Local teen helps lead a thriving agritourism enterprise
By: Diane Rhoades
Sixteen-year-old Allie Justice shakes a container and several young llamas run up from the pasture. Well over six feet high at the front end, they hurry over, their large front teeth in the lead. They pucker up with lips that stretch over to Allie. She kisses them back, and they get a treat.
Contrary to popular belief, they don’t spit at you when you look them in the eye.
“We trained them not to spit — at least not at people,” says Allie. “It took some time.” The teenager, who is homeschooled, has been caring for llamas since she was 10.
Her family is deeply rooted in Henderson County. They’ve lived and farmed in Edneyville for seven generations, tending more than 100 acres of apple orchard. Allie, her siblings Brylee, Clay, and Dillon, and their parents Donna and Jason Justice live on the farm with their 19 llamas. Within walking distance live Allie’s grandparents, along with multiple aunts, uncles, and cousins.
But it was Allie who got her apple-growing family into raising llamas. A few years ago, Hank and Vickie Balch moved next door with 13 of the sleepy-eyed animals.
“Every chance I got, I would run over to visit them,” Allie recalls now, as a llama nuzzles her hand for another treat. “I was instantly smitten by their baby llama, JJ. Hank took me on as his helper, showing me how to care for the llamas. He introduced me to the 4-H Club. We were a good team.” Sadly, and unexpectedly, Hank died a year later. Vickie sold their llama herd but gifted Allie with young JJ.
Because herd animals are social, it was perfect when Vickie’s friend, Tracy Pearson, then gave a llama named Jellybean to Allie as a companion for JJ. Vickie and Tracy taught Allie all she needed to know to become a competent llama caretaker. Her family built a barn, opened a dedicated bank account, and Allie bought her first llama, Blue Moon, in 2018. She was committed to showing her llamas, which prompted her desire to breed champions.
Ellaberry Llama Farm, established last June, is now a family enterprise, with Allie, her parents, and siblings taking off for long weekends to regional and national events, where they compete on agility and showmanship. The breeders, judges, and llama lovers tend to show up at the same shows year after year; the Justice llamas competed in four shows this spring and went away with nine ribbons.
Allie expounds on her passion, noting that llamas belong to the camel family, breed while lying down, and that the gestation period for a pregnant llama is one year. The average lifespan for llamas is 20-25 years, and the quality of the relationships between humans and their llamas tend to get better with time.“Older people at the shows do very well with their older llamas,” she notes.
Donna is proud of her daughter’s hard work, and Jason had an agility arena built on their land so they could train their animals. Thirteen-year-old Brylee fell in love with llamas after attending her first show, and the family now travels together in a 40-foot trailer that divides the living quarters between them and up to seven four-legged charges.
Ellaberry Llama Farm offers guided llama treks, with the animals carrying gear on the trails. (Llamas can carry 20 percent of their body weight, and since some of the larger animals weigh up to 400 pounds, this is a real service.) It’s part of a larger agritourism business that includes farm tours with tractor rides; in fact, Donna has already booked the llamas for four weddings this summer, along with several birthday parties and school celebrations. The experience also has an interactive component: Visitors can walk a llama over to the agility arena and go through the obstacles.
Besides the sheer physical work of caring for the llamas, Allie must balance bookkeeping, maintain breeding registers, and fit in a teaching gig through 4-H. There are sleepovers and beach trips she cannot attend.
Farm life is demanding. And although Allie has her parents and other members of her close-knit family to help her out, she wants the herd to thrive under her own care.
Here, she is in her element. In the middle of explaining why Ellaberry Farm doesn’t shear their llamas (because they don’t sell fiber, and because they like their animals to sport a longer, natural look at shows), she laughs and says randomly, “They can scratch every part of their body” — just as the littlest llama begins doing exactly that.
Ellaberry Llama Farm, 4178 Old Clear Creek Road, Hendersonville. Open by appointment. Visit the farm’s Facebook page or call Donna Justice at 828-606-3577.