Fluffy Running $2 to $5 an Ounce
Retiring to his rural roots, a former FAA air traffic control director settles on alpaca farming as a promising enterprise.
The fields are cloaked in spring’s tender green grass shoots as Bill Peacock rattles a bucket of grain and watches the instantaneous reaction among the exotic-looking occupants of Southern Star Farm’s paddocks.
It’s a daily routine for the retired aviation expert — looking over his herd of alpaca. The Alexander City-based alpaca operation is a non-traditional business to be sure, but the rewards of sharing more than 100 acres with these dewy-eyed members of the camel family are immense — especially in spring, when the fluffy coats are carefully sheared away to harvest the soft fiber, a luxurious and versatile cash crop.
Tending the herd, harvesting the fiber and offering alpaca goods at the farm store is a far cry from Peacock’s first career as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration. He was director of FAA air traffic control on September 2001, but on assignment in Louisiana when he first heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. While all other air traffic was stopped in response to the crisis, he was flown back to Washington, where he and a deputy alternated 12-hour shifts to get the nation’s airport and air traffic back on a safe track.
Already, he and his wife, Pam, were looking forward to retirement, and they knew that some Alabama acreage would be their retirement home.
The idea for alpacas came later.
“When I told my daughter we were going to buy a few acres, Amber said she would like to raise animals,” says Peacock, who was born in Phenix City. “We knew it couldn’t be something that was slaughtered, so we started researching and came up with alpacas.”
Research on the creatures began in earnest, with the primary appeal being the value of alpaca wool. Since Amber, now farm manager, was a student at the University of Georgia, the Peacocks purchased two alpacas on a Georgia farm for their daughter to get firsthand experience in animal husbandry.
“The first one we bought was a baby, a cria, so that Amber could spend as much time with the farm manager as she could to learn about the alpacas,” Peacock says. “You raise the alpacas for their wool or fiber. We liked the friendly attitude of the animals. They are easy to keep and don’t kick and do the things horses and cows do. They aren’t nearly as big — about 180 pounds each — and easy to care for compared to larger livestock.”
Meanwhile, the Peacocks were busy setting up the 130-acre property, building a barn and shop and cross fencing the land to accommodate the livestock. They named the farm for Carl Carmer’s “Stars Fell on Alabama.”
“In 2002 or 2003, raising alpacas was very profitable, and a lot of farms were growing,” Peacock says. “You can sell offspring, as well as the fiber. It’s potentially a profitable farm crop.”
Southern Star Farm now has a herd of more than 35 alpacas, registered with the Alpaca Registry Inc., an organization that keeps a comprehensive database of alpaca pedigrees. The Peacocks also are members of the Southeast Alpaca Association.
“When we breed, we are looking for an animal with long and dense fiber,” Peacock says. “We used to show a lot, and judges are looking for kinky or curly hair with a shiny coat close to the skin and very soft (texture).”
Late spring is shearing time. Peacocks hire a professional shearer, who brings in heavy-duty shears, numerous blades and sharpeners.
Each alpaca yields five to ten pounds of fiber, valued at $2 to $5 per ounce in its raw state.
“It’s a big job,” Peacock says. “After every second or third animal, the blades dull, so (the shearer) brings several sets of blades and a sharpening device. If you only have four or five alpacas, you might be able to do it yourself, but you have to be pretty good at it.”
When the fiber is sheared, it’s sorted by quality into three groups. The best quality is sent to a mill in Tennessee where it is cleaned and turned into yarn, which the Peacocks sell in their own shop and in a couple of other stores in Alabama. The second and third cuts are sent to Texas where they are made into throw rugs, which are then shipped back to the farm for sale in the store. Other products in the store, such as scarves, gloves and accessories, are imported from a small factory in Peru.
With a relatively modest yield of fiber, diversity has been the key for the Peacocks’ daughter in making the farming foray a success. She boards and grooms dogs in the space adjacent to the Southern Star Farm shop.
“Being in small town Alabama, we’re known as the alpaca farm,” Peacock says. “Many of our clients come to board their dogs, then see the alpaca store and buy the unique gifts. On Saturdays during the cooler months, we take two or three alpacas to the store for people to meet them. It’s very easy to get attached to them. Some of them really enjoy being around you, and most of them have a gentle disposition.”
Alpacas are easy keepers, another appeal for the Peacocks when choosing the livestock. They generally eat grass and hay with grain as a daily treat to bring the herd in for a quick check over.
“If one is limping or acting ill when they come in, we hopefully will see that and take prompt action,” Peacock says. “They love the grain like ice cream. I call and shake the food bucket, and they come running.”
Peacock says he’s learned it’s difficult to diagnose illness in an alpaca. One day, they’re savoring their grain and looking peppy, and the next, they may be lying down and clearly sick. The family has a close relationship with Auburn University’s veterinary school, which brings its senior class to the farm to experience working with the alpacas firsthand. Every 90 days, the animals require vaccines and toenail trimming — they have toenails, not hooves.
“I tell people not to quit their day job,” Peacock says. “I can’t think of the alpaca business as an income asset. It’s not that steady. You may sell three to four one year and then none the next. But my daughter and I really enjoy working with them. It’s a great lifestyle.”
Cara Clark and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.