'Cancer,' he said
Running a family alpaca farm is challenging enough, but Sands Bellizi faces an extra complication: terminal cancer.
(FSB Magazine) YERINGTON, NEV. -- Sands Bellizi was sitting at her office desk in Grass Valley, Calif., when she got the telephone call. It was late morning and she was shuffling through paperwork, maybe a contract for breeding one of her ranch's alpacas, she thinks, or a vet bill. But her memories are fuzzy because the doctor's news temporarily shoved all business thoughts right out of her head.
"I remember sitting there thinking it couldn't be true," Sands says. She was about to turn 55. "All the female relatives in my family have lived into their 90s. My goal was to make it to 100." She had recently launched a new ranching business and had aggressive plans for growth.
But now Sands had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, with a cancerous lymph node in her neck and a bigger one near her stomach. Albeit slow moving, her cancer was already well advanced. She had anywhere from five years, the doctor said, to nine or ten before the lymphoma would probably "transform" (to use the medical term) into a fast-growing type. After that her life expectancy would be measured in months.
That phone call came eight years ago. Eight years of living, as Bellizi says, "with a pendulum swinging over your head." At 63, she's still running the Alpaca Mining Co. with her husband, Paul. The cancer has yet to transform, but she knows it could happen at any time. There are days when Bellizi credits the business with prolonging her life, and others when she feels that it's devouring what little time and energy she has left.
Bellizi remembers seeing a television news segment in 1984 about the first pair of alpacas imported from South America to the U.S. "They had something about them that seemed kind of ancient," she recalls. "That appealed to me. They were very elegant, very soothing." At the time she was working for a travel company in Santa Ana, Calif. At work the next day she turned to a friend and jokingly said, "Hey, let's quit our jobs and raise alpacas."
Bellizi always had the gumption, directness, and varied interests of a born entrepreneur. In her forties she was a blond powerhouse working in the male-dominated adventure travel industry. Before long she was running the training school at the agency. She traveled incessantly, visiting every continent but Antarctica. Soon she opened her own tour company, and later she became an independent rep for a firm that sold high-end travel gear.
But the alpacas kept working on her. At 52, Sands was divorced with two grown daughters. That's when she married Paul Bellizi, a tall, 39-year-old building contractor from California. Sands is the chatty, social half of the partnership. Paul is the detail guy with a photographic memory. Two years later they bought five acres outside picturesque Grass Valley. "Paul asked me what I wanted to do with it," Sands says, and she told him she wanted to raise alpacas. Paul's reply: "What the hell is an alpaca?"
For the record, alpacas are native to South America. They stand about five feet tall and resemble their larger cousins, llamas. Like llamas, alpacas have long necks and dreamy eyelashes. But unlike llamas, alpacas are not working animals. In Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, alpaca herds forage in the mountains, their owners rounding them up only for annual shearing. The fleece is more delicate than mohair and quite valuable: Fine-gauge alpaca sweaters retail for $70 to $200 in the U.S.
"We had envisioned building a fairly nice house on our five acres," Sands says. "Instead we ended up buying two pregnant alpacas for $32,500 and a much smaller house." Six months later she closed her travel company, Paul shut down his home-repair business, and the two started the Alpaca Mining Co. Sands handled marketing and customer service, while Paul took on the bulk of the animal husbandry.
The Bellizis had big plans for their new business. They wanted to invest in more animals, develop fleece production, and perhaps open a small retail shop to sell fleece garments. That's when Sands got the telephone call from her doctor.
"I used to travel all the time," she says. "But suddenly I wasn't willing to sacrifice my immune system to a flying tin can." Slipping out of her typical attack mode, Sands found herself analyzing every business move in light of her health. "When you know that stress can trigger a health crisis, you ask yourself if it's worth it," she says.
Sands stopped taking her alpacas to livestock shows and cut back sharply on trips to court potential clients. Instead of buying more animals, she sat on capital, asking herself, "If we needed to liquidate tomorrow, are we in the best situation?"
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is the fifth most common form of cancer in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society, with about 65,000 new cases reported in 2006. As cancers go, it's complicated, unpredictable, and difficult to cure. The common treatment for advanced non-Hodgkin's cases such as Sands' consists of chemotherapy, medication, or both.
Sands' doctor removed the growth in her neck and recommended chemo and meds. She declined, opting for a "watchful waiting" regimen that combines rest, nutrition, and basic nutritional supplements such as vitamin D and omega-3 oils. She decided to save the big chemo gun for the battle after transformation, and she has stuck with that decision despite opposition from friends and family. "My kids tell me I need to get in there and fight," she says. "I tell them I am fighting in my own way."
Neither of the Bellizis had planned on retiring early. Shutting down the ranch and its revenue stream after the diagnosis wasn't an option, particularly after their health insurance premiums more than doubled.
So they stuck with the ranch, buying animals when they felt they could afford it, breeding, selling babies, and co-owning some animals with clients. In addition to cutting back on business travel, Sands avoided hiring employees or investing heavily in expanding the herd. Not surprisingly, Alpaca Mining Co.'s business stayed flat as its competitors grew. By 2004 annual revenues had plateaued at around $1 million.
Sands had tamped down growth but couldn't completely stamp out her entrepreneurial drive. In 2005 a client invited her and Paul to form a new ranching partnership in Nevada. It was a tempting offer. Nevada real estate was cheaper than California's, and the arid, high-altitude climate would suit the animals better. Sands and Paul also hoped the change would trigger more revenue growth. So the Bellizis sold the Grass Valley ranch, rounded up their 65 alpacas, and moved to Gardnerville, a growing town near Lake Tahoe.
Sands discussed her health issues with the new partner, who promised to help lighten Sands' workload. "Retail and tourism - that was the direction we were going in," Sands says. "There was going to be a store, and more work with fleece products." But the partnership soured. Because of a legal settlement, Sands isn't free to discuss the details. She will say that within months after moving to Nevada, the Bellizis knew they wanted out of the deal.
"It started to affect my health," Sands says. "My blood pressure went sky high, and I felt sick all the time." So they left Gardnerville and moved to a 20-acre spread in Yerington, an isolated farming valley about an hour east of Lake Tahoe.
Their small green house sits in a pleasant landscape of farms and ranches. Spectacular mountains loom on the horizon. Although Yerington is on the main road that connects Reno and Las Vegas, it lacks the charm and tourist traffic of Gardnerville or Grass Valley.
After two years, the Bellizis have made a few friends among their far-flung neighbors. They attended a local fair, introducing valley residents to the animals. Sands says that a few alpaca customers have made the long drive to visit her new ranch.
Alpaca Mining has been a great solace for Sands. You might call it therapeutic. "The business gives me something else to focus on," she says. "And if I get tense, being around the animals really helps straighten the day out." She spends most of her day in the office, while Paul feeds, treats, and cleans up after the alpacas.
But when Sands does visit the 50-animal herd, she becomes visibly calmer. She knows each alpaca by name and makes jokes about their various personalities. When she's with the animals, Sands seems to forget about almost everything else as she reaches out to stroke the new babies that amble up to meet her. She tries to visit the pen every few days.
There have been setbacks. Recently Sands suffered a medical complication and was airlifted to Reno, where she spent three days in the hospital. "We do need to figure out how to handle my demise," she says dryly. Sands thinks her oldest daughter, who lives in Anaheim, might be interested in running the business with Paul. But Sands hasn't broached the subject yet. "If I'm gone tomorrow, there's enough money to take care of the ranch for a while," she says. "Now, if we had employees or investors, that would change things."
For now, Sands isn't thinking much about the cancer. She's wondering how to attract more visitors to Yerington and how to entertain them on the ranch. She's fine-tuning animal bloodlines and weighing options to generate more revenue from the fleece. She points to a small collection of spinning wheels in a corner of the house - her research tools, she calls them - and talks about encouraging a local community of Native Americans to incorporate alpaca fiber into their weaving.
And after all the paperwork is filed, the phone calls returned, and the contracts signed, Sands thinks about the fuzzy little creatures outdoors. She walks outside her house and through the clanking metal gate to the alpaca pen. The animals mosey over and gracefully arch their long necks toward her outstretched hand. A breeze blows through the cottonwoods and olive trees. Sands gazes at the distant mountains and takes a deep breath. Today is a good day.
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