A Florida favorite, alpaca fiber is soft and coveted
An adult alpaca stands about 5 feet tall and weighs between 100 and 175 pounds. Their warm and soft fleece is white to light rose, gray and dark fawn, and may have white or black splotches. Oftentimes they have a tuft of forehead hair that has a Three Stooges comedic quality. That hair, along with their large eyes, long necks and broad smiles, makes them striking and showy.
But it’s the soft fleece an alpaca produces that generates excitement. Warm clothing and fashion are associated with alpacas, fiber even softer and more coveted than sheep’s wool, experts insist, accounting for many millions in worldwide product sales.
And alpacas have the entire package, typically shy and gentle, generally well suited for kids. “Alpacas like small children,” says Cyndi Smith, co-owner of STARanch Alpacas, a 10-acre ranch in Alva that overlooks the Caloosahatchee River. It’s about 20 miles east of Fort Myers. Smith says alpacas enjoy following her granddaughter.
STARanch in previous seasons was a little more active, Smith says, and participated in National Alpaca Farm Days, which this year is held on Sept. 24-25. The ranch also offered tours, treks and educational outings. However their children, who were ranch hands, are now off to college. Thus the ranch has scaled back to concentrate on the sale of alpacas and yarn, of which there are 16 different tones that are recognized by the U.S. textile industry.
A descendant of camels, the alpaca resembles and is related to the llama, but is about half the siz e and produces a softer fleece. Plus, alpacas have more facial hair. There are more than 50,000 alpacas in the U.S. and several million worldwide mostly producing a fibrous fleece. There are two breeds: the more common huacaya (wah-KI’-ya) and suri (surrey). The huacaya has dense, fluffy fleece; the suri's more like dreadlocks, as the curls are compact and twisted. The fleece has long been used to make warm clothing. They are hardy animals that survive well in the mountains of South America, where they’ve been domesticated for thousands of years. They are herd animals from Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. Their two-toed feet make them quite agile to trek through high elevation areas from which they originate. Their lifespan averages 20 to 25 years.
Perhaps alpacas' popularity is because they are easy to keep happy, needing basic shelter for protection against the elements, light fencing to keep out predators such as foxes and coyotes (they don’t fence jump), no more than a stall to rest, pasture grass and hay for meals. They also require annual spring shearing, worming and vaccinations. They manage fine on small land parcels, as little as one acre for a small cluster is adequate, farmers say.
Alpaca yarn is spun into clothing items such as sweaters, scarves, gloves, hats, ponchos and blankets. Because the fleece
Alpaca yarn is spun into clothing items such as sweaters, scarves, gloves, hats, ponchos and blankets.
is softer and warmer than wool, and is not itchy, it is that much more prized. STARanch sells huacaya alpacas from $500 to several thousand dollars, Smith says.
Sharon Tondreau co-owns Funny Farm Pet Sitting Services in Bokeelia and has often watched alpacas. She found the experience to be enjoyable and relatively easy, she says. “They were easy to feed and clean up after because they left their droppings in one location,” Tondreau explains. “Each of the three that I watched had their own personality, and although they were all somewhat timid, they were not at all aggressive,” surmising that their shyness was partly because of her unfamiliarity.
Like all animals, alpacas have unique personalities. “They are all very sweet,” adds Smith, smiling as she hand feeds her herd a few tasty treats.
Alpacas hum when they're happy, curious, worried, bored or distressed. Things are always best at lunch.
Alpaca fleece is fun and warm but less itchy than wool. Yarn is produced in such places as the STARanch Alpacas in Alva (above) and is fashioned into scarves (inset) and socks.