Northeast alpaca farmers call themselves a “young” livestock industry and a “new” agricultural industry, unlike beef or dairy, and there are some advantages to that. “We’re the new kids on the block,” said Maggie Wright of Kraussdale Alpacas in East Greenville, Pennsylvania.
Likewise, Erica Tollini, a partner in Bucks County Alpacas in Bedminster, Pennsylvania, calls alpacas a “new” fiber animal, so these farmers aren’t sheepherders either, but the two are also realistic enough to know that this country doesn’t yet have a strong fiber market, rather qualifying it as a “cottage” industry, one that’s growing in co-ops, and the size of co-ops, all the time.
“Those of us who started never thought we’d have a fiber industry,” Tollini said. “Most thought we’d sell animals and make money, but that’s only the top breeders. For the rest of us, we have to use our fiber, or the animals are just lawn ornaments. We’re a fiber farm.”
As a sign of progress, this past Pennsylvania Farm Show was the first – in its now 100-year existence – that alpacas competed in showmanship and agility over a four-hour stay. Next year a whole day is promised. Devotees have been campaigning there, but until now even those who took an interest thought an alpaca was an emu.
“Now, we’ve pretty much educated past that, which is a bonus,” Tollini said. “We nearly lost our voices trying (to promote alpacas), but finally our voices were heard.”
Evolution past an emu
Today, 99 percent of the approximately 3 million alpacas in the world are in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Imports in this country, they arrived between 1984 and 1998.
Induced ovulators, with a gestation period of 11½ months, an adult alpaca’s average weight is 150 pounds. Males are bigger-boned, but not substantially.
There are two breeds, Huacaya (Kraussdale’s), which are known for their soft fiber, and Suri (Bucks County Alpacas), which are known for their fiber’s luster. Generally, an alpaca farm either focuses on the livestock as an animal or on its product, its fiber.
Kraussdale’s Wright first saw alpacas on a tourist trip to Peru four weeks after 911, and fell “totally in love.” Once home, she came across a local fiber studio in Plumsteadville, Pennsylvania, consulted books and completed a personal puzzle of sorts. Today, she displays a picture on wall in her office from her Peru trip.
Fleece has evolved, she said: What was nice years ago is even nicer as a result of selective breeding, but the value of a given animal as a breeding animal, will never climb to where it was before the nation’s economic decline. Bigger farms were once fetching as much as $15,000 an animal, a figure that’s more like $10,000 today. As a smaller operation, she might charge $1,500, especially for those seeking their first animals.
Wright, who began in 2002, decided two years later to specialize in improving the fiber of black alpaca, so on her 3 ½ acres she’s built her own genetic line of enhanced black. When she started, everyone wanted to boost the species’ gray fiber.
But the entire alpaca industry has changed drastically since 2007. By 2004, the number of alpaca farms had doubled in this country, and the general thought was simple – making a million dollars – and breeders set their eyes on that prize, then the economy tanked, leaving newcomers stunned and concerned.
“What happened is that it left those of us who have a true passion for the animals,” she said. “I live with my animals, cleaning the barn, raising their babies, shopping for the store, doing demonstrations for the community and spinning and weaving (and eventually teaching those skills).”
Wright, who was raised on ponies on a family farm a football field away, has 13 of her own alpaca, though nine others were temporarily boarding on this visit. She intentionally keeps her herd manageable, allowing her to instill good behavior, but she’s also adamant about not turning her alpacas into pets, or show animals, though they do all have names and are registered. They’re also not taught to stand and be handled, but they’re bred for disposition and to respect human owners. “I’m the biggest alpaca on the farm,” she said.
None of the herd is hand-fed, which Wright said only results in pushing and shoving, spitting and unnatural dominance. “That’s the last thing that I would want to show any of my clients or guests at the farm,” she said.
A partnership in Bucks County
Tollini’s path to the breed isn’t unlike others. A daughter was showing sheep. A younger brother stuck at the grange show one day, came across an alpaca owner and proposed: “We need alpacas.” “I said, ‘No, we don’t,'” his mother recalled. But the family investigated, took a trip to Oregon for a seminar with a neighbor and now business partner, Karin Giordano. Two arrived in April 2004.
Now, the women co-own 42 alpacas on neighboring farms. Tollini, a hospice nurse, takes care of 23, while Giordano, a vet tech, keeps 19 on about 13 total acres. They’re not idle. Last November, they bought two stags (studs). “I’m North, and she’s South,” said Tollini, who finds a clump of hair in her male pasture, one of six off the two sides of the barn she expanded years ago. “Must have been a disagreement.”
Bucks County Alpacas began as a breeding operation, but admittedly the partners weren’t good at selling their animals. However, they did well selling alpaca product, and now do farmers markets year round, except for the month of March, in Doylestown and Glenside, and at agricultural days like at Delaware Valley College. “At this point, people follow us around,” said Tollini, whose alpacas do the same and whose head height is about her animals’.
They belong to a co-op, and do a fiber show in November, and even church craft fairs, always looking for niche markets and locations where there isn’t already a presence. “It’s too closed a market to compete,” Tollini said. “It’s not like selling lettuce.”
The pair does not have a farm store like Kraussdale, but do host an open house for National Alpaca Day the last weekend in September as does Kraussdale.
Wright uses ads, Facebook and promotional postcards, of which she distributes between 1,200 and 1,500 between August and the end of the calendar year, to promote business and interest. “People come in to shop with the card in their hand,” said Wright, who also exhibits at the farm on Small Business Association Saturday and a local Open Gate Tour.
Every year, she also prints a calendar of her own animals from over the years as additional marketing. She’s expanded her store that began with a shelf on her back porch to what’s now the length of the front of her farmhouse. She’s open in November and December on weekends, and the rest of the year by appointment.
Fiber or livestock farm?
An eight-hour shearing day at Bucks County Alpaca takes 10 people to run smoothly. Shorn animals are weighed before and after to see what they sheared. At Wright’s farm in Montgomery County, the first shorn is the blanket (or coat), followed by the necks, legs and belly, “like a first, second and third cutting of hay,” she said. All the fleece is separated. Typical yield is between 3 and 8 pounds of fiber from each alpaca.
Quality is all about fiber fineness (the micron diameter of individual fibers), the density (or the number of fibers in a centimeter of skin) and consistency (or the small standard deviation of fibers in microns). This all can be determined by an experienced hand, or brought to a lab and tested, a so-called micron test, or histogram, and evaluated on a 1-5 scale. Wright wants a 1 or 2. She’s very “picky about what I send to the mill.”
“If you send all that you’ve got, you’re not going to get a nice product,” she said. “It may be visually okay, but it won’t feel as nice. Others may send what I often leave on the floor.”
What’s left, Wright uses for rugs, felted soaps or dryer balls, all of which are 100 percent non-allergenic, anti-bacterial alpaca fiber. In her store, she even sells glassware etched with alpacas down from a wall of yarn in a full range of the 16 colors now on the registry card that once included 23 color ranges before consolidation.
“People seem to like buying something made from an animal they’ve seen,” said Wright, who has many friends with fiber farms, which philosophically she said she isn’t. “The animals come first. For fiber farms, fiber is their entire focus.”
Read more: The Fine Points of Alpaca Success