Big Lake couple finds new niche raising alpacas for their fleece

Posted: Thursday, May 02, 2002

ANCHORAGE -- When visiting the Faiks farm, prepare to come nose to nose with an alpaca.

And opportunity.

Jim and Janet Faiks raise the mop-headed, camel-looking critters on 100 acres of steep, waterfront land along Stephan Lake, a few miles south of Big Lake.

Two enormous Great Pyrenees dogs, Rocky and Lily, guard the docile alpacas, who stand in their little corrals and look inquisitively with big doe eyes at a visitor come to see something exotic.

Alpacas tend to be a little shy, but approach one with your hands down at your sides and he'll amble right up and sniff your nose. That's what Prince Charming does. Standing in the drab mud of the spring thaw Monday, the alpaca sported some 10 inches of coffee-colored hair as fine and soft as spider silk. And big buck teeth, except they jut up from his jaw, not down like Bugs Bunny.

Alpacas, the Faiks believe, are a dandy business opportunity for Alaskans. Over the weekend, they began shipping 24 female alpacas to a fellow grower in Oregon, who hopes to sell the animals for up to $13,000 apiece. The beauty is that alpacas, basically a smaller version of the llama, are extremely cheap to raise, eating mostly hay and requiring little vet care or shelter from the Alaska cold. The Faiks figure they spend only about $300 a year per animal, with females able to breed in less than two years.

With economics like that, why doesn't everybody and his brother want to raise alpacas?

''That's what we'd like to know,'' Janet Faiks said. ''We think they should.''

In fact, it's not a get-rich-quick proposition. Farming is farming. It's hard work in tough weather. It's a vacation killer because you've got to stick around the place to care for the herd. That's one reason the Faiks' have decided to roughly halve their herd of 49 alpacas.

Another consideration is that male alpacas don't fetch anything close to the money of baby-making females. And reproduction is slow -- one calf a year.

But alpaca farming can generate some extra money or even a modest living, particularly for someone looking for a lifestyle change, said Chuck Stewart, secretary of the Colorado-based Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association.

''People who buy alpacas are tired of what they're doing. They want to get out of the city, or supplement their retirement,'' he said.

Alpacas, prized for heavy coats good for making everything from socks to suits, are from the high Andes, especially Peru. They generally weren't imported into the United States until the mid-1980s.

Now about 34,000 alpacas live on about 2,400 farms nationwide, including about a dozen in Alaska, Stewart said.

Jim Faiks fits the profile of the typical alpaca farmer. He's had a career as a builder and property manager in Anchorage. Now, increasingly, he likes to farm. He started with llamas in 1978 and later switched to alpacas.

Llamas are more a beast of burden, while alpacas are better at producing white, black, red or grey fleece that in many ways is superior to wool, the Faiks said. Once a year, they shear their hefty-looking animals, revealing their slight frames and almost pencil-thin necks. They sell the fiber to local craftsmen or to an alpaca garment cooperative in Tennessee.

Robert Wells, director of the state Division of Agriculture, says exotic livestock like alpacas could be a good growth industry, particularly in a state with relatively little traditional livestock production like cattle and hogs.

''It's a little Alaska agriculture niche that a lot people don't know about but probably has a lot of potential,'' he said. ''I've never spent a lot of time around alpacas, but I understand they're well-suited to our climate. They don't mind the 20-below stuff. They have relatively low feed costs. And our geographic isolation and cold gives us an advantage in keeping out both animal and plant diseases.''

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