All in the (Camelid) Family

18 Jun

“Girls are scary. Large groups of girls scare the crap out of me.” – Kristen Stewart

I couldn’t agree more with Stewart, except maybe in the case of alpacas.

Jim Grammer, owner of Islay Hill Alpaca Ranch, led me out to the barn beside his house. Besides our chatter about how he and his wife began their ranch and the crunch of the gravel beneath our feet, it was quiet. I’m not sure what I expected. Quiet wasn’t it, though.

We rounded the corner of the barn, and I could see groups of the fuzzy animals staring back at us from their green pastureland. We went inside of the fence, Jim fetched some hay, and the large group of female alpacas gazed at us from a safe distance before a few curious ladies came and told us we smelled weird. Okay, they actually just sniffed us, but I’m pretty sure that’s what they were saying.

Jim Grammer and his wife originally derive from California, where he said they had lived most of their lives. For several great reasons – like the reduced cost of living in Oregon and falling in love with the green lusciousness of this area – the Grammers decided to move to Hillsboro four years ago. Running an alpaca farm, however, has been an occupation they have led for about nine years.

For a while, the Grammers made money by selling members of their herd to other aspiring alpaca ranchers. While he said they made more money this way, the dollars didn’t flow in as regularly as when the Grammers sold alpaca yarn. The alpaca owners felt the economic downturn in 2008 as much as anyone, and as a result, potential ranchers no longer wanted to invest as much to increase their herds. Consequently, the Grammers decided to focus primarily on creating the best kind of alpaca yarn they possibly could.

Breeding is key when it comes to creating a smooth, lustrous yarn, Jim said. In this way, not all alpacas are created equal.

For one, not all alpacas’ fleeces are the same. Some fleeces are more dense, as can be seen by the hair on Venus’s head, pictured below.

Through selective breeding, a rancher can create baby alpacas – or cria – with better and better fleeces.

The color of the alpacas can also determine the softness, as Jim said lighter colors tend to be softer. This isn’t always the case, though, as Jim said they have some black alpacas with some really soft fleeces.

The Grammers also choose to breed particular alpacas to create good luster in their yarn. They strive to achieve artisan-level color schemes that can’t be duplicated through a commercial dying process.

“Having that spread of colors has been our goal,” Jim said.

Currently, Islay Hill yarn is sold at the Tuesday Market in downtown Hillsboro, but the couple plan to expand their business by setting aside a space in their barn to keep a yarn store.

Other changes to the ranch have taken place, as Jim said there have been “selective and intensive upgrades” recently. Changes include improvements to the alpaca’s living area in the barn, as well as updates to the worn fences around the ranch.

Other than dealing with similar parasitic problems that horse owners face, Jim said alpacas are easy to maintain. He keeps a constant supply a hay available, gives shots when needed, assists with cria births (their gestation period is 11 months – so not very often, in other words) and shears the camelids once a year in May.

While he has about 30 alpacas total (and one random llama named Petunia), the shearing process only takes about 10 minutes per animal and yields between 7 to 10 pounds of fiber that sells at $4 an ounce. Jim said the fiber is comparable to cashmere wool in the way it feels against your skin. The benefit to alpaca yarn is that it doesn’t contain lanolin – a water-repellant substance in wool that actually can irritate human skin.

Jim said alpaca ranches in the northwest aren’t uncommon – he estimated there to be at least 50 in Washington County alone. He figures that the ranches are more popular in the Northwest due to a) the prevalence of the small-acreage rural lifestyle, b) the green, well-watered environment, c) the closeness to a large city and d) the amount of well-paid residents who have the free time (as well as the funds) to invest in an alpaca yarn knitting project.

Jim said the ranch is more than happy to give tours. They attract about half a dozen families a year to watch the cute, furry creatures graze and make quiet, humming calls to each other.

You can also find the Grammers each Tuesday in downtown Hillsboro for the summer, selling yarn and spreading the word about the perks of owning an alpaca ranch. That’s where I met him, and I must admit – it looks fun!

Until next time,

LoveByrd

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