Section 4.3: Current State of the North American Fiber Market

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The Current State of the North American Fiber Market

How much fiber (tons) is produced each year in the US? Nobody knows. This answer in and of itself is indicative of where we stand as compared to a balanced and full functioning livestock model. 

There are over 200,000 alpacas registered in North America and a large number of non-registered—figure 225,000—250,000 alive. Calculating 5 pounds of fiber (firsts and seconds) per shearing per alpaca gives us an annual clip of 1,125,000 to 1,250,000 pounds. Compare that to sheep, cashmere, wool, mohair, etc. This calculates to 1,000,000-plus pounds of fiber annual yield in the USA. More when we add in Canada.[3][4]

Weigh the above against these stats:

  • Peru has 3 million alpacas.
  • There are 0.5 million in Bolivia and Chile.
  • Peru produces 4,000 tons (8 million pounds) of fiber (of various quality) yearly.
  • The worldwide production of cashmere is triple this (24 million pounds).
  • 2,000,000 tons (4 billion pounds) of wool is produced worldwide each year.

Currently:

  • There is a healthy demand for American alpaca fiber.
  • There is a sustainable supply of American alpaca fiber available at least at the niche market level at this time.
  • Many alpaca owners and breeders have been making regular profits from their alpaca fiber.
  • There are established local, regional and national alpaca fiber sales and marketing channels in place, which are experienced in buying and selling your fiber at wholesale and retail prices.
  • Blankets, seconds and thirds have value and can be sold for profit.

Yes, you can make money with your alpaca fiber. Additional revenue from our alpaca fiber harvests will provide alpaca breeders with revenue in poor economies as well as attract potential breeders and stimulate breeding sales by offering both animal sales and fiber sales as potential revenue. Our breeding model is maturing. Our fiber model is now beginning this process.

By working as a team, North American alpaca owners and breeders will:

  • Increase the demand for North American alpaca products and build an industry that sells our harvests and turns them into product as one seamless value chain.
  • Increase the supply of North American alpaca fiber.

Through the economies of scale, alpaca livestock owners and breeders will:

  • Increase our profit margins for North American fiber products.
  • Reduce the relatively high price for alpaca products by reducing processing and distribution costs.

Cooperation to compete with all other established livestock and end-product industries will:

  • Stop wasting our time and resources in competing with each other.
  • Unite our efforts for the success of all of us ... for a real alpaca industry!

1. History

Imperial Incas clothed themselves in alpaca for thousands of years. Many of their religious ceremonies included alpaca. Their mummified remains stand testament not only to he enduring strength and vitality of alpaca, but to its use in early textile production. The Spanish conquistadors failed to recognize the value of alpaca, preferring their native Merino sheep. Early attempts in England to spin alpaca to make cloth resulted in failure until 1836 when Sir Titus Salt came upon some forgotten bales of alpaca in a warehouse in Liverpool. Combining the alpaca with cotton, he introduced the highly fashionable "alpaca cloth," which became the rage of England. However, the native alpacas could not meet the great demand for alpaca wool--initial attempts to acclimatize alpacas to England were unsuccessful--and with the advent of man-made textiles the demand for alpaca waned.[5]

Common uses for alpaca cloth at the turn of the century were fine ladies' dresses, gentlemen's suits, uniforms for military as well as police and fire departments, and academic robes. 

2. Background

Alpacas in North American are a relatively new phenomenon. We have about 20 years of experience with these exotic fiber-bearing animals. The alpacas’ ancestors are a native North American species. During the last ice age, probably in a quest for food and warmth, low water levels allowed some of the herds to migrate north over a land bridge between Alaska and the Asian continent. These eventually evolved into the camel (Camelidae). Other herds went south and became the llama (Lama glama), alpaca (Lama pacos), guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and vicuna (Vicugna vicugna) indigenous to South America. DNA testing proves that the alpaca, as we know it, is a close cousin of the vicuna.

Alpacas are rare. The average gestation period is 11.5 months. During the 16th century the invading Spanish wiped out many alpaca in South America, much as the North American bison was in the 19th century. Like the bison, the alpaca is reappearing in North America; the repopulation effort has slowly built an ever-growing North American alpaca herd. Alpacas are becoming a common sight in small acreage farms and large backyards all over America.

For the past twenty years the Alpaca Owners Association, formerly the Alpaca Owners and Breeders’ Association (AOBA) and the Alpaca Registry Incorporated (ARI), have led the charge of introducing and marketing the breeding of alpacas in America. As a result, there are an estimated 225,000-250000 alpacas grazing all over North America. Most of these are registered and a sophisticated infrastructure is in place to support the American alpaca breeder manage their breeding business.

Through the efforts of AOBA and ARI (now combined into AOA), the North American alpaca has been bred scientifically to encourage desired traits and standards. A highly regarded and healthy alpaca show system, built by AOA and its volunteers, is in place. The best-of-the-best compete for highly regarded championship ribbons and accolades. AOA tracks ancestry, and those ‘most desired bloodlines’ are easily found and tracked. AOA has launched a formal Estimate Progeny Differences (EPD) program so breeders can track the results of their breeding decisions in the name of ever improving alpaca characteristics. Scientific measurements in the form of alpaca histogram fiber measurements and skin biopsy methods are in place as is breeder understanding, acceptance and usage of these tests.

Scientific research by the Alpaca Research Foundation (ARF), the International Camelid Institute, and Ohio State University (to name just a very few) continues to promote successful health programs and disease research to insure the success of North American alpaca breeders. These programs, mostly donation driven, promote scientific research in the areas of alpaca health, husbandry, genetics and fiber, although fiber research doesn’t receive any funding.

A healthy market for the buying and selling of alpacas and their ever-improving offspring is in place. Websites like OpenHerd, AlpacaNation, and AlpacaStreet lead the charge. Large and small alpaca breeders alike vie for top dollar for their ever-improving livestock offspring (crias) and breeding fees for champion males (herdsires).

The breeding and management aspect of North American alpacas is a mature industry. We are now at the point in the North American alpaca repopulation effort where we can begin to reap the profits of our initiatives--harvesting and selling of our alpacas’ fiber. Faced with building both supply and demand for alpaca clothing and products, we need a unified national effort to introduce alpaca fiber into the American consumer markets. This is a viable effort; difficult, but viable! We must not continue as competing breeders vying aggressively against neighboring alpaca breeders for profit. This is counter-productive! We must get together not just to sell to each other but also to encourage new breeders to enter the market, expose new breeders to the wonders of alpaca products, explain alternative revenue streams such as Alpaca Fiber Farming, and show potential new customers (and our fellow breeders) that there is an ‘Alpaca Fiber Farming’ infrastructure in place today made up of spinners, weavers, felters, crocheters, knitters, fiber artists, mini mills, and commercial users of alpaca fiber – together bringing fun and profit.

An expanded national initiative to introduce alpaca fiber into the American economy will attract new breeders, grow the national herd and help mature farms sell to new customers rather than just to each other. It will also move more fiber into the American markets thus increasing the demand and supply for American alpaca fiber. 

We need an end product or we will be simply an entertainment business. If we are just an entertainment business, there is no reason to hype alpaca fiber as being remarkable.

3. What is the current status of the North American Alpaca Fiber Market?

Over the last few years, the Alpaca Coalition of America(ACOA) has been working to become a resource for alpaca growers in all aspects of the business. They organize annual commercial fiber collections that have paid growers up to $19 per pound.

Are there any other Alpaca Fiber Farming initiatives in place? Plenty. Consider grassroots niche marketing and sales as well as commercial venues.

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