Alpaca: The Green Sheep?

TreeHugger has featured alpaca mittens, and alpaca pillows, but what is an alpaca? Why should you care? Is the alpaca the sheep for the green millennium? I take a quick peak behind the scenes and find a surprising mix of possibilities, dangerous investment schemes and international intrigue.Alpaca biology is green
Alpacas are camelids. That's right, like a camel, but much softer and smaller. The alpaca wikipedia article is extensive, but for our concerns their biology is unique and interestingly green for several reasons.

1) Alpacas are tough. Camelids appear to have an advantage in rather harsh conditions, say deserts or high mountain plains. Basically, the camelids thrive where most animals pack up and leave for greener pastures-literally. This enables the Peruvian alpaca ranchers to let the alpacas graze where no other animals would even hang out. The alpaca's adaptive strategies for living in harsh conditions give them a light eco-footprint.

2) Alpacas don't over-eat. When presented with mounds of food, a cow will eat itself to death- really. But alpacas are always watching their slim figure and stop eating when they are full. This makes them undeniably easier to raise and manage. By conserving food, alpacas are high-efficiency on four legs.

3) Alpacas are organized. When alpacas go to the bathroom they do it together- they all get in line and wait their turn to make a deposit. They even graze away from their waste pile. This makes the poop pile easy to clean up, and provides a readily organized supply of organic matter for fertilizer, or biofuel.

Alpaca fleece is fantastic
Their fleece is lighter, warmer, and feels softer then wool. Through their evolution in a harsh climate they have developed a fleece that does not retain water, protects against the sun, and keeps you warm on chilly winter nights. These inherent features of the fiber are difficult to replicate through a synthetic process, and just as wool has found increasing use in sustainable ideas, Alpaca wool could be the next step. The concept of using less material for more functionality appeals to just about every aspect of green design.

The great alpaca market bubble (burst soon to arrive)
But, there is a danger looming on the horizon. The U.S. alpaca market is a bubble. A report released last year from the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis (PDF), explains why the $25,000 to $100,000's an animal in the U.S. won't last. In Peru, where they are from, alpacas typically can fetch only around $100. Exporting alpacas is illegal in Peru, the animal is a national symbol and a valuable commodity. The price difference has even spawned nefarious smugglers who moves alpacas into Bolivia or Chile for sale to the U.S. But why such a large difference in value? Well, you can read the report, but to summarize: The U.S. market is focused on breeding alpacas, not on fiber production. The actual value of the animal ultimately is based on what people will pay for it- or its services. The alpaca's only real economic service is to provide fleece (or more alpacas). With global alpaca production of fleece far outstripping demand there is no need for more fiber production locally. Spurious people promote alpaca breeding as a quick way to make money, but eventually people will realize that nobody will want to buy more alpacas and the price per animal will plummet.

The plummeting price might bring quality alpaca goods to your neck of the woods, but it is also a disaster for the poor U.S. alpacas and their farmers. The economics of raising an alpaca in the U.S. for profit on fiber alone is depressing. It is extremely difficult to make money, especially as Peru and other international fiber producing countries could readily supply any demand for the product. On this note, it might be wise for existing or future alpaca ranchers to think about adopting organic and sustainable practices now. Creating a niche market for local grown sustainable products might be the best way to weather the coming storm.

For more information about buying alpaca goods consider the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America (AFCNA). Also, AlpacaNation has a nice retail section for alpaca goods.

In the end, alpacas have made it through tough times before, and there is no doubt alpacas and the people who love them will continue to prosper. Developing green technologies and thinking of the alpaca the next time you are shopping for a sweater might just go a little way to resolving the plight of the green sheep- the alpaca. ::AFCNA ::alpaca:wikipedia