WILEYVILLE - Alpacas first came to the United States 15-20 years ago. Since that time the smaller llama-like animals have become big business. None can be imported now. They are a high-fashion industry and getting more popular.
Two years ago, John and Nikki Miller decided to convert the family cattle farm, outside Wileyville, into an alpaca farm. Tangled Oaks Alpacas has now grown to a herd of 37. It is one of only 23 Alpaca Owners and Ranchers Association registered alpaca farms in the state.
Citing the difficulty in raising cattle and the fact horses are considered a "hobby" animal in West Virginia, "we decided on alpacas," Nikki Miller said. "We were on vacation when we bought our first alpaca. Then we got a few partners and were able to start breeding."
Miller noted raising alpacas is big business in Ohio. They have business dealings with several farms in the state. She also listed Colorado, Vermont and Connecticut as big alpaca states.
"Alpacas are considered exotics," she explained. "They require a good bit of care. The fleece is the main concern. It's all about quantity and quality. That's what we breed for."
"Because their fleece is so thick we must supplement their feed with vitamins A and D because the sun can't get to their skin."
Miller pointed out animals in her herd have their origin in Peru, Bolivia, and Chili. They have high quality fleece but not the highest grade. The animals themselves sell for high prices depending on the quantity and quality of the fleece. Llamas, she explained, are much larger and have course hair.
"The highest selling male last year went for $675,000," she said. "The sky's the limit if you can breed for it. In the alpaca industry the key is the genetics. The animals must mate. There is no artificial insemination. You keep trying to breed up to the next level. My goal is to get one worth $675,000."
Each animal is registered by its DNA. Each year blood must be drawn, by a vet, who fills out a DNA card. The DNA must be verified before the animals mate.
"It helps to keep the industry clean," she explained. "It's a good thing."
She said, "fleece from an alpaca is softer than cashmere. It wears much better, and does not require special care. You can wash it with baby shampoo. Socks, made from the fleece, can be thrown right into the washing machine."
"It is a renewable resource," Miller continued. "Every year they give you a new crop of fleece. You keep trying to upgrade and you keep trying until you get what you want. In addition to quantity and quality I'm trying for color. I want gray fleece, but most imported animals were white so it's a little hard. People in this country want more colors than just white."
The Millers are co-owners of alpacas which have won prizes in alpaca shows all over the country. The farm is a "family affair" Nikki said. "It grew out of disaster, the death of our son in 2004. He was to have inherited the farm and we had planned to retire. Now everyone pitches in. We have two barns and pens now but plan to expand as we can."
The original barbed wire cattle fences and posts all had to be taken down and replaced with high wire fences. Two herd dogs also reside within the fences.
"The fences aren't to keep the alpaca in" she explained, "but to keep predators like coyotes out. The dogs are very protective. They stay awake all night to guard the girls. They get very attached. They don't even like it when the females are being sheared because they hear them squealing."
Alpaca don't eat much, just a cup of grain and a small amount of hay each day. The main problem, according to Miller, is the deer mengingial worm which they can get from eating something contaminated. They must be vaccinated every month. They also must be examined and weighed every month.
John went to school and does the shearing himself. Miller points out once the alpaca are sheared, the fleece is taken to a local miller who turns it into yarn. That yarn is then distributed to knitters and weavers who make the yarn into products such as hats, sweaters and other products.
"These are not your average sweater," she said. "They may last up to 15 years."
Right now the only outlet, for selling the products, is a small shop in the Florentine Arts Center in New Martinsville. Miller said they have recently put up an internet site but it is not completed yet.
"I see things from the beginning to the end," Miller concluded, "from baby to sweater."