A cadre of curious animals gathers at the gate as Joe Moore, owner of Indian Springs Farms in Bethel, approaches the pasture.
“Hello girls,” he says, addressing the herd of bright-eyed, tuft-headed alpacas. As he opens the door, some draw near to sniff his shirt or hands, while others — the shier ones, presumably — hang back to gauge the situation from afar.
Alpacas herald from South America, but are increasingly being found on farms in the Southern Appalachians.
Alpacas are in the same family as llamas and camels, hence the resemblance. They’re the oldest domesticated animal on the planet. The first alpacas came to the United States in 1984, when a group of North American investors traveled to South America to scout out the best of the breed. Since alpacas don’t taste very good and can’t carry much weight, their value lies in their incredibly soft, luxurious coats used to make fiber.
Turns out, South Americans didn’t want competition from alpaca breeders in the United States. So today, there’s a ban in place that prohibits the importation of alpacas to this country. Every alpaca here today is a descendant of the original group brought back a little more than 20 years ago.
The group that Joe Moore hangs out with most days is an eclectic one, with names like Jack Straw, Reuben, and James Brown. They’re a loyal bunch, following Moore around his Bethel farm whenever they get a chance. They don’t talk much, and they’re extremely furry ... they’re alpacas.
Moore had never considered raising alpacas, a species native to South America that resembles a llama and a camel, until his business partner suggested it. Moore’s partner had read an article in Forbes Magazine about how the animals are a good investment. Moore got his first one five years ago — and he’s been hooked on alpacas ever since.
Today, Moore owns about 30 — half male, half female. He left his former job as an instructor at an outdoor education program for high schoolers to tend to his herd full-time, and now relishes the days he spends with his animals.
“I worked with people for so long, I was ready to work with animals,” he laughs.
His two kids and wife, Laura, also join in the fun on their Bethel farm and fully support Moore’s effort.
Moore knew little about the species before he got his first one, but now he’s obsessed. Apparently he’s not the only one. The alpaca industry in the country grew exponentially — today, there are about 150,000 animals being raised in the state, according to Moore, including several hundred in Western North Carolina alone. Imports of new alpacas from South America are now banned. That’s what makes them a good investment in the eyes of many.
Alpaca fiber is said to be some of the best in the world. Moore’s alpaca fiber beat out angora and cashmere fiber to win a “Best in Show” prize at a recent event. Some of it is so fine, it must be handspun. A nice alpaca sweater can run $350 and up; other top of the line garments can be as much as $1,200.
There’s some major money to be made from alpacas — breeding animals can retail for tens of thousands of dollars; Moore said a top male recently sold for a whopping $1.15 million. This is a serious business, and in many ways, resembles Wall Street.
“A lot of them are owned like stocks, where people own thirds,” Moore explains.
An alpaca catalogue sitting in Moore’s living room is no flimsy booklet that gets recycled shortly after reading — it’s a bound, hardcover book with high quality photographs. Each alpaca is listed with a picture, and alongside it, a laundry list of blue ribbon awards their fiber has won them.
“If an animal wins ribbons, it qualifies the price you charge for a stud,” Moore says. “The show industry validates what you’re charging for the breed.”
Moore makes a living by breeding alpacas and selling them, and by selling the animals’ fiber, which can go for up to $60 per yard.
The alpaca fiber industry in the U.S. is actually at a critical turning point, Moore says. No mass production of fiber exists, simply because the concept is a difficult one. The alpaca fiber that isn’t too fine to be spun on a machine can only be processed on machines that make silk.
“There’s no one jumping at the chance for mass production,” Moore says. “It’s all just small mills right now.”
Moore says North Carolina State University, as well as Belmont University outside Charlotte, have both hinted at their willingness to possibly step up and pioneer the alpaca fiber industry in the state.
But fiber isn’t the most lucrative part of the alpaca industry — at least not to Moore. Three years ago, he started his own shearing business. While cutting fur off of animals doesn’t necessarily sound like a way to make millions, it’s astonishingly profitable. Very few people know how to shear alpacas, and Moore’s skills are highly in demand.
“There aren’t a lot of shearers, and my business has doubled since I started it.” Moore says he’s now booked an average of six months in advance.
Every year in late spring, Moore lives like a nomad for eight weeks. He sets off from home with a pack of shearing tools on his back, and travels to alpaca farms up and down the East coast. This year, he’ll visit about 50 farms ranging in size from two to 80 alpacas. He charges $35 per animal.
Moore wouldn’t trade his unusual career for anything. He loves his animals, as well as the unique lifestyle it affords him.
“Alpacas are awesome,” he exclaims more than once, beaming from ear to ear each time.
For those who want to meet Joe Moore’s alpacas, he offers visits to his farm, Indian Springs Farm in Bethel, and is available to give presentations to groups. Contact 828.648.1263.