We started in the alpaca business in 2005, just as the prices were beginning to surge and the excitement was building at the auctions. Alpacas sold like candy and we would feel sorry for the poor sole that sold their lot for a measly $12,000. We “drank the kool-aid” as did many and threw the same pitch to potential clients…”yes, we’re in it for the fiber, but first, we need more animals to create our US fiber herd, and that’s why we don’t cull any animals.” And then we learned of fiber stashes in basements and garages or worse yet, fiber being buried or thrown in the garbage…oh, and that merchants were not going to knock on our door to buy our fiber.
It’s now 2016, and losing money on high priced alpacas has hopefully taught us a few lessons. Raising alpacas really is about the fiber, not the animal. Ironically, some alpaca owners that proclaim these same sentiments are the same people that primarily promote the alpaca. A glance at the weekend events and markets where farmers and crafters sell their wares reveals much about our industry. Although many alpaca owners take yarns and rovings, socks, mittens and scarves to these events, the main attraction remains the alpacas. We tell ourselves that the reason we take them to the event is to sell alpaca products…yet is it really necessary to take an alpaca to an event to sell socks? The Dairy Princess promotes milk, not a cow, the Pork Ambassador promotes the “other white meat,” not a pig. And I’ve yet to see a Nordstroms’ window with goats to sell their cashmere sweaters. People will feel the passion when you talk about your herd, and how you harvest the fiber and turn it into hand knitted clothing or send it to a cooperative to be commercially manufactured quite possibly in the USA. Nod to Jeanne Carver who shared her story and passion with many and created Imperial Yarn Company, now owned by Lynn Edens and Stacie Chavez. She did not need to display her sheep to sell her products. Instead her story evoked a mental imagery that may have sparked many to visit her ranch in Oregon. And her products sold. We don’t need our alpacas with us to sell our products. Our clothing and products will sell on their own merit and outstanding qualities.
Our marketing continues to promote the alpacas….come see the alpacas, kiss an alpaca, have a selfie with an alpaca….without making the needed link to alpaca products. Our advertisements do not show the beauty in the clothing and home decor, but rather the lifestyle of the alpacas and the endearing bond between people and the animals.
We are enthusiastic about having a youth show because that is what draws the public. However we promote the alpaca as a spectacle of entertainment paralleled to a pony show. Costume, egg and spoon, gambler’s choice, obstacle…yet not a single youth halter class. Imagine what the FFA and other organizations must think when our youth show the alpacas and never once do we mention their fiber nor their conformation. I acknowledge that the youth need an entry point, but once our youth tire of the games, where is the next level of engagement. Our 4H is not the organization that immediately precedes farming, agriculture, and livestock career choice. As an industry, we need to expel our isolationist approach to alpaca farming and align with other livestock models.
I would like to acknowledge those youth who over the years showed in the halter ring and especially to those youth who bought their own alpacas, started their herd, and did the work to make alpaca farming a business. You have my respect and admiration. Those youth did it with the help and support of their parents, employers, and other adults who recognized the importance of nurturing the next generation of alpaca farmers.
A friend stopped by a few months back and asked me if the farmer next door still had sheep and lamb for sale. His daughter was looking to buy a lamb to raise, and then show at the county fair with the goal of selling it to the highest bidder. With that money, she would either purchase another animal, or save her money for a future use. Sadly, my neighbor had passed away, and all I had were a few hundred alpacas….not a single lamb.
I have desired to help regionally and nationally in getting our youth involved in our industry. However, when the agenda addresses only 4H alpaca clubs and neglects our needs to develop a model for our future alpaca farmers, then I must reconsider my involvement and direct my energies elsewhere.
My hope is that we give up the passive approach of waiting to become livestock and that instead, we start taking the active steps to align with the rest of the livestock industries. The livestock and agriculture world will not come to us…rather it is up to us to join up in shared business models. Let’s start treating our alpacas as livestock, and if you want to “teach” people about alpacas, invite them to your farm. They will gain a completely different perspective from the one they see of an alpaca in a penned enclosure.