Section 4.4: Building an Alpaca Fiber Industry

Alpaca are renowned for producing the world’s most sustainable luxury fiber. Alpaca Fiber can be eco-friendly, softer than cashmere, and warm as polar bear fleece.

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Building an Alpaca Fiber Industry

The Alpaca Fiber Supply Challenge – Perception versus Vision:

Inherent in this question is the answer to why breeders like me would buy an alpaca for $20k when all I get is 250 bucks a year on the investment. The answer is that no animal itself is worth $20k. Some are worth that and more in potential. Prices are related to the selective breeding potential: The potential quality of the offspring; the potential to infuse the national herd with improved genetics. These few special, rare and high-in-demand, famous alpaca studs and dams are the keys to an imagined elite American herd. Why? Alpaca fiber is classified in the world textile industry as wool fiber. Mills want to ‘fit’ alpaca into their wool-tooled machines. This means alpaca fiber is currently processed on machines tooled expressly for processing wool. Further, these machines are calibrated based on the average fiber diameter of the yarn that is to be spun. For sorted wool to be used as apparel it is almost always under 27 microns in diameter. With an average alpaca fiber AFD of 26 in the US, half of our mill-submitted fiber is over 26 microns and therefore beyond this range. Do we simply grow our collective American herd as is? Do we breed to produce a finer fiber through select breeding goals and improved nutrition? Like many of you, I’m breeding alpacas to improve their fleece – finer, denser, longer and faster growing, consistent staple. I am not herd building (at least not on purpose). I do not believe we will ever be a volume business. Alpacas have a long gestation period. We will always be a specialty fiber, an exotic fiber – but a rare and luxurious fiber. I’m shooting to breed for lingering fineness.

We know from Don Julio Barreda, as he built his B herd focusing on fine rather than big, meaty and high yield, that they eventually became 20% finer but had 20% less body weight and 20% less density. So what’s a breeder to do? We can’t ask what the customer wants – there aren’t many. Sometimes, if the customer isn’t sure what they want but you are, you give the customer what they need.

To touch and then to wear a 100 percent alpaca garment inspires superlatives (i.e., "stronger than mohair . . ." "finer than cashmere . . ." "smoother than silk . . ." "softer than cotton . . ." "warmer than goose down or the new synthetic fabrics like Gore-Tex," and "breathes better than thermal knits.") The really exciting part of these enthusiastic endorsements is that they are all true.

Unlike other mono-color animal fibers, alpacas produce fleece in 16-22 (or more-depending on which study is used) different colors. This amazing spectrum delights hand-spinners and industrial manufacturers and reduces (or eliminates) the need for dyeing, which further protects or enhances the resilience, softness, flexibility, and hypoallergenic qualities of the fiber.

Like many of you, I am taking some pretty extreme financial risks given the miniscule demand for improved fleece at this time. I am not in this business to spend disposable income as a distraction during my dotage. I know that given a market, producing rarity can pay off. Like a vintner improving vines over the years to make a superior wine and enjoying the satisfaction of efforts as well as the vintage, I look out at my small back pasture (actually a large backyard) and envision a herd with an average micron count under 22. Each animal is uniform, dense, full of bright, long, and thin fiber staples with coverage galore. I have to shear them twice a year! It is a herd our customers (mills, spinners, etc) give an A+ to from their production requirements perspective. Our fiber is highly valued by the American consumer for its unique clothing benefits. Coupled with other like-minded breeders’ herds, we now have an American supply of elite alpaca fiber. Without a doubt, once we reach this level there will be a demand for the Fiber of the Gods. Anyone who knows that alpacas fit the ever-growing Green Movement like hand in glove knows of our future success. Did we believe the French when they told us we could never grow superior wine in America? Man will never fly? Sometimes believing is seeing.

Like all dreams, bringing this imagined American alpaca herd to reality will take focus and hard work to bring to fruition. We must all get involved in the entire value chain – from selective breeding to marketing of the end product, either alpacas or fiber products. We have a lot going for us with well-established organizations like AOA, ACOA and our extensive utilization of the Internet – with sites like Openherd, AlpacaNation and AlpacaStreet as well as our regular brick and mortar of online alpaca auctions, to name a few. We need to properly plan for an ever-growing supply of finer grades and natural colors of alpaca fleece – leveraging nature and scientifically based breeding best practices.

Most synthetic fabrics are oil-based. Alpaca is not. Cotton requires pesticides and herbicides to create good yields. Alpaca does not. We need to educate the public to focus on opening appropriate sales and marketing channels for our product. We need to build demand through advertisement (even wearing alpaca and pointing it out to potential customers will go a long way). We need to carry a strong dialogue with and take an active interest in navigating AOBA’s marketing and sales direction. We need to liberate our mountains of fleece from the barn and get it to one of the national cooperatives, commercial users, specialty mills, and into the hands of our cottage industry spinners. We need to identify the numerous other uses for alpaca and communicate this information throughout the alpaca community.

Competition with wool or cashmere is not needed. Nor should we badmouth these wonderful products. Alpaca fiber stands on its own remarkable and unique merits. We can surely blend our unique American creatively with established fibers to create a never-ending mix of desirable products to meet individual tastes. Ask a spinner, you will find they agree.

1. Breeding for Fiber

Many tools are available to the alpaca owner. As mentioned in the previous three sections, we as an industry are at the point where we know the aspects of fiber, know how to test fiber, and know what to expect from our breeding practices. The alpaca owner needs to decide on the preferred end use of their fiber. This will allow much better breeding decisions that just to breed for “better fiber”. 

2. Fiber Management

Care of the alpaca during fiber growth is a vital aspect of insuring quality fiber. Health and environment play as much of a role in fiber production as genetics. New and exciting scientific research is providing us information every year on ways to improve the health of our alpacas and their fiber. They grow it, but we are entrusted to their health, care, and management. It is necessary for the breeder to understand and keep record of their herd's micron production so they can easily determine which fiber can be processed for which products. You wouldn't want to send fine alpaca used to make 100% alpaca blankets to be processed into rugs, nor would you want to send heavy-micron fiber to be made into a sweater. Different microns have different uses. The breeder needs to educate himself as to what options he has available based on the fiber he is producing. 

3. Harvesting

The manner in which fiber is harvested is of critical importance in the use of that fiber toward the end product. Many factors come into play, including insuring the animals are dry and clean prior to shearing, providing a clean and safe shearing environment, proper sorting of the primary fleece from the neck and upper legs from the belly and apron, and clearly storing and identifying shorn fiber based on the requirements of the processor(s) being used. It cannot be stressed enough that the breeder must be certain that the shearer understands what is needed and shears the animal to the standards required. Only fiber that is shorn so that it can be used will have value--the rest will be compost. 

a) The Alpaca Fiber Demand Challenge – Rarity, Value & Customer Education

The biggest issue we breeders face is that alpaca fiber is rare – about three million alpaca in the entire world with 90% of the global herd in Peru. Alpaca fleece is so rare that there is little demand for it outside the exotic, little knowledge of its softness, its warmth and shine, its potential, and therefore there are few markets for it in America. This is where we as breeders, large and small, need to work as a team. We American breeders are not only building a supply with our national herd, we are building demand along with it. Historically, this is nothing new for us. In 1873, George Grant transported 4 Angus bulls from Scotland to Victoria, Kansas. Grant crossed the bulls with native Texas Longhorn cows, producing calves that wintered better on the plains and weighed more in the spring. The American Angus Association is the largest beef registry association in the world, recording more cattle each year than any other beef breed association. The American Angus Association recorded more than 10 million head of cattle in the association's first 100 years.

Folks, the key here is to get our 1,000,000+ annual fleece yield out of the barn and into the hands of the consumer. This creates the demand we must have to increase profits.

Just think back a few decades ago to family Thanksgiving dinners. There was turkey. As far back as I can remember it was turkey. But turkey is not just for Thanksgiving anymore. Back then who would have thought that the one-day-a-year-bird-meat would be an omnipresent staple in the American diet and a healthy one to boot! It took a lot of hard work to win this battle. Perceptions had to be softly changed. Markets had to be built. Supply lines were choreographed. This took a sustained effort. The point is that we are in the front lines of creating a new industry. It is a case of not giving the customer what they want, but giving the customer what we know they need. Always remember that the customer is always right. If they say no then we are wrong. It is our Golden Fleece.

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