Adorable and friendly, alpacas are big business in the Commonwealth.
It’s impossible not to smile when you hike with an alpaca. On a blue-sky day, I’m strolling along the edge of a forest with Elkton, a white alpaca, at Double 8 Alpaca & Llama Ranch in Purcellville. We duck under a tree branch in unison, and when I turn to look at him, he smiles back at me—or at least, I think he does.
After bottle-feeding a 10-day-old cria, a baby alpaca, I watched these adorable animals scamper across a meadow, and now, as I lead Elkton on a gorgeous trail in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I find myself falling in love with these doe-eyed camelids.
The first time I saw alpacas grazing on a Virginia farm two decades ago, I thought I’d taken a wrong turn and wound up in South America. These gentle animals arrived in the U.S. from Peru in 1984, with Virginia welcoming its first alpacas in the 1990s. Today there are more than 380 alpaca farms in the Commonwealth.
A Sound Investment?
Maybe you recall the “huggable investment” infomercials on late-night TV in the early 2000s? They promised viewers that breeding alpacas would put them on the path to prosperity. Many people responded, including Doug and Bonnie Kittrell, owners of Double 8.
Turns out the get-rich-quick scheme didn’t exactly pan out. But when the alpaca market crashed in 2008, it was too late—the Kittrells had already become enchanted by these unique animals. At each of the three Virginia alpaca farms I visited—Double 8, Skyfiber Ranch, and Meadowgate Alpacas—the love between the animals and their owners was palpable.
Each farm has a slightly different focus, although breeding, showing, fiber production, and agritourism are common threads. Even when alpaca prices fluctuate or a pandemic rears its ugly head, these farmers exhibit a remarkable ability to adapt to changing market trends and create new ways to make their farms profitable.
When the Kittrells decided to jump into alpaca breeding in 2005, alpacas prices were at an all-time high. “In that early period, there wasn’t a fiber market,” Doug Kittrell explains. “It was all about breeding and selling alpacas.” The couple began by investing in four alpacas, three “very expensive” females and one male, who became the herdsire.
Before long, they’d sold the offspring and recouped their initial investment. By the end of the third year, they had 20 alpacas and the future looked bright. “They’re like potato chips,” Bonnie says. “You can’t have just one.” Unfortunately, the same pattern of rapid herd increases was repeating across the country so, Doug recalls, “all the alpaca farms were ending up with huge numbers and the prices dropped.”
Fleece and Agritourism
Around the same time, the market for alpaca fleece began to grow. A luxurious fiber, alpaca fleece is lighter and warmer than wool and, because it doesn’t contain lanolin, it’s hypoallergenic. Today many alpaca owners breed for fiber, and an animal that produces quality fleece can fetch high prices.
Most farms don’t rely on a single avenue to keep them afloat financially. Doug and Bonnie keep their 32-acre farm in the black through multiple business tiers. One herd comprises show alpacas who compete in categories such as halter, fleece, performance, and walking fleece (where the fleece is evaluated while still on the alpaca). Bonnie says the average selling price for champion show stock is $12-14,000.
The Kittrells also have a fiber herd and selectively breed for fleece color and quality. “A fantastic fiber producer can sell for $2-$4,000 each,” says Bonnie. As part of this business tier, Bonnie harvests the fleece, which is processed into yarn at a mill. Then she sells the yarn or knits it into accessories, all of which are available at her farm store as well as online. “I can make several hats a day,” she says. Socks are also a big seller.
Last but not least is Double 8’s agritourism business. In addition to hiking with alpacas, the Kittrells offer farm visits and wedding packages. Apparently, weddings that feature alpacas are a thing. They also host the local 4-H Club twice a month. “This is their chance to be around animals,” says Doug. The 4-H members learn how to care for the animals and sometimes show them at the Loudoun County Fair.
Skyfiber Ranch: Science is Key
Tucked amid hills in pastoral Fauquier County, Skyfiber Ranch spreads out over 30 acres and is home to 60 alpacas. Owner Aimée Matheny greets me at the gate as two huge dogs bound across the pasture toward us. “These are our alpaca guard dogs,” Matheny explains. “They keep the herd safe from predators.” These ace livestock guardians are Kangal shepherds, a Turkish breed, and members of Skyfiber’s troop of five: Fiona, Seamus, Lyra, Stella, and Sebastian.
Matheny and her husband, Mark Minorik, a technology consultant, moved from Texas to Virginia with their herd of alpacas in 2016. “It’s a better environment for alpacas,” Matheny explains and shudders slightly when she recalls the Texas heat. We sit inside her barn, where chickens come and go and cats sleep peacefully nearby.
Soon Matheny and I are deep in a discussion about genotyping, dominant-recessive genes, histograms, and microns—scientific terms that are important in her breeding program. I madly take notes and ask lots of questions because these concepts are beyond my liberal arts background. Matheny studied biological anthropology and is currently pursuing a master’s certificate in genetics at Stanford University.
“We breed for fleece and conformation,” she explains. Skyfiber’s goal is to produce alpacas that are true blue-black with fleece that lacks any reddish tint. “This year every alpaca born that we bred for true black is true black,” she says proudly.
Science is key. Matheny collects blood samples and sends them to a lab in Canada, where they are tested for color genotyping. “It’s very challenging because the fleece characteristics of blue-black are different,” she says.
Fleece characteristics are paramount when you’re breeding for quality fiber. Matheny shows her top alpacas at competitions across the country and explains that judges look for uniformity of micron, or fiber diameter; uniformity of color; and staple, or fiber, length.
Like other alpaca farmers, Matheny has several revenue streams. Besides showing her alpacas, she sells breeding stock, offers stud services, boards alpacas, and harvests and sells her fiber. “The market is good particularly for blue-black fleece,” she says.
We walk across the pasture to meet a few alpacas, who look up curiously as we approach. “For me there’s something very peaceful about the alpacas,” Matheny says. “I can come out here and sit and listen to them having conversations with each other.” What she’s referring to is the humming sound alpacas make when they’re feeling content. It’s almost like a quiet kazoo.
Alpacas are very earth-friendly, Matheny says. “Because they don’t have hooves, they don’t tear up the ground when they walk.” Alpacas also “trim” the grass when they graze, instead of tearing out roots.
The alpaca business is very show-centric, Matheny says, but she’s hoping to spread the word that these animals are perfect for small farms. She also wants to promote the fiber’s unique characteristics and why it’s “worth the money to buy something made out of alpaca fleece.” SkyfiberRanch.com
Meadowgate Alpacas: A Family Affair
When Nicole and Stephen Phillips made the difficult decision to sell their horses, they didn’t plan to start an alpaca farm. But as Nicole says, “We missed seeing faces in the field.” Living in Ashland at the time, they began visiting alpaca farms and “immediately fell in love with them,” says Nicole.
They bought Cinnamon, a reddish-brown alpaca, and shortly afterwards, Nicole’s mom and sister discovered a 10-acre farm about an hour north of Richmond that was ideal for starting Meadowgate Alpacas. Nicole, Stephen, and their four children moved onto the farm in 2018, and it’s been an adventure ever since.
“We envisioned a farm that the family can participate in,” Nicole explains. The two younger children, Grace and Daniel, help with social media, farmers markets, festivals, and marketing, and attend biannual meetings to discuss business goals, all while enrolled as full-time students at William & Mary.
“The last couple of years have been an evolution,” Nicole says with a smile. The farm started out with an emphasis on breeding, showing, and selling. Eventually, the Phillips’ decided to emphasize alpacas that have a good disposition as well. This would come in handy when they decided to expand the agritourism side of the business and welcome visitors to the farm.
“The industry is shifting that way,” Nicole continues. “It needs to shift. The world is different than it was 10 years ago. People feel the need to go back to basics and have interactions with people and animals.”
When the pandemic hit, the Phillips saw an opportunity to engage with people virtually. They offered free alpaca Zoom visits with frontline workers. “The feedback we got from team leaders was great,” Nicole recalls. They also began welcoming virtual alpaca visits from corporate groups, schoolchildren, families, and individuals. “People were looking for unique ways to break up the monotony,” says Stephen.
Another important branch of their business is alpaca therapy. They bring their alpacas to assisted living communities and schools with special needs students and watch the magic happen. “They come up and touch and pet and hug the alpacas,” says Nicole. “There are a lot of smiles.”
The Phillips don’t charge for the therapy visits. “We believe strongly that there are things in life you shouldn’t have to pay for—like joy,” Nicole says.
In the pasture, I meet their original alpaca, Cinnamon, who’s calm and patient while I give her a hug and Nicole snaps a photo. A sense of serenity seems to surround these noble animals, and as I say goodbye to the Phillips and their alpacas, I can’t help smiling and feeling joy. MeadowgateAlpacas.com
SIDEBAR: A Million Alpacas?
Alpacas became a running theme during actor Johnny Depp’s defamation trial in Fairfax in 2022, when Andrea Diaz of My Pet Alpaca in Lorton turned up among fans at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse with her alpacas, Teddy and Truffle. In homage to Depp, the animals sported pirate hats and pom poms.
“I’ve grown up watching his movies,” she told the Law and Crime network. “So when I heard the trial was in Fairfax, I grabbed the two alpacas, and I just decided to go. I take my alpacas everywhere.” What Diaz didn’t know was that alpacas would be part of the conversation inside the Fairfax County Circuit Court proceedings.
Referring to Depp’s comments about future work with Disney, lawyer Ben Rottenborn, a member of Amber Heard’s team (Depp’s ex-wife), “The fact is, Mr. Depp, if Disney came to you with 300 million dollars and a million alpacas, nothing on this earth would get you to go back and work with Disney on a Pirates of the Caribbean film.”
Depp replied, “That is true, Mr. Rottenborn.”
“I didn’t know about the million alpacas quote,” Diaz noted. “I just went for it. I know he’s seen them twice,” she said, referring to Depp. “And the third time, he said, ‘It’s alpaca day!’”
Peggy Sijswerda, MFA, lives in Virginia Beach and writes about travel, food, and wellness. IfYouSeekAdventure.com; @peggywrites