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A Rural Reinvention

An Oregon ranch is a paradise found for Thomas and Connie Betts—and their alpacas.

People from crowded cities or suburbs often imagine how nice it would be to live in "the country"—to have open space, beautiful views, a bountiful garden, or maybe even farm animals. Six years ago, when Thomas and Connie Betts left their life in a Portland, Ore., suburb behind, they made that dream about country living come true.

Although the couple had an idea of how and where they wanted to live, the key to realizing that dream—which they have achieved as the owners of Cascade Alpacas of Oregon—came entirely by chance. In January 2004, while Thomas was working as an operations manager for the boating retailer West Marine, a customer came into the store and purchased several dozen dock lines. When Thomas asked the man how many boats he had, the customer explained that he was using the rope for his alpacas.

 "What's an alpaca?" Thomas asked.

After relaying to Connie the man's story about alpaca ranching in Hood River, a rural community 70 miles east of Portland in the Cascade Mountain Range, she asked, "Does he make any money doing it?"

"He says he does," replied Thomas.

Intrigued, the Bettses started researching alpacas, which are llama-like farm animals native to the mountains of Peru. They searched the Internet, talked to alpaca owners, and attended a weekend seminar about alpacas. (To see alpacas in action, watch Jane Pauley's interview with Thomas and Connie Betts, above. To learn more about the animals, read "Alpacas Are Awesome.")

After feeling that they had done their homework, Thomas, then 50, and Connie, 51, took the leap. In July, barely six months after becoming aware of alpacas, the Bettses sold the house they had lived in for a dozen years and used the proceeds to buy a 6 ½-acre property and house in Hood River. That investment—and the purchase of seven alpacas, which were paid for by selling Thomas' beloved 41-foot racing sailboat—became a down payment on a new career and lifestyle. By year's end, Thomas quit his job in Portland, and Connie, a technical writer who could work from home, went part-time in hers. (For more about the economics of alpaca ranching and Thomas and Connie's venture read our Reality Check.)

Today, the Bettses' ranch, Cascade Alpacas of Oregon, consists of 50 alpacas, three barns, a yarn shop—called Foothills Yarn & Fiber—and, with the purchase of a neighboring property last year, a total of 15 acres and three houses. Two of those are used as rentals. (To Thomas and Connie's delight, one of those homes is occupied by their son, Reuben, 28, his wife, and their infant daughter; the Bettses' daughter, Sarah, lives in Northern California with her husband and two children.)

"All the stars aligned," Connie says about her own and Thomas' transformation from suburban commuters to ranchers. "Discovering alpacas, finding the property, the way my job was set up. It felt right to do."   

Within six months of the move, Thomas left his Portland job entirely. He now works on the ranch and in the yarn shop full time. To help finance their recent land acquisition, Connie took a full-time, staff job with a former client, although she works almost entirely from home. A typical day on the ranch has the couple awake at 7:30, with Connie at her computer an hour later and Thomas bound for the barn. "We have a great commute," quips Thomas, who spends about two hours ("at the most," he says) checking on the alpacas, cleaning their stalls, and replenishing hay and water. He shares responsibility for the herd's safety with Charlie, a Great Pyrenees, who keeps coyotes and other predators at bay.

On days when the yarn shop is open, Thomas works in it from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Connie has been a knitter for decades, and Thomas now knits, too. Both are skilled weavers. The store sells all types of yarn, including, of course, alpaca yarn. In the evening, Thomas typically spends another 30 minutes, sometimes less, checking on the alpacas, which spend their days and nights moving freely between the barn and the pasture. His and Connie's work days are finished in time for an early dinner.

An irony of the arrangement is that Connie, not Thomas, is the one with experience caring for farm animals, having been raised in California's Orange County "when it actually had dairies and orange and avocado groves," she says.  By comparison, Thomas, a Portland-area native, was a city boy.

The benefits of Thomas and Connie's new life are many: They have absolutely no commute, their grandchildren (ages 3 months to 5 years) can experience farm living, and they literally traded overcast skies for much sunnier days. "There's 50 percent more sunlight here in Hood River than in Portland, which is only an hour away," Thomas points out. Now, after 36 years of marriage, the Bettses have established a lifestyle—and work style—they can maintain as they age.

When or if caring for the animals ever becomes too difficult, the couple can hire help, as they already do for the yarn shop during tourist season and for the alpacas' annual shearing in May. "Shearing is quite a skill," says Connie. "Our fleeces are valuable to us; they're our crop. It would take us years to get good enough not to ruin them." Although Thomas and Connie know how to spin fleece into yarn, they also contract out that task.

The Bettses appreciate their new lifestyle, and they're committed to the work and to their animals. "Our alpacas will live here until they die," explains Connie. "We like to think of our ranch as an alpaca paradise." Although the animals are their business, not their pets, they admit that owning them is fun. When the babies are born, "it's like opening presents on Christmas morning," says Connie, adding, "Alpacas are also relaxing. They're very peaceful animals." Thomas, who works with the alpacas daily, agrees: "They have a calming effect."

Melissa Stanton is the author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-Tested Strategies for Staying Smart, Sane, and Connected While Caring for Your Kids. She is a contributor to the new book Courageous Parents, Confident Kids, to be published this month.