Spit Happens: Green Mountain Alpaca Fall Spectacular

It was a brisk yet sunny day at the Champlain Valley Exposition, where about 150 alpaca farmers gathered for the Green Mountain Alpaca Fall Spectacular. It’s a catchy title for a farm show, but with 525 animals present and more than 100 different judging categories, the event lived up to the name. Originally from the South American Andes, alpacas were first imported to this country in 1989. Since then, the industry has expanded rapidly, with about 150,000 alpacas spread around 4,500 farms throughout the United States. While they’re used for meat and fleece in their native land, American alpacas are raised exclusively for their fleece – a soft, lustrous fiber that’s warmer than wool. There are two types of alpacas; Huacayas have fluffy fleece and a teddy bear-like appearance, and Suris – the rarer type – have long, shiny locks with slightly curly hair. The alpacas’ color variation was striking; brown, white, tan, black and even appaloosa animals milled about in their 12 foot by 12 foot cages, munching on straw and, for the most part, humming contentedly. “They’re calm, docile animals with their own unique personalities,” David Proulx, of Breezy Hill Ranch, said. If angered, however, some alpacas will “spit” – a combination of air and foul-smelling stomach acid. Along with his wife, Lisa, Proulx has been raising the animals for three years. Like many people first getting into the business, they began with just a few alpacas. “It was a high initial investment, but they’re fun and easy to raise,” Proulx said. A few cages down, Bill Campbell was waiting to show his prize-winning yearling female, Sophira. Looking quite businesslike with slicked-back hair and a grey blazer, Campbell was happy to talk about his family business. “My mother first heard about alpacas in the Wall Street Journal, and my brother discovered the ‘stress-free’ lifestyle of alpaca farming online,” Campbell said. Annual shearing day, however, is anything but stress free – it’s quite a chore to tie each screaming alpaca to harvest the fleece. It typically sells for around $4 per ounce, though premium fibers can fetch several times that. Campbell has been in business for just over a year, and hasn’t quite broken even financially. Once established, however, alpaca growing can be quite profitable – particularly if you have animals with good genetics. Highly prized traits include consistent body proportions, high fleece density and good luster. Prizewinning females at this show were offered at upwards of $20,000 and people have paid $500,000 for the top-ranked alpacas. Lyne and Norm Limoges, who operate Northern L Pacas in Troy, Vt., first started the event three years ago with two other Vermont alpaca farmers. “We wanted a Vermont show to promote the industry here and give back to the Peruvian people and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Camelid Studies program,” Lyne Limoges said. “People make so much money with alpacas they ought to give back to the source.” Stephen R. Purdy, DVM, director of Camelid Studies at UMass-Amherst, echoed this sentiment. “There’s quite a few millionaires out there,” he said, motioning to the surrounding expanse of alpaca cages. Purdy and his students are involved with the N?noa Project, which funds an orphanage and health clinic in an impoverished Peruvian town of the same name. Purdy’s research focuses on alpaca reproduction and disease control, and offers his expertise to the alpaca farming community. UMass also keeps an alpaca herd; stud services and fleece sales help offset the costs of research and student trips to Peru. With Vermont’s dairy industry facing hard times, alpaca farming is helping provide a means to preserve the state’s rural character. Many farmers looking to keep their property and infrastructure have converted to raising alpacas, as they are easier to raise than horses or cows and require less time investment. At the end of the day, though, Campbell’s comment foreshadowed what might happen to the burgeoning industry. “Anyone who denies that the bottom won’t fall out of the market at some point is na’ve,” he said.