PALERMO – Farmer Raini Perry was keeping a close eye on one of her animals, a 3-year-old beige alpaca called Sadie Louise, who was close to delivering her second cria, or lamb.
With 14 other alpacas watching, the soon-to-be-mother was nonchalantly chewing on straw in the shade, further cooled by a portable fan.
Perry said it would be unusual if the alpaca needed any assistance.
“We joke that you need a chair, binoculars and a rope,” she said. “You sit in the chair, tie yourself to it with the rope, and watch with the binoculars.”
In other words, people need to resist the temptation to help an alpaca give birth.
Sure enough, Sadie Louise gave birth – in just 15 minutes – to a 19-pound female cria. “They’re doing great,” Perry said days later.
Perry calls alpacas the perfect animal for Maine: They love the winters, have incredibly hearty dispositions, are easy to care for, and provide a solid return on investment. “What’s not to like?” she said.
Alpacas are native to the Andes Mountains in South America and are prized for their fine, incredibly soft yet durable fiber. They are becoming increasingly popular with part-time farmers who are looking for an investment but not farm chores that take from dawn to dusk.
Perry manages her herd daily but still has a full-time job at the Thayer campus of MaineGeneral Medical Center in Waterville.
“They are nearly the perfect animal, such lovely animals to work with,” Perry said.
As the president of the Maine Alpaca Association, Perry is one of the animals’ greatest advocates. But it is her experience with the gentle creatures that turned her from wanting a few on her farm to breeding and selling them.
At Raini Ridge Farm in Palermo, the alpacas roam the front lawn and can be watched from the kitchen table. They share the farm with Angora rabbits, one llama, several meat goats and a flock of fancy chickens. Two Great Pyrenees dogs guard the alpacas from predators.
Alpacas began appearing in Maine just over a decade ago, and by 2004 there were 35 farms. In just the past three years, that number has tripled. Today, there are more than 100 farms and 1,000 animals.
“This is such a growing industry,” Perry said, citing the ease of management and care of the alpacas as attractive to part-time farmers.
“Three-quarters of the people who get into alpacas have no agricultural experience,” Perry said. “Two-thirds are women and the average age is mid-40s.”
Although most Maine alpaca farmers get into the business to sell and use the fiber, Perry said a high number of retirees get into breeding alpacas as an investment.
“It’s so easy. You buy an alpaca, board it out, breed it and sell off the babies,” she said. “With the first female born, you’ve recouped your original investment.”
Alpacas live to about 15 years of age, she said, and can have a cria each year and a half. Maintenance is minimal, she said. “I spend an average of $150 a year per animal,” Perry said. “They eat hay, grass and a small amount of grain.”
Start-up costs can be hefty, however.
A breeding-stock female can cost between $12,000 and $35,000, Perry said. A breeding-stock male goes for $6,000 to $12,000 and gelded males are $800 to $1,200 each.
With their huge doe-like eyes, one might think alpacas are related to deer, but their closest relative is actually the camel. They do not have hooves; instead, they have pads, like a dog, with toenails.
For Perry, breeding is just one aspect of the business. She also sells the fiber at farmers markets, from her home and at fairs. There are at least 10 Maine mills that will process her raw fiber into yarn.
“Each animal will yield about 7 pounds of fiber each spring,” she said. “That is made into about 35 skeins of yarn and each skein sells in the $10 to $12 range, depending on quality. To take that further, three skeins make a scarf that can be sold for $75.” Perry said the profit clearly is in value-added products.
Every Thursday, Perry loads two of her alpacas into her minivan (“They love it!” she claims) and heads for the Waterville Farmers’ Market. “People love seeing them,” she said. She sets up a portable pen and sells her fibers and products, such as socks, sweaters, scarves and hats.
Perry said there are 23 natural shades of alpaca fiber, from pure white to jet black, and the most sought-after fiber is from the blanket, or back, of the alpaca. “The commercial markets prefer white because that is dyeable,” she said.
Perry sees only growth on the horizon for alpaca farms. “Consumers are becoming more and more educated as to how durable the fibers are,” she said. “Also, people who cannot wear wool can wear alpaca fiber.”
Farmers are learning that anyone can handle an alpaca, and that’s another reason for the industry’s growth. They also thrive in Maine’s winters and on its rocky terrain.
“For me, I just love animals,” Perry said. “This was a way that I could work full time and still farm.”