On a farm bordered by cattle ranches and hayfields, just a stone’s throw from the New Mexico border, Jim and Lois Burbach have taken up a pursuit that may seem better suited for the Andean highlands: raising a herd of alpaca.
They are among a growing number of alpaca ranchers who have settled in Southwest Colorado to raise the South American camelids.
Initially, alpaca farmers were making hefty sums breeding and selling their animals, but the economic recession has made the venture considerably less profitable, diminishing the prices for animals by 30 to 50 percent.
Such economic forces, combined with the herd’s steady growth, have spurred a new push, locally and nationally, to turn back to the animals’ original asset, their fiber. But in such a new industry, creating a market for the fiber and making it profitable still pose formidable challenges.
Growth of an industry
Since people started importing the animals into the United States in the 1980s, the nation’s alpaca herd has grown steadily.
Now, there are almost 180,000 registered alpacas in the United States, but Claudia Raessler, a board member of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, said unregistered animals could boost that number by 50,000. The industry’s growth in Colorado, now one of the top states for the number of breeders living here, has followed the same trajectory, said Jim Burbach, owner of Navajo Lake Alpacas and founding president of the Alpaca Breeders of the Four Corners. Southwest Colorado is one of the state’s hubs for alpaca ranchers, he said.
Burbach, like many alpaca farmers, was not raising other livestock when he and his wife, Lois, bought their first alpacas, Burbach said. But his wife was interested in the fiber, and after one look, Burbach said he fell in love with the animals. Now, the couple owns 30 animals and Lois has made a successful business making hats, scarves and other products out of the alpaca fiber and teaching felting classes.
Karla Leis and her parents, Ed and Mary Ann Coe, tell a similar story.
“We wanted to try livestock, something we didn’t have to kill, and we found alpacas,” Leis said.
Alpacas are known for their soft, lightweight fleece, but for years, the real money was made breeding, selling and showing the animals. Until three years ago, bred female alpacas were selling for $10,000 to $35,000, Burbach said.
Then the recession hit, and the demand for alpacas, like many other luxury items, plummeted. Prices dropped, and suddenly people who had invested tens of thousands of dollars in their animals faced the possibility of financial ruin. In the worst cases, people abandoned their animals, tried to sell them at exotic animal auctions or neglected to care for them, said Raylene McCalman, a founder and co-coordinator of Pachamama’s Way, an organization that rescues alpacas. In recent years, McCalman, who has worked with alpacas for more than a decade, said the organization has been overwhelmed by the influx of alpacas.
“The animals are cute and approachable, and people fall in love with them but don’t necessarily know the bigger picture of what’s involved in a long-term commitment to the animals,” she said.
Making it profitable
With the market for breeding and selling of alpacas struggling, more people are now setting their sights on the fiber market to help their farms make a profit or break even. As auction prices for animals dip and dive, the price for alpaca fiber has held at an average of $2 to $4 per ounce, Burbach said.
Many of the 21 farmers in Southwest Colorado who got into alpaca farming to breed the animals are now considering the fiber industry, Burbach said. Leis said she sees the future of her alpaca business focusing on fiber products. Her main goal is to get to the point where her 13 alpacas support the farm.
“Once we figure out what to do with the fiber, I believe that’s where the money is,” Leis said.
Getting the word out
Several of the national alpaca organizations are teaming up on a branding and marketing initiative that aims to put alpaca fiber on the same path to fame as cotton.
The organizations, including the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association and the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America, hired Nicholas Hahn, former president and CEO of Cotton Inc., to head the initiative, called Alpaca United. The goal is to pool the fiber produced by alpaca breeders, make processing more profitable and give them access to a bigger marketplace, Raessler said.
“A large portion of the farms haven’t been doing a lot with the fiber, and that’s what this initiative is about,” she said.
Locally, McCalman tried unsuccessfully to start a fiber cooperative, but individual farmers weren’t convinced it would fetch higher prices and were wary of putting in the labor to help sort and grade fiber, she said.
As the industry looks to expand fiber sales, she worries that adequate domestic milling capacity could be a problem. Exporting it for milling, meanwhile, could diminish the quality.
Ranchers who hand-make creative products out of their own alpaca fiber and who create a dynamic and diverse business model are the ones McCalman predicts will survive.
But for the Burbachs and many other farmers, money isn’t the central issue.
“I love being out in the country and having the country lifestyle the alpaca thing has worked into that,” Jim Burbach said. “They’re cuddly little things. It’s really easy to fall in love with the animals.”