It sounds idyllic, especially for an animal lover: Live in a rural area so beautiful that day-trippers visit to take in the scenery. Spend your time caring for gentle, income-producing animals that need little maintenance and are worth more alive than not. (Think about what happens to most cattle, pigs, and chickens.)
In terms of an agricultural career or hobby, alpaca ranching is much easier than, say, raising dairy cows or race horses. But even the easiest animals are work—and it costs time and money to make money.
Connie Betts says about the transition she and her husband, Thomas, made in 2004 from suburban dwellers to owning Casade Alpacas of Oregon, "All the stars aligned":
- The Bettses were able to sell the house in which they had raised their two children and to use the money to buy a rural home with enough property, and the right zoning, for raising farm animals.
- The couple found a buyer for Thomas' 41-foot sailboat, and those funds paid for their first alpacas, which can range in price from a few hundred dollars for a gelded male to more than $10,000 for fertile females or studs with good pedigrees.
- After leaving his Portland job and while preparing their Hood River property, Thomas worked part-time managing a neighbor's alpaca ranch in order to earn some money and gain hands-on experience with alpacas.
- Thomas can handle much of the physical work involved in caring for the alpacas and ranch structures, such as the fences and barns. A trained machinist, he designs and builds his own equipment. (In fact, some restraining ropes and a "pooper" scooper he created are sold by a farm supplier.) On occasion, Thomas works freelance for a local machine shop.
- The Bettses' ranch is within commuting distance of an urban area. Because of that, if they need to re-engage in the traditional workforce, they can do so without having to relocate.
- Connie's job as a technical writer has allowed her to work part-time and from home. When she went full-time in order to offset the costs of buying more land to expand the ranch, she was still able to write from her home office. Working as a full-time employee of a company, she also provides herself and her husband with employer-sponsored group health insurance.
The Alpaca Economy
To live entirely on alpaca-generated earnings typically requires being able to do and produce all things alpaca. "The further you take the fleece along the value chain, the more money you make," Connie explains.
Case in point: An alpaca's fleece is sheared once a year, and that raw fleece is made into "roving," or alpaca fleece that has been washed and carded and prepared for spinning. "If you just sell the raw fiber, you're pretty much breaking even," explains Connie. For instance, an alpaca that produces 10 pounds of raw fiber that is sold at $3 an ounce would generate about $500 in income.
Alpaca owners who can prepare the roving themselves earn more per ounce for their fleece. Owners who can spin the roving into yarn can increase the value again. Those able to take the yarn and weave or knit it into a rug, hat, sweater, blanket, or some other product, make the most money from fleece.
But the greatest profits are often from the sale of alpaca babies, called "crias," and the Bettses say this has been the case for them.The couple also make money from stud fees (the male they named Royal Dutchis a prize winner in high demand) and from boarding animals.Those boarded alpacas are typically owned in full or in part by people who want make money from selling the fleece or crias but who can't or don't want to care for the animals.
Most alpaca ranches provide supplemental income. "You can't just live on alpacas alone," says Thomas. "Raising alpacas is not a get-rich-quick scheme." The Bettses have 50 alpacas, but most of the ranchers they associate with have 20 or less. "If you want to fully replace one of the incomes in your family, you need to do something else to bring in money, for the first several years at least, while the herd is building up," says Connie.
For Thomas and Connie, that "something else" is their yarn shop, Foothills Yarn & Fiber. And because the ranch is featured on the Hood River County Fruit Loop, a 35-mile scenic drive of the region's orchards, wineries, ranches, and forests, Cascade Alpacas of Oregon welcomes a steady stream of tourists. (Tourists and readers might recognize the Bettses—and their alpacas—from their cameo appearance in an American Express commercial that began airing last month.)
Alpaca ranchers also import and sell clothing made from the fiber; others specialize in such skills as shearing, roving, spinning, and weaving. Some owners work as transporters or handlers, bringing alpacas to competitions, and, since alpacas are not artificially inseminated, chaperoning female alpacas to a stud's ranch for a "date."
The Bettses are thrilled by their decision to raise alpacas. They love the rural lifestyle, the serenity of the animals, and the balance of being able to have both a steady income (Connie's) and their own business (which is operated on a daily basis by Thomas). The Bettses also know that because alpacas are so gentle and easy to care for, they are a suitable late-in-life career or hobby.
When asked what's not great about alpacas, Connie and Thomas Betts are silent. They can't think of anything. When prodded, Connie says, "Oh, I know, they can only have one baby a year." But with that one baby, which gestates for 11½ months, alpaca mothers are extremely considerate maternity patients who rarely need medical assistance for deliveries.
"They give birth between 7:30 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon," notes Connie, explaining that in the mountain wilds, alpaca offspring need to be born when there is enough sunlight to dry them before the night's freezing temperatures set in. "We never have to stand around in a cold barn at 3 in the morning."