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Challenges To Building A National Alpaca Fiber Market
"You cannot manage what you cannot measure," - Lord Kelvin
How much American fiber is bought and sold annually? Nobody knows. Coops, mini mills, and home businesses are not connected and do not report sales by ROI, pounds processed, etc. This begs the question, do we want a national alpaca fiber-for-profit initiative and its value-added revenue stream to our breeding businesses. If not, you’re done with this material. If so, read on. We need your help. We need to be on the same page, with the same goals, strategies and with teamwork. This can be done. Now is the time!
a) Breeder Competition
“I have met the enemy and he is us," - Walt Kelly
There is a lack of cooperation between breeders in the US to answer long term questions for our industry. Economic conditions have changed. Fewer customers are coming into the market. We have poorly defined channels for end products as a revenue stream. This forces us as breeders to market and sell to each other. We become competitors instead of partners in the alpaca business. While breeding healthy and ultra-fine American alpacas in a range of natural colors is a great vision, taking the vision beyond the animal to the potential of the end product, alpaca fiber, is a much more lofty, lucrative and sustainable vision.
We must have quality alpaca – our niche is alpaca - soft, strong, bright, natural, 22 natural colors, GREEN. We need to increase the demand for alpaca fiber. (Educating the consumer here is critical.) There is not a lack of supply of American alpaca fiber. There is a tremendous supply of alpaca that is not being utilized and viewed as worthless by its producers. We must change this perception in the near-term; otherwise, developing a market for this fiber will be extremely difficult. The emu industry (and others) had a similar problem. Breeders must understand the potential revenue for alpaca fiber and what outlets are available and need education to understand the requirements of fiber processors. Textile processors need to understand of the value of alpaca fiber. An attitude of many breeders is that alpaca fiber is not worth selling or should not be sold. There is an attitude that breeders rather than the consumer should determine fiber value. These attitudes need to be re-evaluated.
Estimates of the cost to produce a pound of fiber vary wildly: From $5 to $65 per pound. The world market for alpaca fiber is around $8 per pound for grade 2 processed tops. We need to put true numbers in place and determine where to work towards our best competition.
b) Shearing Problems
One of the fastest ways to ruin otherwise good fiber is to not pay attention to shearing. Many alpaca owners pay big bucks to have the fleece shorn, but do not understand the importance of having it done correctly. Poor shearing causes second cuts, inconsistencies in length, and can leave excessive strong primary hairs (i.e. guard hairs, medullation) in the finer blanket, which has to be skirted out. Second cuts can and do lower the value of alpaca fiber by reducing yield. If a second cuts gets through the shearing, cleaning, skirting, grading and sorting process to the manufacturing process, they can cause noils (knots) or holes in the end product. It is the responsibility of the alpaca owner to insure the quality of the shearing!
There is a perception by some breeders that an alpaca fiber market will reduce prices of breeding stock. Sales in breeding stock have been quite lucrative for years. Concerns over reduced profits as we switch from breeding to fiber markets need to be addressed. With a healthy fiber market the following good things can happen;
First, we need to brand name our fiber as Green, American Quality. As a fiber for profit market evolves, ALL alpacas will be worth something (especially the geldings since their fiber does not generally blow out once gelded). Large and small breeders can make a profit from a real end product. As more people see possible profit from products, the herd size will increase. More fiber farms will be developed and breeders will (we hope) begin to cull their herds – only breeding top males (yes, those expensive elite herdsires will have a role) to appropriate females. This will quickly improve the quality of North American alpaca.
We as an industry will finally have meaningful breeding goals based on customer requirements and not on show ring fashion. We will breed for maximum return on investment and not on crimps per inch.
d) The Commercial Fiber Industry
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.
Otherwise, the North American Commercial Fiber Industry currently has only a few venues available today. This use of alpaca fiber is typically less time-intensive for the alpaca owner. Much of the value added is done after the fiber is sent to the commercial user. However, there is the opportunity for high value and high profit for the fiber producer if they desire to be in retail sales (much the same as with the cottage industry, but without the time intensive need).
e) Transporting Fiber To and From Processing Centers
There is a need to further consolidate existing resources for local and regional fiber collection centers. Currently the main shippers normally considered, such as USPS, FedEx and UPS, typically require a single billing point. The standard is to base the charge on the volume of the preceding months or year to give volume discounts.
Rail: Fiber needs to be boxed or bagged (50 gal 3 mil bags), placed on a pallet and secured with shrink-wrap. Requires around a 2,000 pound minimum, but has low cost. Customer is typically given 2 hours to load and 0.5 hours to unload.
UPS: Offers small and large shipping. Large uses LTL (less than truckload). For large shipping, the requirements are similar to rail. Discounts for businesses are typically based on prior-year volume. Single accounts only.
FedEx: They can ship small quantities. One note of caution is that the amounts given on their website (even when using the verification), may not be correct. If the driver of the truck decides that an address is out of the normal delivery area, or not a business, they can add on several charges, including a fuel surcharge.
They will deliver boxes to you free of charge.
USPS: Good for small amounts. Gives discount for online calculation and postage. Typically, it is better to pay by weight than using the flat-rate boxes. They will deliver boxes to you free of charge.
Consolidated Fiber Collection Centers are a worthy goal. We must work towards a collaboration of breeders and commercial users of fiber to form consolidated regional collection sites; shipping in volume is at a fraction of the cost of small lots. Working together benefits everyone and ultimately reduces the cost of doing business, which increases profit.
f) Brand Identity
A national brand for alpaca fiber is discussed in the next section. While recognition by the public at the North American level will benefit the industry, there are a number of problems with implementation.
- Who will “own” the brand?
- Will the commercial users want to pay to add another item to their existing logo/tags/brand?
- Will the cottage industry perceive more value added than the cost of using the “brand”?