But by 2008, the boom had all but gone bust, as increasing supply, coupled with the economic crisis, pushed the industry off a cliff. Ranches closed, and rescue organizations sprang up across the nation to deal with the neglected beasts.
“It was a speculative thing,” explains Faith Perkins, who has been raising alpacas in Salem, New York, for 17 years. “These animals were new to the country, and there weren’t very many of them.” The people who’d jumped on the bandwagon (Jeb Bush among them) were relying on what Colorado alpaca rancher Mike McDermott describes as “the horse-industry model: raise the animal, show the animal, get a good ribbon for the animal, and sell the animal based on that ribbon.”
Lost in this show-pony scenario, however, was the then-exotic alpaca’s most prized attribute: its soft and luxurious fiber. Alpaca fleece is practically water-repellent and, unlike sheep’s wool, lanolin-free and therefore hypoallergenic. “Now the animals are finally getting into a more realistic range for people who want to make money farming them for fiber,” McDermott says of prices that have dropped by as much as two-thirds. Mike Safley, the Hillsboro, Oregon, breeder who helped create the U.S. alpaca registry in 1989, warns that the get-rich-quick days are over. “It’s a full-time job,” he says. Safley estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of U.S. alpaca farmers currently make a profit. But as a true market for alpaca fiber begins to take root in this country, the opportunities are only growing.
And really, who could resist these guys? Alpacas go beyond adorable – they grow to about half the size of a llama and can be white, black, brown, or any shade in between. They don’t bite or butt, and are free of sharp teeth, horns, hooves, and claws. “They’re quite docile and easy to work with,” says Perkins of her herd of 23. They also make fine groundskeepers: Alpacas’ feet have soft pads, which won’t churn up the earth the way hard cow hooves do. And instead of pulling grass out by the root, the camelids nibble off the top of the plant. Essentially litter-box animals, they establish a few communal spots for their poop – which yields killer compost. Because alpacas have three-compartment stomachs, their dung gets a head start on processing. Safley sells the stuff to organic farmers, who “rave about it in terms of its nutritional value for vegetables.” (Still, we cannot tell a lie: Alpacas spit. Mostly at each other, it’s true, but an owner can get caught in the crossfire.)