After 35-plus years ranching camels at the foot of the Ozarks, Rod Malchow expressed no regrets about spending more than half his life with exotic animals on a remote Missouri farm — often seeing only his wife, sister and neighbors unless traveling to events offering camel rides.
“If I fell over dead tomorrow, I’d have enjoyed everything I’ve done,” Malchow shared. “Instead of going to work every day for 30 years, taking a two-week vacation each year, and waiting for retirement to enjoy [life] — I’ve enjoyed it this whole time.”
Feeding the small herd — which has run between 25 and 50 camels at a time — with hay grown near the 15-acre farmstead outside Urbana, Missouri, Malchow and his family aren’t much different than people raising traditional livestock, he said.
“Taking care of [camels] is no more unusual than Alvin going out over here and taking care of his cows all day,” Malchow said, gesturing to his neighbor’s farm. “I still got a fence to fix and hay to get ready and put out.”
Still, he acknowledged the operation (and animals) likely seem eccentric from the outside looking in.
As guinea fowl marched in a line nearby — their high-pitched calls sounding while the African birds searched for bugs in the camels’ enclosure — the longtime rancher watched as a camel cow and her calf ducked between a row of trees and tall prairie grass.
“The camels’ native habitat has about the same temperature range as we do [in Missouri],” Malchow noted. “In the desert, it could be 100 degrees during the day, but once the sun goes down, it drops to 30 degrees. So one of their adaptations is that they can raise and lower their body temperature to balance themselves out.”
“… As for rain and moisture here, none of that really bothers them,” he continued. “They drink every day if it’s available. They have the ability to go without water, but so do we — we can’t quite go as far. We can’t lose 40 percent of our body weight in dehydration like they can.”
In it for the long haul
Malchow’s journey with camels began in his early 20s when he took a summer job that unexpectedly shaped his career, he said.
“I saw that [a ranch] needed someone to come give camel rides, so I went and did that for four months; then they called me the next spring, and I never did leave after that,” Malchow recalled. “I’ve had camels ever since.”
His busy season typically runs spring through summer with R&P Camel Company INC — which he founded in the mid-1980s — most frequently traveling to zoos and one-off events.
R&P Camel Co. has partnered with the Kansas City Zoo for more than 10 years, as well as zoos in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, Oklahoma and Alabama, he said, although the COVID-19 pandemic kept Malchow — and his camels — home for the entire 2020 season.
“I don’t know if we’re gonna go again or not,” Malchow said, noting it’s highly unlikely he will take the camels to any zoos this summer — even with mask requirements and social distancing now largely dropped — since there’s not enough time to schedule health tests for the animals. “I hope we get to go back, but you just don’t know.”
A bright spot during the winter: a few outdoor nativity and “Journey to Bethlehem” production still welcomed the camels in 2020, he said.
The extended off-season hasn’t been all bad, Malchow said, noting he doesn’t enjoy the actual traveling aspect of the business — preferring instead the self-contained nature of the rural farm he runs with his wife, Lori, and sister, Tammy.
Sharing the ride
Malchow does, however, miss the joy he observes on the faces of riders when his camels come to visit.
Even before the pandemic, he’d noticed a change in recent years — watching customers become less welcoming and more entitled, Malchow candidly shared about the experience operating the camel ride attraction.
“Thirty-some years ago, you could mix anybody with anybody to make a load [on the back of a camel]. If a parent couldn’t ride, they’d let their child ride with someone else. Nowadays, it is really tough to do that,” he explained, emphasizing this began before COVID-19 social distancing concerns. “That’s the aggravating part; people not letting themselves enjoy it.”
Yet, Malchow is still drawn to the customers who brighten his day and show great appreciation for the camels, he continued.
It’s especially important for Malchow that R&P Camel Co. does its best to accommodate those who have special needs or disabilities, he added.
“There are certain insurance restrictions, but we always try to do as much as we possibly can [for people with disabilities],” Malchow said. “They always seem to enjoy riding and feeding the camels, and they can really help you get through a crappy day. They bring a lot of joy and are very enjoyable to work with.”
A slim portion of Malchow’s business comes from dairy production, he noted. The ranch rents camel cows to trustworthy dairy farmers who then can benefit from selling the camels’ milk, he said.
“It doesn’t really make me anything; but when we have a couple extra females, instead of keeping them here, we will send them out to get them out to get milked,” he explained, stressing his own lack of interest in the often-painstaking process of milking to obtain the sought-after unpasteurized product.
Camel milk is consumed for personal, health and religious reasons, Malchow said.
“Some research says the [camel] milk has qualities that help different medical conditions such as diabetes, autism and others — but everyone’s body is different. There are a lot of questions and claims, and those are things individuals have to research for themselves,” he said, emphasizing that he is not a doctor nor food specialist.
For more information on camel milk, read this article by Healthline.
‘I can’t stay locked up’
After more than three decades with camels, Malchow expressed content looking back. A 9-to-5 office job would not have suited him well, he surmised, lightly batting away a handful of the hulking animals as they crowded together in a corral hoping to get closer to the rancher.
“It’s been fun; I’ve enjoyed it all. A lot of people can’t say that they’ve enjoyed their 35 years,” Malchow said.
“… I was never in a hurry to get out of an office in the evening,” he continued. “I got into work early at the zoos; took my time and spent time with the animals — feeding them and getting them ready for the day. Sure, standing out in the heat isn’t all that easy, but it’s easier to me than going into the office and reading a whole bunch of reports. I can’t stay locked up. I like being outdoors, so that probably makes a big difference.”
Although he’s in no rush to sell his ranch, Malchow said, he does think about retirement.
“If there are any young entrepreneurs in Kansas City who are interested in learning more about getting into the business, send them down,” he said with a smile.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that seeks to build inclusive prosperity through a prepared workforce and entrepreneur-focused economic development. The Foundation works to change conditions, address root causes, and break down systemic barriers so that all people – regardless of race, gender, or geography – have the opportunity to achieve economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.