Alpacas offer both income, pleasure
ELKHORN When Frank Raidl told his golfing buddies that he planned to raise alpacas after retiring, they laughed.
The former Chicago businessman and his wife, Jean, already owned a farm north of the city of Elkhorn and planned on retiring there.
"I had the barns, fields and fences," Raidl said.
And he was looking for an investment opportunity.
Today, Raidl is the one smiling.
The alpacas living on his 40-acre farm nestled along the southern edge of the Kettle Moraine region have brought him joy and a promise of becoming a profitable venture.
By next year, the Sugar Creek Alpacas herd will be established and large enough to become a presence in auction arenas, he said.
Most alpaca breeders are in the business for the long haul. It takes time to build an award-winning herd and earn respect within the industry, Raidl said.
Alpacas also reproduce slowly, with a pregnancy lasting from 11 months to 12 months.
Raidl and partner Earl Paddock started the County H operation in 2004 with four alpacas, three of which were pregnant. The herd since has increased to 15, and seven of the nine females are pregnant.
The partners are confident the alpaca industry will continue to grow and prosper well into the future, Raidl said.
Alpaca hair is as soft as cashmere and warmer, lighter and stronger than wool. Once reserved for Incan royalty, the fleece is coveted by spinners and weavers universally, according to information on the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association Web site. The fleece comes in about 22 basic colors with many variations and blends.
Raidl's herd is guarded and patrolled at all times by two great Pyrenees. The dogs take their job seriously. When the herd made a recent group appearance in the barn, they were accompanied by their guardians.
Among the alpaca herd is gentle Princess Leia and charismatic Luke Skywalker.
Those two are among several named after "Star Wars" characters by Raidl's grandchildren, he said.
On this farm, the alpacas are enjoyed by three generations, which includes five children and seven grandchildren.
"We stepped away from the fast-paced corporate way of life and found alpacas were a great addition to our established rural farm setting," Raidl said.
One of the benefits of raising alpacas is that they require a relatively small amount of acreage and little care, he said.
The initial cost of starting an alpaca farm, however, isn't cheap. The female animals sell for between $12,000 and $25,000.
Proven, top-quality herd sires typically sell for $20,000 to $50,000, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.
A list of alpacas sold at the 2007 National Elite Alpaca Auction shows one alpaca having sold for $125,000, while another one sold for $100,000.
Originally, alpacas were cherished treasures of the ancient Incan civilization and played a central role in that culture.
They roamed the high Andean Plateau and mountains of South America.
But Raidl's herd was born in the United States and has a different take on life, he said.
"They all are sissies," Raidl said. "They don't like to be in the snow."
On Raidl's farm, the animals are sheared in the spring by professionals from New Zealand or Australia, who travel a national circuit to do their jobs.
He sells the fleece to the Alpaca Fiber Corp. of America. The co-op sends it to Peru, where it is made into clothing.
The alpaca industry's goal is to become all-inclusive, including being able to manufacture clothing from American bred alpacas. The numbers of registered alpacas, however, still are too low in America to support the "Made in America" plan.
Currently, the total population of registered alpacas in North America has surpassed 100,000, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.
It will need to increase to 300,000 before America can produce it's own alpaca clothing line, Raidl said.
Meanwhile, the alpacas are a vital part of the Raidl family's everyday life on the farm.
"Ultimately, owning these gentle animals can provide both income and pleasure—all part of the peaceful, enjoyable and rather stress-free lifestyle we have discovered," Raidl said.