February 22, 2020
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Alpaca farming goes from high-scale pet to practical fiber business

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Ben Cowan co-owner of the Blue Alpaca Ranch in Belfast tempts one of the animals with some food. Cowan and his partner Michele Hutchins own and run the farm and the farm store.

Any Mainer who has visited the Common Ground Country Fair or driven around the state’s countryside knows that the Pine Tree State is blessed with a smattering of long-standing alpaca farms. Over the past few decades, these alpaca farmers in Maine have been able to sustain their living — even as many early adopters have left the industry — by maintaining diverse streams of income around the versatile animal, from fiber products to programs that allows people to “lease” an alpaca and board it at a farm for a fee.

Corry and Robin Pratt, co-owners of Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity and her partner, are such veterans in Maine’s alpaca industry. The couple worked in human relations at Hannaford’s corporate offices before they got their first three alpacas in 2004.

The Pratts started selling alpaca socks out of their garage in 2006 and only made $1,000 in sales their first year. Now, they have stores in Unity, Northport and Ellsworth, and this past year, Pratt said they finally passed the half million in retail sales mark.

Maine’s old guard of alpaca farms have incorporated another aspect to their business models to make sure the industry has legs for generations to come: education and mentorship.

The next generation of alpaca farmers in Maine

As a new generation of alpaca farmers emerges in Maine, they have a network of passionate mentors to help ensure that the charming animals are happy and healthy, but also that alpaca farming has a sustainable future in the Pine Tree State.

Ben Cowan and Michele Hutchins, co-owners of Blue Alpaca Farm in Belfast, are among that new generation. They purchased their first six alpacas six years ago from the Pratts at Northern Solstice Farm. The couples worked together at Hannaford’s corporate offices before the Pratts left to farm full-time.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Michele Hutchins and Ben Cowan co-own the Blue Alpaca Ranch in Belfast, the farm store, and they plan to open another store in Belfast, where they will sell products made from alpaca fiber.

“I went over to the [Northern Solstice] farm first to get some manure and kind of fell in love with them,” Cowan said. “They were our mentor farm. They helped us a lot. The community as a whole has been very welcoming.”

Alpaca manure, Cowan notes, is one of the best around because of the way it bolsters crop growth and the fact that “you don’t feel like you’re working in poop.”

The Pratts are no strangers to teaching. They came from an education background and teach classes in alpaca farming at Northern Solstice Farm. When they sell an alpaca, they are also sure to make sure the farmers are well-informed and supported on their journey. Last summer, Corry Pratt drove over 40 minutes in the middle of the night to help Cowan and Hutchins with a newborn alpaca that was having problems.

“Once we sell an animal to someone, in our hearts it’s still our animal,” Corry Pratt said. “I would always mentor those folks to help with any of their animals, but we also do it for the public at large.”

The Pratts aren’t alone in their mentorship. In Maine, farmers who sell alpacas to new owners will often follow up with them and be on call if anything goes wrong.

“When you buy from somebody you want to buy from somebody who is going to mentor you,” said Red Laliberte, co-owner of Misty Acres Alpaca Farm. “I tell my people [to] call me. There’s no such thing as a dumb question. The dumb quesiton is the one you didn’t ask.”

Laliberte has been raising alpacas in Sidney for nearly 15 years, since he retired from a career in the building business. At one time, he had as many as 120 alpacas on his farm (he’s now down to 74). He said that the number of alpaca farmers has ebbed and flowed over the course of his career, but now it appears to be on the upswing.

“Now, it seems to be growing [among] these younger couples that are going back to the land,” Laliberte said. “I think alpacas are really going to grow a lot faster than they have in the last 25 years.”

The early alpaca industry in Maine

When alpacas were first imported to the United States in 1984, they were considered luxury livestock. That was true in Maine as well.

“[In the late 1990s and early 2000s,] the only people who could afford alpacas were already wealthy people,” said Jill McElderry-Maxwell, owner of Bag End Suri Alpacas of Maine in Pittsfield, who bought her first alpaca in 2007 after apprenticing on an alpaca farm in 2005. “There were alpacas who were selling for a quarter million dollars in the 2000s. They were treated more like a pet than livestock.”

Even in Maine, alpaca farmers were more likely to breed alpacas and bring their animals to shows than to harvest their rich, soft fiber. After the economic crash in 2008, though, that changed. The expensive hobby no longer made sense for struggling families. Anne Gobes, owner of Cape Newagen Alpacas in Southport and president of the Maine Alpaca Association, said the Maine Alpaca Association, which has existed since around 2004, dropped from 57 members to around 30 in 2010.

Pamela Wells | BDN
Pamela Wells | BDN
Photo by Pamela Wells of Oakleaf Studios Corry Pratt of Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity shows Space Cowboy, a prize-winning male alpaca, during the 2009 MAPACA Jubilee.

For the farmers that remained, shows began giving way to selling alpaca products — namely fiber, but also opening their farms up to paying tourists to take advantage of the alpacas’ innate charm and visitors’ desires for authentic, unique Maine experience.

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN | Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN | Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Corry Pratt, co-owner of Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity, as well as the Maine Alpaca Experience shops in Ellsworth, Northport and Unity, demonstrates knitting with alpaca fiber yarn on Jan. 18, 2017, in the spinning and knitting room in her store in Ellsworth.

“Those farms that were here were strictly alpacas for sale,” Gobes said. “[Now] alpaca farmers are diversifying and looking at agritourism, looking at their products and combining [them with] other animals. It’s not solely about selling alpacas but includes a strong focus on alpaca fiber grown in Maine.”

The price of alpacas also began to fall as the novelty wore off and they were no longer a status symbol, which afforded more opportunities for young and new farmers to add them to their herds (though alpacas are still more expensive than other livestock — as a comparison, sheep generally cost a couple hundred dollars apiece, while a single alpaca costs a couple thousand).

“When we started, [alpacas] were $20,000 apiece,” Laliberte said. “It was really hard for the younger people to get into it and stuff. [Now] people can start out with 6, 7 or 8 animals and pay ten to twenty thousand dollars. It’s become more sustainable for the people doing it.”

Over the last decade, Gobes said the number of members has steadily hovered around 30, though she suspects that there are more alpaca owners in the state than members of the Maine Alpaca Association. She wagered that between farm responsibilities and the size of the state, some farmers struggle to convene for the association’s Augusta meetings.

“There are more young people buying and raising alpacas,” Gobes said. “If I had to estimate how many alpaca farmers were in the state of Maine, I’d say there are probably between 50 and 70.”

What’s next for Maine’s alpaca farmers

Alpaca farmers who have seen the highs and lows of alpaca farming over the last decade in Maine believe that the industry will only grow from here. This is in part because the alpaca products continue to be popular, according to both market research from reputable sources like Grandview Research and Future Market Insights, as well as farmers’ experiences, but also because Maine’s new alpaca farmers have great mentors who have taught them how to make the business worthwhile.

“The demand for alpaca fiber has never been stronger; my sales increase every year,” said McElderry-Maxwell. “Farming is not for the faint of heart and it’s not going to make you a fortune, but it’s very possible to make ends meet with your alpacas if you have multiple income streams, are a savvy marketer and can find a market for the end products. ”

 


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