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"Dancers of the Soil"
by Dr Julio Sumar

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Alpaca lifestyles


HOOD RIVER - Standing in the green grass, with Mount Hood's white snowcapped peak on the horizon, it's hard for Marcus and Cathryn Whitman to imagine life any other way: the peace, the quiet - the alpacas.

Like thousands of other Americans, they ditched their former lives for the bucolic experience of raising the easygoing shaggy animals.

A relative of the llama, alpacas originated in South America and were first introduced to the United States in 1984. They were initially popular in the Northwest, primarily among llama farmers wanting to diversify. But the alpaca has since generated a ``Green Acres''-like following among nonagricultural types nationwide looking for a tax-friendly business and lower-stress lifestyle.

``For not knowing what an alpaca was six years ago, it's now everything,'' Cathryn said.

The Whitmans wanted to make a change after weathering a few too many hurricanes working as dive instructors and yacht captains in the U.S. Virgin Islands. At their accountant's suggestion, they looked into farming for the tax breaks.

They picked the alpacas because they ``didn't want to raise something that we had to kill, or that would kill us'' Cathryn said.

Cathryn works for a diving magazine from her home, but Marcus works full-time on the alpaca business. After six years running Good Fortune Farms, they were able to pay off the debt incurred to start it. The Whitmans now have more than 30 alpacas, a shearing business and an alpaca store on their property.

The animals look like a cross between a teddy bear and a llama. Owners say they are easy to care for: Their annual food costs rival those of some dogs and they can fit in the back of an SUV. And, they say, the animals are adorable.

The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association said the animals are an easy entry into an agricultural lifestyle.

Membership in the association spiked after Sept. 11, 2001, when some people opted for a simpler life, and it has continued rising steadily since then. The association now has more than 4,000 members, primarily in Western states. But interest has grown nationwide - the largest presence of alpacas in the nation is in Ohio.

The animals only have one offspring per year. Imports from South America are limited and a national registry used for breeding and lineage tracking are closed to imports, further driving interest in breeding.

The sale of a non-breeding alpaca can be a few hundred dollars, but the high-end breeding stock, with top appearance and lineage, can sell for as much as $100,000, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.

The alpacas' soft fiber, which resembles cashmere, is sold - but the market is small. There is limited demand, and there are no large-scale processing facilities.

``We would never tell anybody it's a get rich quick scheme,'' said Bob Black, who runs Black Acre Alpacas with his wife Val from their home in Beaverton.

Richard Sexton, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Davis, co-authored a study this year that found the pricing of alpacas can be justified because of their fiber's value.

The price of alpacas increased roughly 50 to 80 percent over four years, depending on breed, Sexton's study found. But the market for fiber remains limited.

Alpaca advocates adamantly defend the breed's financial future. Alpaca farming is still news and prices in any livestock industry will change in the long run, said Jerry Miller, spokesman for the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.

``This is not a flash in the pan,'' Miller said. ``This is a long, steady increase over a number of years.''

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