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Q&A: Raising alpacas, ag tourism
By JONATHAN CRIBBS
BERLIN, Md. (Sept. 30, 2014) — The Taylor farm goes back more than 100 years. The alpacas there go back about three.
Nancy Taylor had been living on the farm — started by her husband’s family — for almost 30 years when an interest in fiber arts and raising animals led her to the alpaca. The alpaca — South American in origin and part of the camel family — is a low-maintenance animal, she said, and it produces a fine fiber.
Most importantly, the price of the animal has dropped dramatically as it’s spread across the country.
Fifteen years ago, you could pay $10,000 to $15,000 for one alpaca. Now, you can pay that much for a package of them, she said.
In three years, Nancy Taylor and her sister-in-law Susan Taylor have built a herd of nearly 20 animals that provides wool and material for a small retail shop called Ocean Breeze Alpacas where the Taylors sell all sorts of alpaca fiber outerwear, yarn and other items.
The alpaca side of the farming operation supports itself, and, in honor of National Alpaca Farm Days founded by the Alpaca Owners Association, the Taylors invited the public to tour their farm last weekend.
The Delmarva Farmer sat down with Nancy Taylor to discuss her farm, her business and Ocean Breeze’s early success in agritourism.
When you got into alpacas, was the goal to create a successful business?
It was kind of a hobby, and we wanted it to be sustainable. I had always been interested in having a shop, and it just evolved from that.
The retail side of it, was that about getting to that break-even point?
It was to bring people onto the farm who had similar interests. It’s still evolving. We’ve only been doing this for three years. Our herd has grown a lot. We started out with seven animals, and, just by coincidence, there wasn’t plan. We had seven animals. We were going to get some fiber. We were going to have our own yarn and knit things, and in three years it’s evolved into having 18 animals and having the shop and making enough money to cover our expenses.
Eventually we’d like to make a profit, but right now we’re still learning and seeing how much time is involved. I work part-time [as an occupational therapist]. My sister-in-law works part-time [as a museum curator].
Why was it important to you to get people onto the farm?
We like to network with other people who are raising animals. We like to show things we’ve made that are for sale, and we like to network with other fiber artists. And, like I said, eventually we would like to make a profit, so the more people who know about us here the better.
What’s been the biggest surprise you didn’t anticipate while starting Ocean Breeze Alpacas?
Probably how easy it was to get a herd of animals. People were really willing to sell. People have been in the business for 20 years, and they’ve come to a point in their lives where they’re ready to sell either because they’re getting older or whatever.
Another thing that we’ve learned: It’s a lot of organization to get them sheared, take care of the fiber, what are we going to do with it. There are a lot of decisions to be made where you have to do it to know.
You knitted before you had alpacas? What do you like specifically about alpaca fur?
The alpaca fur doesn’t have lanolin, so it doesn’t have the allergy factor that wools have. Some alpaca is really softer than other fibers. It’s lighter weight and warmer than wool.
There are higher grades of wool though, and there are higher grades of alpaca. Some of it isn’t that soft. But those higher grades are very, very soft.
The higher grades are really the younger animals. We have a number of older animals, and their fiber tends to get coarser as they age. We have a goal of getting to a finer product eventually.
How do you make money on these animals?
One of the major ways to profit off these animals is to breed them and have the babies, the cria, and sell the crias. You can advertise on the alpaca websites. You can go to shows. The Maryland Alpaca Show is going to be in November this year in Westminster. Hand-knitted items, you really can’t make a profit at that.
People like to come here and look at the hand-made stuff, and they’re willing to pay a little more than you would pay because it’s a hand-made thing, but the hours involved tremendously outweigh the profit, the money that you can charge for something.
So, you guys have met your costs through selling?
No, we haven’t sold any babies. It’s mostly through the shop. It’s not that expensive to take care of these animals. We have our own hay. They’re fed a little bit of grain, which gives them a little bit extra dietary supplements.
How much foot traffic do you guys get?
We’ve had the shop here since we opened in November last fall. We had our best selling during the holidays last year. We haven’t been open very much.
We’re open usually only one weekend a month. The last weekend of the month. Some people have gotten to know us. People at the yarn shop in Berlin will recommend that people come here if someone wants a special item, so, by appointment, we also open the shop. But it’s open the weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas and then one weekend a month.
Do you advertise?
We have a sign out front there, which we don’t have out now because during the tourist season we attracted people and we weren’t really open. We could have had a lot more business, but we just don’t have the time right now to be open all the time.
Last year, on the weekends that we were open we offered a class on Saturday afternoons for learning to knit or learning to dye wool. Within our community of other fiber artists, like, Snow Hill has a fiber festival every year. Networking with those people, networking with the art leagues — that’s how we’ve gotten people here. We put out fliers. We had out our business cards. We keep an email list and we email all those people when we’re going to have an open house or when we’re changing our hours. We have a Facebook page. That’s how we advertise. It works pretty well.
So, if someone was interested in getting into agritourism and doing what you’ve done what are some things you would tell them beforehand?
Be ready to make it like a full-time job if you really want it to be profitable. If you want to take care of your animals, if you want to have a store, if you want to have a business, it’s a full-time job. We could do a lot more, but we just haven’t taken the time to do that.
Do you anticipate taking that time in the future?
I do. It’s a fun thing that I’m really interested in. It’s a hobby. My sister-in-law feels the same. We know we’d have to have our shop open more.
We’d probably have to be licensed and all that. Right now we’re operating as a farm store. We’d have to bring more items in that we purchased wholesale. We’d have to have more stock. And we’d have to breed more.