Feature: Lawyer drops briefs to help King and James get busy

It's an exciting, alpaca-filled life for this former MU law student.

It was May 2000. Rob Long was a law student at MU, fresh off a trip to New York to represent his law school as the president of the Student Bar Association.

He was only a semester away from a law degree and a potentially lucrative job offer in Kansas City. Now, just six years later, Long is a full-time alpaca farmer in Mid-Missouri.

So after five years of college, two and a half years of law school and also the promise of a financially prosperous career, why alpacas?

"Because they looked cool," Long said.

But there is much more to it than that.

"The whole farming thing was a forced thing," he said. "My folks passed away, and there was no one to take care of everything."

This is when Long stepped in. He took over the main duties of his parents' farm and put law school on hold. He drove the tractor and cared for a large number of horses and cattle.

Long said he ended up liking the farm but didn't care for horses and cattle. Then he discovered alpacas. His affinity only grew as he bought more of the South American animals, which are closely related to llamas.

"I liked the farming, and I liked the alpacas," Long said. "I just sort of combined those two and said the hell with my law career."

He said he knew there was money to be made by breeding the animals and selling their offspring.

"Then, it got to be more of a love for the animals, and I wanted to have more of them," he said. "I wanted to build up, and I started saying gosh, I might be able to make a living doing this."

Long is one of the biggest of the handful of alpaca farmers in Boone County. He has 40 alpacas on his 20-acre Osage Alpacas farm just north of Columbia.

He calls the alpaca the perfect mix of pet and livestock. Of the 40 alpacas he owns, 35 are breeding animals and 5 are used for fiber.

The breeding alpacas are chosen for physically superior traits that are ideal for reproduction, and for the quality of their wool fiber, which can be sheared and sold each year.

Long demonstrates that alpacas can be more than just livestock by opening his farm to tours to both families and school classes.

His love for the animals is evident when he talks about the naming process.

Each of his 40 alpacas is an individual with a unique story.

"I had one born at 4:20 in the afternoon, so I just couldn't resist," Long said. "I named him Endo, actually Osage Peruvian Golden Endo."

As Long speaks, his eyes occasionally wander onto James and King, the two animals he chose to bring to Alpaca Day.

James (short for Ozarks James Bond) and King (short for Snowmass Zorro's Incan King) are Long's two premier herdsires. Herdsires are the studs of the alpaca world.

The book Long uses to keep track of the new births is called "The Breeding Bible: King James Edition" this year.

The males are renowned for their physical attributes and sought after at lofty prices by female alpaca owners for their breeding ability and the superior characteristics they pass on to their offspring.

Long said he doesn't think James minds all the attention.

"The boys know when I pull the minivan around that 'Guess what guys, we're going on a trip and somebody's going to get to breed,' and they like that," Long said. "I literally say, 'James, I got a lady for you,' and he's running over."

Long has learned a lot about breeding alpacas. But the component of raising alpacas, the fiber industry, is one that he is only beginning to learn.

He said it's interesting to be involved in a process where a raw product is taken from an animal, made into a commodity and turned into modern fashion.

"I started learning about the fiber industry and the real reasons why you breed these things," Long said. "And it was fascinating to me."

Alpaca fiber is strong and durable. It's often compared with the quality of cashmere for its softness and quality. It is commonly used to make specialty socks, hats and scarves, among other things.

As Long learns more about the specialized fibers of the alpacas, he said he hopes to increase his herd eventually.

He said he wants to keep doubling his herd and build a new facility that will hold between 100 and 120 alpacas.

Although the financial benefits of a law career might seem enticing to others, Long said money is not the most important thing.

"Don't go to work where you're hired by unhappy people to go argue with lawyers who were hired by unhappy people," he said. "Do something like this where you smile every time you walk out your front door, and you see all these beautiful creatures in your yard."

Long said he has no regrets giving up legal briefs for breeding books.

"You make the best of what you're dealt," he said. "Five years ago I couldn't imagine how happy I'd be right now doing what I'm doing."

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