Cadiz, KY – The alpaca, a cousin to the llama, is the world's oldest domesticated animal. They are most prized for their soft fleece. Ninety-nine percent of the world's alpacas live in South America, but a little less than a two hundred thousand live in the United States, and a handful of those live on a country ranch outside Cadiz, Kentucky. Angela Hatton visited the ranch, where the owners are trying to raise awareness about this exotic livestock.
Kathy Tinkham clutches the fluffy white alpaca's head to her chest. He's about three feet tall at the shoulder, with another foot and a half of neck and big inky black eyes. The animal's a little nervous, but docile enough to allow Tinkham to show off his padded feet and thick fleece.
"They kind of compare alpaca to cashmere, kind of fine cashmere, in the way that it feels, and I have a cashmere sweater and I have to say alpaca's a lot softer than that cashmere sweater I have."
Tinkham and her husband Rick own Red Roof Ranch Alpaca Farm. They started in 2003 with three female alpacas. Their farm has now grown to 35 animals in a dozen different shades of color.
"You get them and then it's like you just I don't know you get addicted. They're just really neat animals to have around. They have this really peaceful quality about them. And they're just serene and they're just neat to be around."
On a windy weekend morning, the Tinkham's have opened their farm to let others experience life with alpacas. The Tinkham's are participating in the third annual National Alpacas Farm Days. It's an idea generated by the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) to increase awareness and educate the public about the animals. Kathy Tinkham says they're an easy livestock to raise because several alpacas fit on small acreage and their feet don't tear up the land live hooves would. They're also a friend to the home gardener.
"Their poop is little beans and it really doesn't have an odor. Now the urine has an odor, but the beans really don't and it's an excellent fertilizer."
But the main reason owners raise alpacas is their fiber. The Tinkhams shear their herd in the spring. They pick out the hay and grass from the fleece, a process called skirting, and send some of it off to a co-op where it's turned into yarn. Tinkham say the rest they take to local mill for spinning.
"So this is all Kentucky-grown alpaca. Natural, organic, no dyes, no chemicals used in the processing."
Tinkham says while the process of turning alpaca fleece into yarn is very close to the method of turning wool into yarn, alpaca doesn't cause an allergic reaction like wool can.
"Alpacas do not produce lanolin and most people who are allergic to wool, it's the lanolin that they're allergic to."
So no more itchy sweaters or socks with alpaca-produced clothing. But if they're such a great species, why aren't there more of them around? Tinkham says in 1984, importers began bringing alpacas into the United States from Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. However, in 1998, the rules changed and no more foreign alpacas could get in. Owners had to rely on the in-country stock.
"In order to have a mass market of alpaca fiber, in order to say mass market or mass produced sweaters and things like that on a much bigger scale, we need more alpacas. So we need more people out there raising alpacas and breeding them and harvesting that fiber."
With a gestation period of eleven and a half months, that process is slow. In Kentucky, there are around 80 alpaca farms, and most are pretty small. The Tinkhams are big advocates for the alpaca farm lifestyle. They spend just a few hours a day maintaining the animals.
"The rest of the time, y'know, you just kinda get to enjoy them."
Maybe it's the bright sky and the quiet landscape, or maybe it's the humming of the alpacas as they graze, but as visitors come and go at this open house, one starts to understand why the Tinkhams are addicted to their animals.