Alpacas de Santa Fe
Once reserved for ancient Inca royalty in the high Andes Mountains of South America, the cashmere-like fleece of the gentle, camel-like animal known as the alpaca is now rapidly gaining worldwide recognition as the most ideal fiber to be found in nature.
Alpaca fiber has many virtues. It is lighter, cleaner and warmer than sheep's wool. It is soft, supple and smooth to the touch. It comes in 22 natural colors, and is easily dyed to any other shade desired. It has a rich natural luster. It is strong and resilient-garments made from it last for years and years. It does not easily tear, stain, pill or produce static. It produces a higher yield than sheep's wool, and is considerably less expensive to produce.
Moreover, alpacas are infinitely less troublesome than sheep. They are clean, safe, quiet, intelligent, friendly and disease-resistant. Their soft, padded feet are gentle on the land, and they can be easily transported in the family van. They make practical pets and fine companions for children, and wonderful 4-H projects. They even have the remarkable trait of leaving their droppings in just a few spots instead of all over the place-and those easily collected droppings can be used as a splendid, low-nitrogen fertilizer.
No wonder the alpaca has virtually replaced sheep in New Zealand, which long has been one of the world's leading wool-producing countries. And although the alpaca industry is just reaching its stride in the United States-the first animals did not arrive here until the 1980s-already a young New Mexico company, Alpacas de Santa Fe, is in the forefront of this burgeoning movement.
Under the direction of Bonnie Samuel and Bill DeBois, Alpacas de Santa Fe, located six miles south of town on Calvin Road off State Route 14, is recognized as one of New Mexico's three main breeders of this species, which first was domesticated some 7,000 years ago by the Incas on the high Andean Plateau and in the soaring mountains of South America. At this point, only about 30,000 alpacas are located in the U.S. But that number is growing very rapidly, and will continue to do so.
More important by far than the quantity of alpacas in this country, however, is the quality. While the quality of alpacas has been dropping in recent times in South America and some other places, the Montana-based Alpaca Registry imposes and maintains the highest standards for the animals here. To prevent the influx of inferior strains of alpacas, every animal in the United States must be registered-and the Registry now is closed to new animals coming in from other parts of the world.
What this means is that the 30,000 purebred alpacas currently in the United States constitute a sufficient breeding pool to ensure that all the new ones born in this country will carry on their superior characteristics. To make sure of this, the Registry does DNA testing on every single animal-"to make sure they are who they are," explains Samuel.
With about 40 to 50 animals on the premises at any given time (the number goes up and down with births, sales and boarders) Alpacas de Santa Fe works with evangelical zeal to promote the advantages of alpaca ownership far and wide. Services offered include herd selection and management, ranch set-up, training, marketing, boarding, workshops, sales, shows-all aspects of the industry. When breeding alpacas, they guarantee a live birth.
In addition, Alpacas de Santa Fe regularly sponsors educational and informational seminars, and on the second Sunday of each month, anyone interested is invited to come to the ranch for a hands-on experience of helping with the chores. Every summer brings a big and growing alpaca show at the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque. And in May 2001 the first annual Santa Fe Alpaca Show took place, at the city's Horse Park.
As Samuel and DeBois see things, alpacas make an excellent investment. The animals do not come cheap-an average male costs about $2,000, and an average female runs about $5,000 at birth and $10,000 at six months of age. Premier sires, however, carry the highest price tags by far. One champion recently sold for $266,000, Samuel recalls, and the norm for first-rate sires is from $30,000 to $50,000. Alpacas de Santa Fe has three top sires.
But once a breeding ranch is established, the returns can be significant. According to an estimate by the Colorado-based Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, a herd that begins with two males and five pregnant females can expect to grow to 126 animals after 10 years. Whether selling the animals or harvesting the fleece, there is money to be made.
Tax advantages also apply, and to safeguard the investment, alpacas are fully insurable.
The marketplace has a strong and growing demand for alpaca fiber, and the saturation point for the fleece is nowhere in sight. According to Samuel, all 30,000 alpacas now in the U.S. could not produce enough fiber to keep a major manufacturer busy for a month. Even with a 39 percent increase in the U.S. herd in one recent year, a long time will pass before the supply of alpacas and alpaca fleece begins to catch up with demand.
As word of this superior fiber spreads, it is increasingly being used in socks, hats, coats, blankets, and garments of all kinds, in addition to the traditional sweater. Hand-weavers love to work with it, and top-scale outlets such as Eddie Bauer's are snapping it up. The going price for alpaca fiber is about $30 to $40 a pound, Samuel says. Waving her hand around her barn after a recent shearing, she adds, "There are 100 sweaters right here!"
New Mexico has a "fantastic climate" for alpacas, Samuel enthuses, but "lack of pasture can be a problem," she admits. But in the clean air, bright sunshine and mountain vistas of Alpacas de Santa Fe, she does not seem overly concerned by that detail. "There were two main reasons why my partner and I got involved with alpacas," she sums up. "One was that it is a tremendous investment. The other was that it's a tremendous lifestyle."
Several excellent Web sites provide more information about alpacas. Among them are firstname.lastname@example.org, www.alpacasdesantafe.com, www.aoba.org and www.alpacaregistry.net. Or call Alpacas de Santa Fe at 505-471-9164.