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Can alpacas in Northeast Ohio lead the way to a local, sustainable textile industry?

The "One Year One Outfit" challenge is coming to an end. Participants who embraced the challenge last October were asked to make an outfit of three garments, using only natural fibers and dyes sourced within a 250-mile radius of Cleveland.

The organization sponsoring the challenge, Rust Belt Fibershed, hopes it will encourage a regional network of farmers, textile producers and makers, and energize a local “farm-to-closet” sustainable fashion movement.

In this movement, the alpaca, undoubtedly, would play a starring role.

Ohio has 22,000 registered alpacas, more than any other state in the nation. And Northeast Ohio was where the industry got its start, through the efforts of a now-retired veterinarian named Anthony Stachowski.

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Anthony Stachowski, on his farm in Mantua, Ohio. Stachowski was celebrating his 68th birthday on the day I visited. He was the first farmer in Ohio and one of the first in the United States to breed alpacas. [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]

Stachowski raises alpacas in Mantua. He and partner Mary Reed currently have about 250. At the height of the alpaca craze in the early 2000s, the farm had as many as 800. 

Stachowski started with 50, purchased from the very first herd imported into the U.S. from Peru in 1984.

“So, no private farmer owned alpacas until 1984. And I was the first to buy them from the importer. It was February the seventh,” Stachowski recalled.

He became Ohio’s first large alpaca breeder.

“So, I sold to the likes of Steve Wozniak from Apple computers, Loyal McMillan from Nordstrom department stores and many others that wanted them as exotic pets. Since then, they’ve become domestic livestock and now we sell them to farmers,” said Stachowski.

Jess Boeke was with me on this visit. She and her sister are the founders of Rust Belt Fibershed. She was here to find out what Stachowski and Reed do with the fiber from their alpacas, and was dismayed to find out more than a third of it is thrown away. 

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Alpaca breeder Mary Reed, left, and Jess Boeke, co-founder of Rust Belt Fibershed, discuss alpaca economics at Anthony Stachowski's farm in Mantua, Ohio. [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]

“Well, we don’t have any buyers so we throw it all in the dumpster,” Stachowski said. “And that’s why you guys are here, because otherwise, people come in, they want to buy fiber for very low prices.”

Reed made sounds of protestation as he said this. She sends her best fiber to several mills for processing, and sells yard in a little store at the farm. She had samples of her yarn sitting in boxes on the back of a golf cart to show us.

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Mary Reed sends her finest alpaca fiber to mini-mills to get spun into yarn. The Alpaca Registry recognizes sixteen colors, including several shades of gray and fawn. [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]

Boeke turned to Stachowski.

“Man, that seems so unfortunate. It’s sad to see that happen. It’s such a resource,” she said.

“Is that recent?” I chimed in. “Was there –“

Stachowski interrupted me.

“It’s been around for the last forty years,” he said. “We’ve never had a fiber industry.”

This is true. And the story behind it shows why Jess Boeke’s dream of a local fiber network may be difficult to realize, and why it’s a good time right now to try.  

The national alpaca industry is small. Very small. There are about 250,000 registered alpacas in the U.S., compared to 3.6 million in their native homeland of Peru. There’s also no infrastructure to support the large-scale processing of alpaca fiber. Like most of the fashion industry, the work of textile spinning, weaving and manufacturing has gone overseas.

There are mini-mills that will take small batches of fiber, clean it and spin it into yarn. Mary Reed said it’s labor-intensive. 

“So, we’ve got this challenge in that it’s a very long staple,” she said. “So, you’ve got to have the equipment that can deal with staple lengths of five to seven inches. Sheep’s wool is, what, an inch and a half? You have to deal with a fiber that’s a range of microns, or fineness, if you will. And, alpacas come in more colors than any other livestock. We show them in sixteen colors. They primarily breed for white in Peru because you can dye them in any color. We have to sort and grade, you got the color, you got the length, you got the micron. It becomes very challenging. It’s not like the wool industry.”

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Bags of fiber from Mary Reed's alpacas sit in a wooden storage unit on Anthony Stachowski's farm. Alpacas are shorn at least once a year. Each fleece produces about four pounds of fiber.

“So, how’s Peru done it, then?” I asked, knowing even before I opened my mouth what the answer would be.

“Women sit there and they sort through mounds and mounds and mounds of fiber in the same color all day long for less than a dollar an hour,” said Reed. “That’s how they do it.”

Boeke laughed. “So, this is really a challenge, to bring this to…”

Boeke didn’t need to complete her thought. Reed knew what she meant.

“Yes. Yes. That’s why it’s a cottage industry!” Reed said.

It’s a cottage industry that, in many ways, is still struggling to get off the ground, even after forty years.

Here’s why. The American alpaca industry wasn’t created to sell fiber, it was built around breeding the exotic animal in your own backyard, and selling its adorable, woolly offspring.

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Baby alpacas are called crias. Mary Reed called this one "Baby Baby" until she could come up with an official registry name. [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]

Stachowski said his business model was never based on alpaca fiber.

“My model was that you buy the, the parents, that they produce offspring, and that the offspring, on average, are worth 50 percent of what you paid for your original stock. So, in three years, you’re clean,” he said.

“You know, when they first imported, the importers were asking $10-$12-$15,000 an animal,” added Reed. “And it was like investing in gold or silver. It was an investment.”

By the early 2000s, alpaca females were averaging $70,000 at auction, and males, $30,000. Unlikely people became alpaca farmers: doctors, retirees, even, famously, former Cleveland Mayor Michael White.

Meanwhile, alpacas’ only commodity, its fiber, was selling for $5 a pound.

Richard Sexton, an agricultural economist out of the University of California, Davis, ran the numbers and concluded farmers would need $47 a pound just to cover basic costs.

“It was clear that the value of the fiber wasn’t even commensurate with the cost of feeding and otherwise maintaining the alpaca. So, in economic parlance, they’re worthless.”

Sexton co-authored an article in 2006 stating as much. It was the pin that popped the alpaca industry’s speculative bubble, along with the Great Recession of 2008.

“There were thousands of them for free. That’s how you get rid of them,” remembered Stachowski. “Right now, there’s a price! And the price is $500! For a little male, who’s not going to be a show animal. It’s not zero, anymore.”

Now that prices have come down — way down — alpacas are gaining new fans.

Membership in the Alpaca Owners Association (AOA) is shifting away from retirees looking for an investment opportunity to millennials interested in homesteading, said the AOA’s Executive Director Robin Gifford.

“The demographic is changing rapidly. We have over 200 first-time members since Dec. 1. We’re seeing them more in their 30s, 40s, 50s. I think COVID had a lot to do with it,” Gifford said. “It’s individuals who are saying, ‘You know what, I want something simpler. I want to, I’ve seen what I can do at home.’”

And business is booming for those who process alpaca fiber. Sean Riley’s family owns and operates New England Alpaca Fiber Pool in Massachusetts. Like the name implies, the company pools fiber from hundreds of farms and takes it to commercial mills that turn it into yarn or even hats, socks and sweaters.

Riley says their business has doubled every 18 months since 2013.

“When a lot of people that were in the industry for the wrong reasons were shooken out of it because they were saying, ‘Hey, I can’t sell $50,000 animals.’ When that happened, it was actually the best thing for the fiber aspect of it,” said Riley, “because it forced people in the industry to say, ‘I need to make an income off the fiber I produce to kinda help pay my farm bills.’ So, it was actually a blessing in disguise for us.”

And it may be a blessing in disguise for Rust Belt Fibershed’s Jess Boeke, who still believes, despite Anthony Stachowski’s skepticism, that a bioregional natural fiber network can be restarted here, with alpaca at the center.

“When we think of assets, alpacas are clearly on top of the list for the potential there,” Boeke said. “So, it seems there’s gotta be a way, a concerted effort, something, that can happen that can create a local industry out of this.”

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The "adorable" factor is part of alpacas' appeal. They are also easy to manage; they don't take up a lot of space; their padded feet don't tear up the ground like hooves do; and they poop in one place.  [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]

“Yeah. So, anyway, so I’m glad you’re here!” Stachowski said, by way of concluding our conversation. “Because you may be the missing link. Like the Sasquatch! That kinda brings the actual farmer with the person that is interested in the fiber. And we would love to have people come here and look at our fiber and pay a fair price for it.”

That price may never be $47 a pound. But perhaps, with enough interest, it will be high enough to keep farmers from throwing alpaca fiber into the dumpster. 

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