky, who agreed to sell the animals to the Nations. And he let them in on a little secret: when it comes to value-added products from alpacas, it's not the fiber - the alpaca version of wool - that's the real money maker.

The money is in their poop, or beans, as some like to call it.

Nation did some research and found that Damsky was right.

"They call it black gold," she said.

And now, these alpacas, and their poop, have given Nation a new outlook on life.

"I don't want to sound all spiritual ... but it was, it really was," she said. "It gave me purpose."

Alpacas were a new experience for her, but she's enjoyed it so far, calling them the "easiest farm animal" because they're low maintenance. Damsky said he was impressed with how quickly she caught on.

"Heidi dove right in to the alpacas, learned all of the nuances quickly," he said. "She just immersed herself in raising alpacas."

And they're not too disruptive to the environment, either.

"They don't mow the grass down to nothing, like a sheep will graze a field bare, these guys, they just take the top off, basically mowing it constantly," Tri said.

Heidi started a small business, Spirit Nation Alpacas, where she sells the alpaca beans in small and big packages.

Alpaca manure is good fertilizer because its nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels are just right, Heidi said. With animals like horses, cows and sheep, their manure has to sit for a couple of years "or it'll burn your garden," she said, because their nitrogen levels are too high.

But alpaca manure comes out ready to fertilize.

And an alpaca's digestive system will process all seeds, good and bad, so no weed seeds will be transferred to the alpaca beans.

Fortunately, Nation doesn't have to wander all over her property to collect the manure.

By instinct, alpacas will poop in what are called "community piles." Most animals aren't particular about where they go to the bathroom, but alpacas are, which makes it much easier to collect.

And it starts right away.

"The babies go directly to the pile to go to the bathroom as soon as they're born," Heidi said.

"Within three or four hours of being born," Tri added.

When the weather is dry, Heidi will rake up the piles and put the pellets into an empty swimming pool to dry them out.

She orders tea bags on Amazon, and when the poop is ready, she puts on gloves and spoons it into the bags. Luckily, "it doesn't have a bad smell, it's not a poopy smell," she said.

The tea bag is soaked in one to two gallons of water overnight, then it's ready to be used. It works with indoor plants and outdoor plants, and it can be used year-round.

Nation said it's done wonders for her house plants, as well as her vegetable garden and even her front lawn, which two years ago was bare dirt but now is colored a luscious green.

And her customers keep coming back, and now some are wanting 10-pound bags of the stuff, rather than the teabags.

She's made a decent amount of money from it. It's not the type of money that enables her to retire, but it's enough to pay for the alpacas' hay, making it a nearly self-sustaining operation.

Nation said that raising alpacas has helped her become a better person.

"I'm a person that has zero patience, and it's helped me a lot," she said.

She also has gained more confidence in her own abilities and not being so anxious when unexpected things come up.

When the first alpaca baby was born, she was a bit unsure of herself. Now, she's on baby No. 6, and she's gotten the whole thing down.

Nation said she doesn't mind that this is where her life has led her to, scooping alpaca poop into tea bags.

"I'd just rather pick up s-, that's where my mindset is at," she said. "That's the one thing, that's my purpose I'm all right with."


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