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Alpaca dream lands Cook siblings as finalists in 2022 IDEA Competition

The Cook Family Farm has the slogan of “AHH Little Slice of Heaven,” and the AHH stands for Alpacas, Horses and Hens. Kenna, Chloe, and Rocky — along with their parents, Christy and Jeremy — believe they have a little slice of heaven on earth.

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The Cook family calls their farm “AHH Little Slice of Heaven.” The AHH stands for Alpacas, Horses and Hens. From left: Christy, Jeremy, Kenna, Rocky and Chloe.
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TURTLE RIVER — The Cook Family Farm near Turtle River has been recognized as one of three finalists in the 14th season of the IDEA competition, which supports local innovators in northwestern Minnesota.

The Cook siblings — Kenna, Chloe and Rocky — are all students at Blackduck High School.

Their idea for the competition expands the development and sale of dryer balls made from alpaca fibers and organic soil enhancers.

It all began with a dream that Chloe had of raising her own alpacas and led to an innovative and exciting entrepreneurship that has already doubled its profits through its second holiday season.

The IDEA competition will continue as three finalists further develop and refine their business plans. Final presentations will be held later this month, with the eventual winner named by May. To date, the IDEA competition has awarded more than $450,000 in cash prizes and $32,000 in in-kind awards.

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This year’s competition is sponsored by the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, Northwest Small Business Development Center, LaValley Industries, HSML Intellectual Property and Business Lawyers, Idea Works, Evolve Creative and Minnkota Power Cooperative.

The Cook Family Farm has the slogan of “AHH Little Slice of Heaven,” and the AHH stands for Alpacas, Horses and Hens. Kenna, Chloe, and Rocky — along with their parents, Christy and Jeremy — believe they have a little slice of heaven on earth.

“Each animal on our farm has a purpose,” said Christy, “and our children are learning the art of hard work, dedication and perseverance."

As a family, the Cooks make various products from the alpacas and sell them in an online store.

"The kids run the business and we oversee it," Christy explained. "Our horses are worked with almost daily for training, competition and enjoyment. The hens, well, we only have five and we get just enough eggs to keep us from needing to buy eggs in town. We love our faith, our family, our farm, the animals and the hard work ethic one develops living here.”

How it started

In the summer of 2019, Chloe Cook was turning 14, and her parents asked her what she wanted for her birthday.

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At the Beltrami County Fair, Kenna Cook (left) was the Reserve Champion with her alpaca Cherry Berry and Chloe Cook was the Grand Champion with Maizy Star in Showmanship.
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“I said, ‘Alpacas!’ and they said, ‘No way!’” recalled Chloe, the middle Cook child. “But I was persistent — it really was the only thing I wanted. Our friends who have alpacas surprised me by bringing alpacas to my birthday party and leaving them at our house for the weekend. By the end of the weekend, we were all in love with them — even mom and dad.”

Her older sister Kenna added that by the end of the weekend, Mom and Dad had softened to the idea of having alpacas. But they said that alpacas were farm animals and the only way the children could get them was to figure out how to make them profitable.

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So the girls took to the internet and Googled how to make the animals profitable.

"We discovered we could dry their poop and sell it as a soil enhancer, make dryer balls from their fiber, join a co-op to send fiber in to make socks, mittens, hats, etc. in return," Kenna said. "Since we don't have a store, we figured we could create an online shop and use social media to sell our products."

Mom and Dad agreed, so the family found some alpacas at Foggy Bottom Alpaca Farm in Isanti, Minn., cleared land and built two large pens and alpaca shelters, and welcomed their alpacas home in the fall of 2019.

“When COVID hit in 2020, we were homeschooling, so we had time and we put our plan into action,' said Rocky, the youngest of the siblings. "We started with drying the poo and making ‘bean bag’ and ‘alpaca tea’ for plants. We sheared the alpacas for the first time and by trial and error, found a great way to make dryer balls."

The siblings then joined a co-op and with the money they made from poo and dryer ball sales, purchased wholesale items like socks and mittens to sell at retail.

"Finally, we created a website to sell our products," Rockey explained. "Now, we’ve finished our second holiday season selling alpaca fiber products and were able to more than double the profits from last season. We completely ran out of alpaca socks from the high demand this year.”

According to Christy, their customers are generally seeking high-quality, warm, alpaca fiber products such as socks and mittens in addition to being locally made.

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Chloe Cook and her alpaca Maizy Star model the Cook family’s Western rag scarves. The family farm near Turtle River has been named one of three finalists in the 2022 IDEA Competition.
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"Our competitors are few as there are approximately less than 15 alpaca farm stores in Minnesota with the majority being by the Twin Cities," she explained.

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So what's so great about alpaca?

"The fiber is hypoallergenic, naturally antimicrobial and odor resistant, warm, soft, has the highest tinsel rating making it the strongest-lasting fiber, and does not shrink when washed," Christy detailed. "It’s sustainable, environmentally friendly and chemical-free.”

Expansion ideas

According to Jeremy, the family has two main ideas for expanding their business. First, to enhance fiber production and process, and second, to expand their ability to sell retail.

Enhancing fiber production and process would start with purchasing alpaca fiber protectors, keeping the alpaca fiber cleaner so it’s easier to work with. Another expansion to assist with fiber would be the purchase of an electric fiber carder.

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Chloe Cook works with the hand picker on alpaca fur. Winning the IDEA Competition could mean replacing the labor intensive hand picker with an electric fiber carder.
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"Currently, we use a manual hand carder," Jeremy said. "The purchase of an electric fiber carder would allow us to create more dryer ball or fiber products much faster and with less physical labor."

To expand their ability to sell retail, the family hopes to purchase a trailer to run a retail shop out of.

"A trailer would allow us to be able to travel with our alpaca products or to sell right here on our farm," Jeremy added. "Many of our shoppers want to see and feel our products or to meet the animals that their products come from. A farm store or retail space would allow this experience."

Trial and error

Since they began working with the alpacas, Cook family members say they’ve really learned a lot about the art and craft of making dryer balls.

“Through a little trial and error, we discovered a process that created soft and amazing dryer balls,” said Christy. “We even discovered that time goes faster when we project a movie on the door of the shop. While our fiber is now out for the season and the dryer balls are sold out, we get a little break but look forward to working from home in our assembly line again in the summer.”

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Kenna Cook spreads alpaca feces out on cardboard to be sun-dried before it will be poured through a screen and then processed into dry “beans” to be packaged as soil enhancer.
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The Cook siblings are managing the alpaca poo process pretty much on their own, starting with collecting the droppings on a daily basis which keeps the pen neat and the flies down.

They spread the material out on cardboard and sun-dry it. Once dried, it’s poured through a screen to remove any hay or debris. In the end, they have fabulous dry “beans” to be packaged.

“They take great pride in the presentation of the poo they sell,” said Christy with a laugh.

You can visit the Cook Family Farm website at cookfamilyfarm.weebly.com .

Related Topics: FARMINGBLACKDUCK
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