A small, day-old alpaca lurches to its feet, already covered with a full coat of its prized hair.
It is not the birth of the animal that is unusual because the alpaca--closely related to the larger llama--is one of the oldest domesticated species in the world.
Instead it is the location: high atop a spectacular mountain plateau overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the latest twist on the working farm in America.
“These are the ideal small-farm animal,” explains Claire Griffin at the Star Hill Ranch in Woodside, Calif. “You could put 10 alpacas on the same amount of land it would take to graze one horse.”
Native to the Andes Mountains of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, alpacas were only recently allowed to be legally exported for the first time in more than 150 years. Their numbers in North America are thought to be less than 5,000.
And while alpaca fleece often ends up as high-end sweaters worn on the golf links, it is the animals themselves that are the real value. A pregnant female can sell for up to $25,000, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Assn., based in Estes Park, Colo.
Griffin said that can produce some remarkable investment results, especially when it comes to supporting a rural lifestyle.
“My family and I get a lot more satisfaction out of watching the herd grow than we would just putting interest statements in a file cabinet,” she said.
Throughout history, alpaca fiber has been considered both durable and fashionable. A 500-year-old mummified woman recently found on the snow-covered slopes of Peru’s Mount Ampato--one of the oldest archeological finds of its type ever discovered--was carefully wrapped in an alpaca blanket.
Jim Blackman, a textile expert who runs an art gallery in San Francisco, said one reason for the popularity of alpaca fiber is that it sheds water and is stronger and warmer than merino sheep’s wool.
A collection of rare alpaca weavings was recently donated to San Francisco’s M.H. de Young Museum of Fine Art.
“It is a little more difficult to spin, but it is extremely lustrous,” Blackman said. “It reflects color and light really well.”
To be sure, alpaca farming comes with inherent risks.
The animals must go through an extensive quarantine process at the Harry S. Truman facility in Key West, Fla. If one of the animals dies en route, the entire investment can be lost.
At the Star Hill Ranch, an extensive fencing system was also installed not so much to keep the animals in but to keep other creatures out.
“The worst predator is the family dog,” Griffin said. “Alpacas are especially submissive.”
The animals are also intelligent and have pleasant dispositions that respond well to human interaction, she added.
That is one characteristic that sets them apart from other exotic farm animals, including ostriches, miniature donkeys and Tibetan yaks.
Care and feeding, for example, costs about $200 per animal annually, assuming there is already a working ranch up and running.
The animal’s fleece has the potential to be worth twice that, as each adult alpaca produces about five pounds of hair a year that goes for between $3 and $5 an ounce. Baby alpaca hair is especially prized.
The market, though, can be difficult to gauge because most buyers are hand weavers. There is no full-scale industry in this country.
But for Griffin, the mother of two small children, and her husband, John Lyddon, there are additional factors that go beyond financial concerns alone.
The ranch is a regular stop for schoolchildren learning about alternative types of livestock farming.
Griffin also confesses to getting a slight thrill when she writes “rancher” as her occupation on a tax return.
“You’ve turned your ranch property into a business,” she said. “You also get to hug your investment.”