|By LINDA McGURK
LEBANON, Ind. — Five years ago, Kurt Honey was a supervisor at a Target distribution center in Indianapolis, managing 40 employees and moving up the corporate ladder.
But something was missing. His career was unfulfilling and Honey longed for the country lifestyle he knew from his childhood.
He was looking for a way to make some extra money and break free from corporate life, when one night he saw a 30-second television commercial about alpacas - the softer, gentler and smaller cousin of the South American llama.
After a year of research, Honey bought six animals and an 1880s farmhouse near Lebanon, laying the foundation to what would become Honey’s Alpaca Ranch, which he now runs together with his girlfriend, Heide Johnson.
“Originally, my thought process was that it would give me some extra income and then I’d see how things go. But once Heide got involved, we decided we wanted to do it full-time,” Honey explained.
While Johnson works from home as a massage therapist and manages the daily chores on the farm, Honey still works full-time at Target. But in order to devote more time to the farm and be more flexible with his hours, he asked for a demotion and is now an hourly employee in the store.
Honey and Johnson are not alone in their endeavor.
According to the Alpaca Registry, Inc., there are currently more than 90,000 registered alpacas in the United States and the number of registered animals per year has increased from 597 in 1986, when the registry started collecting statistics, to 16,182 last year.
Alpacas are best known for their exceptionally soft, high-quality fleece, which is lighter and warmer than sheep’s wool and considered a luxury fiber by the fashion industry.
The fiber can fetch anything from 50 cents per pound for the lowest-quality fleece to more than $40 per pound for baby-quality fiber with low micron count, according to the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America.
An alpaca produces 5-10 pounds of fleece per year, and Honey said the $10-$12 per pound he currently receives for the fleece only roughly covers the cost of caring for the animals. Breeding and selling alpacas is where the money is.
An average breeding-age female can sell for $10,000-$20,000, although some of the better females in the country have sold for $70,000-$90,000.
A fiber-producing gelding can be bought for less than $1,000, while the sky seems to be the limit for some of the top-breeding males, which are sometimes auctioned off for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Some argue the prices aren’t warranted and that the alpaca trend is just another agricultural bubble, doomed to burst when higher prices for the fiber fail to materialize.
Honey and Johnson, however, say that a larger U.S. herd and a conscious breeding program will make the industry viable in the long term.
“It’s all about the fiber,” said Johnson.
Honey added, “The more fiber that’s produced at a consistently higher quality, the better it is. Some buyers, like the high-end fashion industry, want to buy large amounts (of fleece), but right now they can’t get enough high quality.”
Another way of making the alpaca lifestyle profitable is to diversify. In addition to breeding and selling alpacas and raw fleece, the couple works as contract shearers in the spring and sell value-added alpaca products like socks and sweaters.
In commercials and on the Internet, alpacas are touted as cuddly, low-maintenance farm animals that offer a great investment for people who want to get away from a stressful life in the city but don’t own a lot of acreage. But even though the average alpaca farm is less than 10 acres, Honey said alpacas aren’t just for city dwellers turned hobby farmers.
“When I first started it seemed like the majority of the breeders were college educated and didn’t a have farming background, but I think that’s changing some,” Honey said.
“We’ve sold some alpacas to a family in southern Indiana that farms 5,000 acres. The way I see it, it’s an opportunity to diversify.”
The couple encourages others to join the industry, but emphasizes that alpaca farming is not something to rush into because the animals “look cool.”
“I think people are sometimes misled to think alpacas are pets that lie in bed with you,” said Johnson. “But they’re not like cats or dogs, they’re livestock.”
Honey and Johnson currently keep about 25 animals on five acres, but plan to add a couple breeding animals as part of their quest to become one of the top breeders in the area.
They’ve sought advice from an alpaca consultant and are working on putting together a business plan that hopefully will take their farm to “the next level.” And if they get their way, neither of them will go back to the corporate lifestyle.
“I like the flexibility and the freedom ... not having a boss breathing down my neck and telling me what to do,” said Johnson.
This farm news was published in the Nov. 22, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.