bolewicz at netzero dot net
1988: THEY COST HOW MUCH?
That's insane! We'll never do that.
1993: Labor Day weekend: We buy two female alpacas.
So how did we get from there to here?
I grew up in southern California, Barry in Chicago - both
city kids who liked animals. We were working, me as a
biologist, Barry with his dental practice. We had a small
farm with sheep, Pygora goats, chickens, ducks, bees, and
Around 1988, we went to a wool show. I walked around a
corner and was bowled over by a beautiful face with big
dark eyes and adorable fluffy bangs.
"Wow," I said. "World's cutest llama! It's not a llama? It's
an alpaca? I gotta have one. How much do they cost?
What! That's insane. Who'd ever pay that much for an
And we walked away.
But we were so drawn to them that we kept going places
where we could see them - to the fair, to the exotic animal
show, to fiber festivals. Weren't going to buy - just wanted
to look. But over 3 or 4 years, their attraction was still
strong, and we kept seeing that the first breeders we'd met
were still alpaca owners (most of them still are). It wasn't a
temporary flash-in-the-pan deal. We talked to them, and
though there were different personality types involved in
the business, from quiet and low-key to outgoing empire
builders, they all seemed like solid stable business people.
The prices had stayed high. It didn't look like they were going to drop soon, much less crash.
In addition, we had the example of horses. Our horses weren't expensive, but they were boarded at a barn with very expensive animals: $20,000 geldings! These horses were never going to be productive; their only use was recreational, but people were making a living buying, selling, and working with them.
In our area, there was a small group of farms who got together regularly for education and
socializing. If we did raise alpacas, this group would be a source of support for us - to learn how to care for alpacas, to help market and publicize them. (This little group was Columbia Alpaca Breeders Association, which was soon putting on one of the largest shows in the country.)
We started to think we might take the plunge. We visited local farms and others wherever we
were vacationing. We'd tell people, "We're not ready to buy; we just want to see what's out
there, look at barns, fences, etc." Everyone was happy to spend several hours chatting and
showing us around.
Barry was featured in his high school alumni magazine.
Here's a link to the author's note.
Please don't reproduce these photos without permission.
And finally we bought our first two. We still think it's a good business.
But it's a very very big step. Some of the objections we hear are:
1. Prices are going to crash. Well, they hadn't in all the years since 1984 when alpacas first arrived in North America - until the Great Recession when people lost their jobs and their farms. But what has happened is that now there's more of a spread in the price range as people recognize that some animals are better quality than others, that some are older with fewer productive years in front of them or younger with months to go before they’ll be ready to breed, or as some breeders use lower prices as a marketing tool.
I do think prices are down to stay; they have recovered somewhat since the recession ended. But even if I buy an alpaca today and her price drops by, for instance, 50% tomorrow, that's still a very expensive animal. It would take a little longer to recover our costs, but think how much larger our potential customer base would be.
2. They're like emus; the whole market will crash. The first difference between alpacas and emus is that alpacas don't have 20 babies at a time. And while an emu is a highly useful animal, the breeders never organized themselves with a processing and marketing set-up. We have support from several national organizations. AOA and the local affiliates provide conferences, webinars, fleece sales, and other educational opportunities. AOA runs magazine and TV ads, which are very effective at pointing people to the website; from there, they're directed to farms all over the U.S. ARI (the Alpaca Registry) handles registrations (which confirm pedigree by DNA tests) and maintains a database of the national herd.
3. I don't know how to care for them. About half of alpaca owners have no livestock experience; some have never even owned a pet. But the folks who sell you your animals will teach you how to handle them; nearby farms and your vet will help, too.
There are herd health and neo-natal (birthing) clinics given at some vet schools and at some shows. Taking a "sheep production" course at our community college was very helpful.
You may have an affiliate group like CABA or AAWO near you; our meetings often feature a speaker (on topics like pastures and weeds, fiber processing, alpaca massage, health care, taxes) and farm talk, during which we can either brag or get advice on problems.
4. I'm not good at selling. Neither am I; I worked in a research lab and am not very talkative. But my friends from work and ordinary life would be stunned to see me around sheep and alpaca events - you can't shut me up. The passion, excitement, and enthusiasm we have for our animals shows, and it's contagious.
I often say that I've never sold an alpaca; people have bought them from us, but I haven't sold them. Almost everyone who sees an alpaca wants one; they may think it's impractical for them, but - they want one.
5. I don't have big bucks to spend. Or you just don't want to spend money like water. I certainly understand that; I'm frugal, to say the least (as you can probably tell by my website).
There are plenty of people who believe an expensive barn, grounds landscaped to impress the bus tours, travel to shows all over the country, and a massive ad budget are necessities. But there are also plenty of us misers.
After the initial expense of purchase, the maintenance costs for alpacas are lower than for most other livestock. You can find relatively low-cost ways to do business: a free or low-cost website, the AOA Marketing Program, bartering or trading for services or animals, a pen at the county fair or farmers' market.
You can succeed on your own terms.
6. I don't have any place to keep them. This would seem to be the biggest barrier. However, many people start by boarding (agisting) their animals at someone else's farm. This has several advantages: you can start growing your herd without waiting for property to become available or for fences and barns to be built; you can start with just one alpaca without needing a companion for her; you have someone to show you the ropes and possibly do some selling for you.
Some people have never moved on to having their own farm, but have been very successful with their animals living at one or more boarding facilities.
If you think alpacas are for you, or that they might be:
• Visit the Alpaca Owners Association website (www.alpacainfo.com) and request an information packet.
• Use the AOA website to locate farms in your area and arrange a visit. Go to small farms as well as the large well-publicized ranches. Listen to different points of view on "the ideal alpaca."
• See if the AOA website lists upcoming shows, seminars, or other events near you.
• Join AOA. The cost varies from free to $200/year, a small expense in relation to the amount you'd spend on an alpaca. You'll receive Alpacas Magazine and be able to attend the National Conference and the National Fleece Conference.
If you're still not sure, consider purchasing two or three young animals (halter trained "pet quality" or “fiber males”). Test the waters: can you handle them, can you give them the care they need, does hay make you sneeze, do you feel tied down, do you actually like them?
Well, this is an extended epistle - I did say you can't shut me up. If you have concerns that I haven't dealt with or just further questions, please phone or email me. I'd love to hear from you.
They're wonderful animals and raising them gave us so much pleasure.