20 questions for alpaca farmers Dave '96 and Sara '97 McElroy

Wherein our alumni tell about their entree into the furry world of the alpaca, how their 5-year-old became a quick study in human reproduction, and what it's like to attend Alpacapalooza

As told to Stacey Wilson '96

You’ve heard the story a hundred times: Boy meets girl at college. Boy and girl get married. Boy and girl move to the suburbs, have a child, and get a couple of dogs. Boy and girl decide to raise a herd of alpacas.

Dave (boy) and Sara Wallace (girl) McElroy met at UPS in 1993, married in 1998, and settled in Maple Valley, Wash. Six years ago, Dave had a comfortable telecom job at Firstline Communications in Bellevue, while Sara, an experienced artist and photographer, stayed busy raising their daughter, Madelynn, who was born in 2000.

Despite their cozy bliss, Dave says that he wanted more control over his destiny. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial itch,” he says. “It’s gotten me in trouble before. I spend most of my life daydreaming because I despise the idea of working for someone else’s dream.”

Cue the alpaca, that cuddly South American cousin to the llama that many in Washington state, like the McElroys, are raising for fun and finance.

Raising alpacas isn’t exactly a common ambition. How did you get the idea?
Sara: The idea actually hit Dave before me. In fall of 2003, he entered a contest on a Web site to “Win a Free Alpaca” and out of 450 entries, he won! This all happened, of course, without me knowing, until I opened up the mail two days before Christmas and discovered the papers for our new family addition. After I cooled down a bit, we started visiting farms and going to seminars to learn about the industry. I am a sucker for animals, so it didn’t take me very long to get sold on the idea.

Had you been looking to start a side business?
Dave: One day at work I was reading an article in The Seattle Times about Alpacas de Patagonia, a large farm on Camano Island north of Seattle. I read about the millions of dollars this couple had generated in sales of alpacas each year and how alpacas are “easy-keepers.” I was sold. I ripped the section out of the paper and stood up in front of my co-workers and said “This is it. I am going to be an alpaca farmer!”

How many hours a week do you spend taking care of them?
Dave: Our alpacas are “agisted,” or housed, at other farms because we don’t have our own yet, so we spend a few voluntary hours a week taking care of them. It costs about $1-$3 per day for feeding and routine maintenance of the animals. We enjoy training and interacting with the alpacas every week and helping out at the farms when we can, giving shots, clipping toenails, shearing their fleece, and planning breeding schedules.

Sara: Alpacas are low maintenance. They eat grass, hay, and a grain supplement (only for the females). They don’t destroy the roots and their feet don’t tear up the grass like horses, so the pasture requires minimal maintenance. Alpacas are hearty animals from the upper Andes Mountains in South America, so they require little to no shelter. Their fleece protects them from the rain and cold temperatures. Most ranchers offer three-sided shelters to shield wind and rain, especially for the crias (babies).

Are there lots of, um, alpaca patties to clean up?
Sara: Alpacas tend to relieve themselves in the same spot as their herd. This means that there are only a couple locations where daily scooping of pellets is necessary.

Who delivers the babies?
Dave: Alpacas are very easy birthers. They typically have their babies with no human intervention. However, any owner should be prepared to assist with a troubled birth and prep the babies, draw blood, etc. Depending on where you live, alpacas should be preventively treated for parasites (shots or oral) about every 3 months.

How long do they live?
Dave: Usually 15-20 years.

Llamas are notorious for spitting. Do alpacas spit, too?
Dave: Any camelid spits as part of its communication. But alpacas are much nicer and more civilized than their larger and uglier relatives, the llama and camel. When you meet a herd of alpacas for the first time it is unlikely that you will be spit upon.

Whew! That’s good. How many do you have right now?
Sara: We have four that are boarded at three different farms. We have Packer, the male that Dave won; two pregnant females named Lulu and Louelyn, and our baby male, Vanuatu. His name means “Islands of Fire,” which we chose in honor of the latest activity at Mt. St. Helens and our fixation with the TV show “Survivor.”

So how does someone make money raising alpacas?
Sara: Alpacas are fleece animals, but the primary income comes from breeding and selling the animals.

What is their fleece like?
Sara: Alpaca fleece is much finer than wool, sort of cashmere-like. It wicks moisture away from the skin, holds heat even when wet, and is less scratchy and allergenic than wool. The market is primarily international, but it is growing rapidly within the U.S. The key is focusing on the genetics in your breeding program to maintain the fine traits of the fleece. Alpaca fleece sells for $2-$3 per ounce.

Dave: Alpacas come in 84 color variations from black to white, brown to silver, grayish lavender to multicolored or spotted, and everything in between. For the market of non-dyed or altered natural fiber, alpaca offers beautiful and luxurious clothes and other end-use products. That being said, alpaca is not really in mainstream clothes right now. It is found in high-end international fashions and specialty clothes.

How much do they sell for individually?
Sara: Prices range from $500 (gelded male) up to $100,000 for a prize-winning herdsire. Price depends on the genetic bloodlines. But there is a wide array of alpaca breeders: small farms that just want to raise a few animals and don’t have much of a breed standard, serious business-minded farmers who have specific breeding goals, and wealthy/retired individuals who like to raise exotic animals and are willing to spend any amount on a prize-winning male from notable bloodlines.

Are you part of the alpaca social scene?
Sara: Somewhat. We go to a few shows. The main event in Washington is in April: “Alpacapalooza: Two Days of Peace, Love, and Livestock.” I typically set up a booth to display my artwork there. And we plan on showing some of our animals at some point.

What is your ultimate goal? Do you want to raise them full-time?
Dave: Sara and I want the lifestyle of living on a farm. We want to raise our kids on a farm playing with animals and with room to roam. I would love to raise alpacas full-time. My goal is to have a herd of at least 20 production females and about 5 premier studs. It depends on the market and the speed at which we can ramp the numbers up. But a large part of our goal is that our family will have a lot of fun raising alpacas.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened in this endeavor?
Sara: When Dave’s sister Lisa came over for dinner one evening, she told us that she was pregnant. Since our daughter has spent her childhood surrounded by animals, she has learned a lot about the “birds and the bees.” She asked me, with the most serious look on her face, “So, who is Lisa bred to … Eric?”

Learn more about the McElroys’ life with alpacas at www.alpacanation.com/alpacatreasures.asp.