A Florida fa­vorite, al­paca fiber is soft and cov­eted

RSWLiving - - Departments - BY ANN MARIE O’PHELAN

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.

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