With their long necks, shaggy fleeces and pointy ears, alpacas look like they bounded straight off the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.
When they first heard about the animal, Jaedyn Fitzpatrick, 15, of Frederick, said, “I envisioned a unicorn and an emu mixed together.”
As a member of the Alpha Alpaca 4-H Club based in Mount Airy, Fitzpatrick has been working with alpacas for nearly eight years, showing the animals at local fairs and even in costume contests.
“It can be really therapeutic to work with them,” said Fitzpatrick, who is among the scores of Marylanders who have fallen in love with alpacas since their introduction to the state more than 30 years ago. “It really helps you grow, especially at a young age. I wouldn’t be nearly as well rounded today if I hadn’t (worked with) alpacas.”
Alpacas — domesticated camelids that are native to the Central Andes — are smaller than their cousins, llamas, and are known for their timid demeanor and trainability.
“They’re very unique,” said Alexis Barnes, 22, who leads the Kaleidoscope of Projects 4-H Club and leases out alpacas from her Mount Airy farm. “They’re like people. They’ll let you know if they don’t like you and they’ll let you know if they love you.”
Unlike llamas, alpacas are bred for their fiber, which has spawned a multi-billion dollar global industry as the demand for alpaca socks, sweaters, blankets and other items has grown, especially in the U.S.
“It’s lovely fiber,” explained Bonnie Bieber, who serves as secretary of the Maryland Alpaca Breeders Association and runs her own alpaca farm in Middletown, Delaware. “It’s nine times warmer than wool, it’s softer than cashmere, it’s considered a luxury fiber and there’s no end to the things you can do with it.”
On Nov. 12 and 13, MABA hosted the 13th annual Maryland Alpaca and Fleece Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship to showcase more than 70 alpaca-related vendors. While the alpaca industry has had its ups and downs, the community’s appreciation for their wide-eyed, furry friends has remained constant.
“They’re stinking cute,” said Bieber, who bought her first alpaca in 2018 and now owns 23. “Who can’t love that face?”
Alpacas in Maryland
Most of the more than 250,000 registered alpacas in the U.S. are descended from several waves of importations from Peru, Bolivia and Chile in the 1980s and 1990s.
Alpacas’ soft fleeces — which contain hollow fibers perfect for insulation — make the species highly adaptable. Alpacas can be found on farms from Alaska to New Mexico and there are currently 5,661 animals registered in Maryland, according to the Alpaca Owners Association, the 13th most of any state.
MABA was formed in 1996 to serve budding alpaca farms and enthusiasts in the region and initially started the festival as a membership benefit. The organization now holds educational seminars and has created a tight-knit community of breeders and owners.
Joyce Miskovic, 62, a MABA member who runs AlpacaJoy of Maryland in Highland, attended one talk on delivering alpaca babies, known as crias.
“They have a lady who has artificial alpaca uteruses. ...There’s a balloon and they fill up with warm water,” said Miskovic, who credits the seminar with saving several of her crias.
As their popularity grew and breeders sought to increase their herds, female alpacas once commanded prices as high as $70,000. Then the Great Recession hit and the alpaca bubble popped.
“A lot of people dropped out of the market, people stopped breeding and it returned more to fiber,” explained MABA board member Kathy Graziani, 66. “The price has dropped but a lot of people stayed in the industry and there’s still people coming in.”
Even if the breeders’ heyday is over, the festival has continued to grow each year and farms increasingly lease out their animals and host activities such as alpaca yoga and meditation. MABA members who have been in the business for years share tips and help new owners get their feet grounded.
“Especially in the beginning, finding a veterinarian who is familiar with camelids was very, very hard,” said Graziani, whose Flame Pool Alpacas farm is located in Westminster. “We have a couple now that have been dealing with them for 15-20 years, so they’re experienced and they know what to do.”
Building the next generation of alpaca lovers
Rick German, 60, has been in the alpaca industry for more than 25 years after his wife, Lisa, saw a brochure about the animals in a Fuddruckers. The Germans now have 35 alpacas at their Whispering Meadows Alpaca Breeders farm in Mount Airy and Rick hasn’t looked back.
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“They’re very calming,” he said. “You look at them and the eyes just bring you in.”
While German’s two daughters adored the alpacas, he noticed not many other owners were introducing children to the business.
“If you don’t bring the kids up and have them enjoy the animals, the industry’s not going to hold,” said German, who fought for seven years to get alpacas accepted into the Maryland State Fair as show animals after facing pushback from other farms that they were pets, not livestock.
German also founded Frederick County’s first alpaca-specific 4-H club, Alpha Alpacas, that now has more than 30 members and teaches participants how to shear, conduct medical checks and hold demonstrations. 4-H, which stands for “head, heart, hands and health,” is a national youth development organization that facilitates projects across a range of animal and human science fields.
“It’s given me leadership skills,” said Alpha Alpaca member Severin Elbich, 18, of Frederick. “If I hadn’t been in 4-H, I probably wouldn’t be able to talk in front of a crowd, which we do a lot.”
German makes sure any kid that wants to work with an alpaca can, and leases out his animals for just $1 per year. After running the club for almost 20 years, he’s seen the business become intergenerational.
“Some of my kids that were in the club, they [now] have farms and have their own animals,” he said. “They have kids that they’re teaching kids to do 4-H.”