The Alpaca Life Style
by Bill Weaver (and photo)
For a group of domesticated ungulates they sure are cute. Ask anyone who has met one. The tall, gentle, fuzzy critters could have stepped straight out of Sesame Street except for their nervous resentment of strangers. Alpacas are smaller, friendlier cousins to the South American llama and at the heart of a business that combines commercial with personal.
Lilly, the vigilant but friendly German Shepard, runs around the room excitedly as Bill and Guna Schnackel explain how they had decided to raise alpaca in the first place. “We’d seen the ads about the ‘alpaca life style’ on TV,” Bill says in their comfortable, modern, light-filled home. “They looked like interesting animals.
“We went to a show and saw the first animal and I said, ‘Oh, we should buy that animal!’ And Guna kept saying, ‘But where are we going to raise them?’ Then we went to a show in Kentucky and saw the second animal and I said, ‘Oh, she’s such a nice animal, we should have her too.’ and Guna’s saying, ‘Don’t you think we should have a barn, at least, or some land?’ We were living in West Lafayette at the time. Then somebody in Monon had a herd for sale. So we bought those seven plus a llama.”
An administrator for Purdue University’s student housing, Schnackel says of his decision to start an alpaca farm, “The politics of higher ed isn’t as fun as it used to be. I could retire so I thought—Why put up with the aggravation?”
“We always thought of retiring here in Nashville,” Guna adds. “We have family in Indiana and this is as close as we can get to the mountains.”
So the couple bought land overlooking the Salt Creek Valley, called Whispering Pines, and built a house, plus barn, pen, and pasture for their herd. “They’re fairly easy to take care of,” says Guna.
“They eat grass and hay primarily and we give them a supplement,” Bill adds. “We spend 45 minutes on a typical morning, then the same thing in the evening. They are not aggressive. Children can handle them. They’re a curious sort of animal. They’re very alert because they’re always looking out for predators. They’re only means of defense is that they make this screeching sound.
“The kids always say, ‘Will they bite? Will they spit?’ Alpacas have bottom teeth only. Even if they nibble on you it’s not teeth chomping down and typically they spit only at each other.”
Alpacas are known for the very fine fiber that makes up their winter coats. “It’s much cleaner than sheep’s wool,” Guna says, “which has lanolin in it. This is fairly dry. People who are allergic to dyes love alpaca because of all the natural colors.”
“We send our fiber to the Co-op,” Bill adds. “They grade it and send it to a mill in Peru, South America, and turn it into gloves, hats, and sweaters. Right now they’ve got a display of our product at the Visitor’s Bureau in downtown Nashville.”
Raw fiber sells for around $1.75 an ounce, yarn is anywhere from $4.75 to $8. “People say it’s the nicest stuff to knit because it’s so soft. Spinners say it slides through their hands like butter,” Bill adds. “It’s soft, it’s warm, it wears well. A nicely done alpaca sweater is several hundred dollars. It will last forever. It’s not uncommon for people to pass it from generation to generation.”
“The herds in the US are not large enough to sustain a large fiber industry,” Guna continues. “Right now the money is in raising and selling the animals. Alpacas can’t be artificially inseminated. They are an induced ovulater so the mating is what releases the egg. Stud fees are anywhere from $500 to $10,000 for a good bloodline.
“There are people who buy them as an investment and board them somewhere else. Not everybody wants to hug their investment,” Guna laughs.
Learning from previous speculative bubbles in llama, ostrich, and emu, the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association has kept strict control over the importation and breeding of the animals. “If you want a registered alpaca it’s got to be one produced in the country,” Bill says. “That’s one of the differences with llamas. The alpaca people learned from that. They closed importation, started a registry, and maintained the quality of the animals.”
Most importantly to the couple is working with the animals. “We talk about the alpaca life style,” Bill says. “People working outside the home in stressful jobs and then coming home and scooping poop. As you sit out on the deck and watch them frolic it frees the mind. Once people meet up with these animals they fall in love. It’s very stress reducing.”
“Every once in awhile we say, ‘We could be on a cruise!’” Guna laughs. “As one of our neighbors in Chicago said, ‘Boy, you sure like to make work for yourselves!’
“I think hard work is what keeps us young.”
Bill and Guna will be sheering their alpacas at the Exhibition Building of the Brown County fairgrounds on Wednesday, May 14 starting at 9:00 am. They’ll also be at the Brown County Village Market in Nashville starting the first Saturday of June and the Hoosier Hills Fiberarts Fair in Franklin on June 6 and 7. You can visit Whispering Pines Farm by calling (812) 988-7419. Their website is at <www.alpacanation.com/whisperingpines.asp>. Also see the AOBA website at <www.alpacainfo.com>.