Oct 15, 2007Camels an Exotic Addition to Market
It’s called Lewis’ Farm Market & Petting Farm for a reason: The retail market is the first priority. The petting farm is an attraction.
“We’re a farm market with a petting farm, not a petting farm with a farm market,” said Scott Lewis, co-owner with his wife, Cindy.
Still, the petting farm is popular, especially since the addition of two camels this spring. Max and Jeffrey might not enthrall visitors as much as the goats – which entertain themselves and others by climbing up balconies and across plateaus – but the dromedary camels have been well received.
“They’re definitely a talking piece,” Scott said. “You can’t go everywhere and see camels.”
The New Era, Mich., farm marketers wanted to add an exotic touch to their petting zoo, and wanted animals that were easier to deal with than full-sized horses – which they got rid of before the camels came. People liked the horses, but they made a big mess and the chance of them nipping visitors was always a concern. The camels only have top teeth, so nipping isn’t much of a problem, he said.
Dromedary camels – or “one-humpers,” as Scott calls them – don’t cost much more than horses, and they’re not as rare as you might think. There are 18 million dromedaries in the world. Bactrian camels – “two-humpers” – are harder to come by.
“They must charge by the hump or something, because we couldn’t afford them,” Scott said with a chuckle.
They bought one of their dromedaries from a man who raises them in Missouri. The Missouri breeder knew of another dromedary available in California. The camels were delivered in April, by a man taking other camels to the zoo in Grand Rapids, Mich. Both camels were babies when they arrived and had to be fed from a bottle, Scott said.
To brush up on their skills, Cindy and their local veterinarian went to a camel conference in Missouri this spring, about a month after the camels arrived. The vet also checks up on their other animals, Scott said.
Max and Jeffrey stay in a stall together year round. They eat about a bale of hay per day, along with some all-purpose grain. When they’re fully grown in a few months, they’ll eat almost twice that, he said.
Camels – considered domesticated animals – are pretty docile for the most part, but like all animals, they have their bad days. Max, the older of the two, is a little more standoffish with people. Jeffrey is very friendly. Scott thinks Max wasn’t bottle-fed as an infant, unlike Jeffrey.
If you’re thinking about buying camels that will interact with people, make sure they’ve been bottle-fed. They need that contact when young so they’re easier to control when fully grown, Scott said.
They take the camels for walks in a nearby pasture to get them used to being on a lead rope. They’ll probably never offer camel rides, though. The insurance company wouldn’t like that. It’s OK to feed them, as long as customers are willing to pay a quarter for a handful of food. Other than that, the petting farm is free, he said.
The Lewis farm grows apples, peaches, plums, pears, cherries and asparagus on about 700 acres in west Michigan. They built a farm market on their property in 2004, after Cindy had success selling sweet cherries in front of their house. They studied other farm markets in Michigan before starting their own and fell in love with a market in Stanton that had a petting farm. They decided to use that market as a model. Their petting farm started with goats, a miniature donkey and a miniature horse. The following year they added alpacas, then zebus and full-sized donkeys, Scott said.
The farm has other attractions. They cut their first corn maze this year, with help from a Wisconsin company. They also do wagon rides, u-pick pumpkins and apples, barrel train rides and a giant pumpkin moonwalk. There’s a bakery on-site, and school tours start in September, he said.
Retail sales make up a small portion of the farm’s profits, but that portion is growing every year, Scott said. A free petting farm isn’t much of a profit center, but it gives people one more reason to visit. Camels add to the attraction.
Camels live about 50 years, so buying them is a long-term commitment. How long will Lewis’ Farm Market keep them? Scott said they would play that one by ear, but he thinks they have a long future together.