DADE CITY — Eight years ago, Debbie Pettis read a newspaper article about an alpaca farm.
"I had never heard of the animal," Pettis said.
Alpacas, she learned, are of the camelid family — cousins to llamas. And they're strange looking, thought Pettis, who works part time for a global consulting firm. But she took an interest. So she called the farm she read about and scheduled a tour.
"We visited the farm," she said. "Then we visited a second (alpaca) farm, and a third."
In the process, she developed a passion for alpacas and asked her husband, Narvel Pettis, 54, if he would raise some with her.
The owner of a commercial building maintenance business, he said yes. The result? Sweet Blossom Alpaca Farm.
"We had moved from South Tampa to Plant City at that point, looking for a change in lifestyle," said Debbie Pettis, 51. "We were done with city life."
Their Plant City property was a few acres, which had enough space for the six suri alpacas with which they started: three females and three males.
"One was a 1-month-old cria (baby) that I got to bottle feed for seven months," Pettis said.
She and her husband adjusted quickly to life as alpaca farmers.
"We loved it," she said.
So they added more to their herd.
"A year later, we were at 20," she said.
Two years ago, they moved from Plant City to a 15-acre farm north of Dade City, where they have about 65 alpacas. They breed them and sell them, but only if Pettis approves the sale.
"I've picked out every single one of these animals, or they were born here," she said. "I have to home them where I know they will be taken care of."
Others aren't for sale.
"Some are too darn cute and full of personality (to sell)," she said.
Each is unique.
"Some I can go up and kiss on the nose or rub on the neck," Pettis said. "Others you couldn't get close enough to in an open pasture to pet them" — they don't want you to.
And they are all intelligent, Pettis said.
"They know their names," she said. "I can call them and they will look. I can clap my hands and say 'boys' or 'girls' and they will all come running."
The Pettises display them at alpaca shows and shear them for their fleece.
"Some (of the fleece) we send off to a fiber mill and have products made out of it," Pettis said, such as yarn. She also sells alpaca fleece products, such as socks.
Alpaca fans can sponsor an alpaca at Sweet Blossom, which helps the Pettises with their feed costs. The curious can schedule tours of the farm by appointment.
And the farm, she said, is serene.
"I can be surrounded by 30 alpacas, and it's peaceful," she said. "They're so gentle."