The “One Year One Outfit” challenge is coming to an end. Participants who took on the challenge last October were asked to make a three-piece outfit, using only natural fibers and dyes sourced from a 250-mile radius of Cleveland.
The organization sponsoring the challenge, Rust Belt Fibershed, hopes it will encourage a regional network of farmers, producers and textile manufacturers and energize a local sustainable fashion movement “from farm to closet.”
In this movement, the alpaca would undoubtedly play a leading role.
Ohio has 22,000 registered alpacas, more than any other state in the country. And it was in northeast Ohio that the industry got its start, thanks to the efforts of a now-retired veterinarian named Anthony Stachowski.
Anthony Stachowski, on his farm in Mantua, Ohio. Stachowski was celebrating his 68th birthday the day I visited. He was the first farmer in Ohio and one of the first in the United States to raise alpacas. [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]
Stachowski breeds alpacas in Mantua. He and his partner Mary Reed currently have around 250. At the height of the alpaca craze in the early 2000s, the farm had as many as 800.
Stachowski started with 50, bought from the very first herd imported from Peru to the United States in 1984.
“So no private farmer owned alpacas until 1984. And I was the first to buy them from the importer. It was February 7, ”Stachowski remembers.
He became the first major alpaca breeder in Ohio.
“So I sold people like Steve Wozniak Apple computers, Loyal McMillan from Nordstrom department stores and many others who wanted them as exotic pets. Since then they have become domestic livestock and now we are selling them to farmers, ”Stachowski said.
Jess Boeke was with me on this visit. She and her sister are the founders of Rust Belt Fibershed. She was here to find out what Stachowski and Reed are doing with the fiber of their alpacas, and was dismayed to learn that more than a third of it is thrown away.
Alpaca breeder Mary Reed, left, and Rust Belt Fibershed co-founder Jess Boeke discuss the alpaca economy at Anthony Stachowski’s farm in Mantua, Ohio. [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]
“Well, we don’t have buyers, so we throw everything in the trash,” Stachowski said. “And that’s why you’re here, because otherwise people come in, they want to buy fiber at really low prices. “
Reed made sounds of protest as he said this. She sends her best fiber to several processing plants and sells her garden in a small store on the farm. She had samples of her yarn sitting in boxes in the back of a golf cart to show us.
Mary Reed sends her finest alpaca fiber to mini factories for spinning. The Alpaca Registry recognizes sixteen colors, including several shades of gray and fawn. [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]
Boeke turned to Stachowski.
“Dude, that sounds so unfortunate. It’s sad to see this happen. It’s such a resource, ”she said.
“Is it recent? I rang. “Was he -“
Stachowski interrupted me.
“It’s been around for forty years,” he says. “We never had a fiber industry.
It’s true. And the story behind it shows why Jess Boeke’s dream of a fiber local area network can be hard to achieve, and why now is a good time to give it a try right now.
The national alpaca industry is small. Very small. There are approximately 250,000 registered alpacas in the United States, compared to 3.6 million in their native Peru. There is also no infrastructure to support large-scale processing of alpaca fiber. Like most of the fashion industry, the work of spinning, weaving and textile manufacturing went overseas.
There are mini factories that take small batches of fiber, clean it, and spun it into yarn. Mary Reed said it takes a lot of work.
“So we have this challenge in that it’s a very long staple,” she said. “So you have to have the equipment that can handle staple lengths of five to seven inches. Sheep wool is, what, an inch and a half? You have to deal with a fiber of a micron range, or fineness, if you will. And, alpacas come in more colors than any other livestock. We show them in sixteen colors. They mainly breed for white in Peru as you can dye them in any color. We have to sort and calibrate, you have the color, you have the length, you have the micron. It becomes very difficult. It’s not like the wool industry.
Bags of fiber from Mary Reed’s alpacas are in a wooden storage unit at Anthony Stachowski’s farm. Alpacas are mowed at least once a year. Each fleece produces about four pounds of fiber.
“So how did Peru do it? I asked, knowing even before I opened my mouth what the answer would be.
“The women sit there and they sort mounds and mounds and mounds of the same colored fibers all day long for less than a dollar an hour,” Reed said. “This is how they do it.”
Boeke laughed. “So it’s really a challenge to bring that to …”
Boeke didn’t need to finish his thought. Reed knew what she meant.
“Yes. Yes. That’s why it’s a cottage industry!” Said Reed.
It is a cottage industry that in many ways is still struggling to take off, even after forty years.
Here’s why. The American alpaca industry was not created to sell fiber, it was built around raising the exotic animal in your own backyard and selling its adorable woolly offspring. .
Baby alpacas are called crias. Mary Reed called this one “Baby Baby” until she could come up with an official registry name. [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]
Stachowski said his business model was never based on alpaca fiber.
“My model was that you buy the parents, they produce offspring, and the offspring is on average worth 50% of what you paid for your original stock. So in three years you are clean, ”he said.
“You know, when they first imported, importers were asking $ 10 to $ 12 to $ 15,000 per animal,” Reed added. “And it was like investing in gold or silver. It was an investment. “
In the early 2000s, female alpacas were selling for an average of $ 70,000 at auction and males for $ 30,000. Unlikely people have become alpaca ranchers: doctors, retirees and even, notoriously, former Cleveland Mayor Michael White.
Meanwhile, the alpacas’ only staple, its fiber, was selling for $ 5 a pound.
Richard Sexton, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis, analyzed the numbers and concluded that farmers would need $ 47 a pound just to cover basic costs.
“It was clear that the value of the fiber was not even proportional to the cost of feeding and maintaining the alpaca. So, in economic jargon, they are worthless.
Sexton co-wrote an article in 2006 stating as much. This is the pin that burst the speculative bubble in the alpaca industry, with the Great Recession of 2008.
“There were thousands of them for free. That’s how we get rid of it, ”Stachowski remembers. “Right now, there is a prize! And the price is $ 500! For a small male, who will not be a show animal. It is no longer zero.
Now that the prices have come down – very low – alpacas are gaining new fans.
Membership in the Alpaca Owners Association (AOA) moves from retirees looking for an investment opportunity to millennials interested in family ownership, said Robin Gifford, executive director of AOA.
“Demographics are changing rapidly. We have over 200 new members since December 1st. We see them more in their thirties, forties, fifties. I think COVID has a lot to do with it, ”Gifford said. “These are people who say, ‘You know what, I want something simpler. I want, I saw what I can do at home.
And business is booming for those who process alpaca fiber. Sean Riley’s family owns and operates New England Alpaca Fiber Pool in Massachusetts. As the name suggests, the company pools fiber from hundreds of farms and takes it to commercial factories who turn it into yarn or even hats, socks and sweaters.
Riley says their business has doubled every 18 months since 2013.
“When a lot of people who were working in the industry for the wrong reasons got rocked because they said, ‘Hey, I can’t sell $ 50,000 worth of animals. “When that happened it was actually the best thing for the fiber aspect,” said Riley, “because it forced people in the industry to say,” I have to make some income from the fiber. that I produce to help pay my farm … bills. ‘ So that was actually a blessing in disguise for us.
And that can be a blessing in disguise for Rust Belt Fibershed’s Jess Boeke, who still believes, despite Anthony Stachowski’s skepticism, that a bioregional natural fiber network can be restarted here, with the alpaca at the center.
“When we think of assets, alpacas are clearly at the top of the list for the potential there,” Boeke said. “So it looks like there has to be a way, a concerted effort, something that can happen that can create a local industry out of that. “
The “adorable” factor is part of the allure of alpacas. They are also easy to manage; they don’t take up much space; their padded feet don’t tear the floor like clogs do; and they poop in the same place. [Amy Eddings / Ideastream Public Media]
“Yes. Anyway, I’m glad you’re here!” Stachowski said, concluding our conversation. “Because you might be the missing link. Like the Sasquatch! It kind of brings the real farmer up with it. the person who cares about fiber. And we would love to have people come here and look at our fiber and pay a fair price for it. “
That price may never be $ 47 a pound. But maybe, with enough interest, it will be high enough to prevent farmers from throwing alpaca fiber into the dumpster.