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Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Reality of Alpaca Ownership, 16 yrs and counting.

16 years and counting, do I still look at alpaca ownership in the same way? In a word, no. The reality is, my perspective on alpacas has grown tremendously along with the personal growth I've gone through in the process. The alpacas are still the incredibly cute and enchanting creatures that I fell in love with so many years ago, that much has not changed. Originally the alpacas afforded us a way to make a lifestyle change, a move from the suburbs to small acreage in a rural area. We enjoyed the pace of farm life and the sound of frogs at night while looking up at a sky full of stars. We were living a dream!

As our adventure began, it was all about raising alpacas as breeding stock. We attended conferences, shows, and live auctions with sales records in the millions. We cared for our alpacas and agisted alpacas for city dwellers that wanted a part of alpaca mania. We sold all the breeding stock that we wanted to, and provided breeding services for other owners. Our alpacas were taking ribbons at big, competitive shows. The fleece was considered a bi-product and there was little to be done with it commercially. Then came the economic crash of 2008 and reality came crashing down. In order for us to continue raising these incredible creatures, we needed a new plan.

I had always loved the feel of alpaca fleece but I had only dabbled in the fiber arts. Early on our kids were involved in 4H as we blazed a trail for an alpaca project in our county. I had tried my hand at spinning, felting, and weaving during the 4H phase, but everything was put on the back-burner as life with kids happened. We had joined a couple of fiber cooperatives but there was little available in the way of US made product. I sold alpaca products made in South America to supplement farm income, again, an additional plan was needed because we still had the fleece from our own herd sitting virtually untouched in our barn. We started shipping our fleece off to mini-mills to offer our own yarn for sale. I was still purchasing some colored alpaca yarn produced in Peru to sell along side of our own natural yarns until the light bulb finally turned on and I started hand dyeing our yarn! That would be the beginning of product creation here on MaRS! I took a dive back into my memory bank to build on the knitting skills that my Grandmother had shared with me, and I started producing hats and scarfs for sale. The spinning wheel came out again, and I was like a sponge soaking up spinning techniques and hand processing our fleece. My love of color took me from knitting to wet felting where I could literally let the color fly and embrace the outcome. I was no longer afraid to let creativity happen, a true escape from the usual control I held over the rest of my life. The added bonus was that people liked and purchased what I made! I'm also happy to report that there has been growth in the commercial market for alpaca fleece in the US. We are making progress.

Then came the farm visits with tour groups, scouts, school groups, and birthday parties complete with hands on craft projects. Up next will be a growing schedule for how to clinics, maybe even a few ladies nights with felting and wine. The sky is the limit!
I also work part time at a fleece processing mill and volunteer as an alpaca program leader in a local 4H club.

And the alpacas? I've adopted a full livestock model which means there is a beginning, middle, and end plan for all our herd members. We continue to carefully breed for improved stock with bright, fine, beautiful fleece. I never thought I would be open to a terminal market for alpacas, but the alternative with alpacas ending up in rescue situations has changed my mind. Our alpacas all live a good life and are well cared for, and that's a good thing. Knowing where our food comes from has become more important to us, as it has for many, with all the unknowns of commercial food production. And you know what? Alpaca tastes wonderful and is an incredibly healthy alternative for smart eating. Samples and recipes are available!

What's next? I can't wait to find out!