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AgFocus: Alpacas bring personality to fiber industry

Monthly series kicks off with tour of Loomis ranch
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Journal Features Editor
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There’s an abundance of adorableness at Alpacas All Around, where the curious, friendly herd certainly lives up to the ranch’s name.

On a recent tour of the Loomis ranch, the 50 alpacas walked right up to the AgFocus team, nosing at cameras and notebooks, hoping for some grain or at the very least a neck rub. Owner Susan Petersen knows each animal by name, and can tell visitors in an instant whether a certain alpaca will allow itself to be cuddled, which will shy away from strangers and which are trained to give a “kiss” to earn a treat.

“We just fell in love with them,” said Petersen, who owns Alpacas All Around with her husband, Tom. Her 30-year career as a nurse included working in a pediatrician’s office, she said, and that combined with her love of animals was a good fit for taking care of a herd that quickly became a big, furry part of the family.

To view an Alpacas All Around Photo gallery, click here.

 

The economics of alpacas

Alpacas are valuable for two things: their fleece and themselves. Petersen said there’s more money to be made in selling the animals, which range in price from $1,000 for a male used for fiber up to $3,000 to $20,000 for a female. Each member of her herd is registered and pedigreed.

A female Huacaya alpaca is generally sold while she’s pregnant, Petersen said, and are sold as “breed back,” meaning that after the baby is born the owner can come back and get another breeding. A mama alpaca with a cria, or baby, that has not been weaned is sold “cria aside,” as a pair.

The Petersens have owned their ranch since 2005, and saw a sharp decline in value as the economy worsened. In some cases, Petersen said, the price of a female alpaca dropped by as much as $17,000. These days, she said, it’s starting to get better.

Placer County Agricultural Commissioner Joshua Huntsinger said the decrease in value can be attributed to a “speculation bump,” which happened before with the emu industry, when the animals’ popularity spiked and then evened out.

“Traditionally, the big livestock have been sheep and cattle,” Huntsinger said. “One of the primary products of sheep is wool, so wool production is not unusual at all in Placer County, but I think the raising of alpacas for wool is certainly quite a bit newer than our sheep industry.”

Petersen has three “herd sires,” or males that are used for breeding. If she wants to expand the gene pool to get better fleece, she breeds outside the herd.

“You only want to use about the top 3 percent of the males for breeding,” she explained. “This is a fiber industry, and you’re constantly wanting to improve the quality of the fiber.”

 

Fleece facts

Alpacas are desired for their lush, baby-soft fleece, used for crafts like felting, knitting and crocheting. Petersen shows at various alpaca shows, where the animals are judged for their body conformation and fleece quality.

“They need to have a lot of fiber, and it needs to be fine fiber, and it needs to be consistent,” Petersen explained.

Alpacas are only sheared once a year, in the springtime, allowing their thick fleece to grow out. Quality fleece has a crimp to it, enabling it to hold its shape when knitted into sweaters or blankets. White alpaca fleece is desirable because it can be dyed many different colors, and Americans especially desire jet-black alpaca fleece for use in sweaters.

Consumers can pick out the specific alpaca they want to provide their fleece, which is sorted by color and animal. Petersen sends her fleece to a “cottage mill” in Grass Valley to be spun into yarn, and she also felts it, creating colorful, soft scarves and other accessories. A small shop at Alpacas All Around is stocked to the brim with fleece items, not only from Petersen’s herd but also from animals in the Andes, where the alpaca originated.

Lisa Whittet, owner of Auburn Needleworks, attested to the desirability of alpaca yarn. People love using the buttery-soft yarn to make scarves, and also like using natural fibers in their work. She cautioned, however, that special care should be taken when working with alpaca fleece.

“If you are working with the yarn to make a garment, you have to make sure you do it with stitches, because alpaca has no memory, so it will just keep growing and growing and growing.”

“Memory” is a fiber’s ability to bounce back to its original shape. Whittet recommends crafters work with lots of stitches, such as cables, to keep the alpaca yarn looking its best. Petersen explained that good crimp in the alpaca’s fleece also helps with yarn memory.

Georgette Adams is an Alpacas All Around customer who has used the yarn to knit scarves and felt hats. She also owns a woven rug from the ranch that was woven from Cinnamon, a brunette herd sire.

“The scarves were light and had a nice drape,” Adams said. “The hats felted up quite nicely. I love working with this yarn, as it just feels so good in my hands.”

 

The family herd

When asked if she and her husband get emotionally attached to the animals, Petersen replied, “very, very much so. While they are livestock, we are probably much more attached to our animals than most people.”

It also helps that Americans don’t raise alpacas for their meat. That’s not the case in other countries, Petersen said. In fact, an Indian legend about the animals says that because alpacas provide so much for man, they are considered a special gift from God.

For Petersen, the best part of her business is spending time with her furry friends.

“The best part of my job? Being able to come out here and be with these incredibly beautiful animals, and know that I get to sustain them and make life good for them and take care of them.”

 

Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at krissik@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter, @AuburnJournalAE.

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Alpacas All Around

Where: 4300 Hansen Road, Loomis

Info: (916) 660-1918; www.alpacasallaround.com

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Auburn alpacas

Tom and Susan Petersen aren’t the only ones raising alpacas in these parts. The fiber industry has several representatives in the Auburn area, according to the Placer County Agricultural Guide, www.placeragguide.com.

 

Green Acres Alpacas of Loomis

Where: 3705 De Lapp Place, Loomis

Info: (916) 889-0186

 

Loomis Alpacas

Where: 3600 Holly Hill Lane, Loomis

Info: (916) 899-0186

 

Shady Oak Ranch

Where: 19200 Shady Oak Drive, Foresthill

Info: (530) 367-2094

 

Fair Winds Alpacas

Where: 8600 Hastings Lane, Auburn

Info: (530) 823-2820; www.fairwindsalpacas.com

 

Snowy River Alpacas

Where: 1611 Sawmill Road, Colfax

Info: (530) 346-6885; www.snowyriveralpacas.com