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Alpaca owner invests in fiber rather than Fortune 500s

Carol Frazer with two of her alpaca companions.
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The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about investors snatching their money out of the stock market and seeking refuge in unusual alternatives like champagne, comic books and exotic livestock. Carol Frazer doesn’t think this is a bad idea. She opted for atypical assets long before the economy began its downward spiral. In fact, Frazer has been sitting on the portfolio in her backyard for the past 17 years.

In 1990, Carol Frazer and her husband, Tom, were living in Salt Lake City when they came across an unusual showcase in a hotel parking garage: a llama exhibition. Frazer, who was a computer programmer at the time, had long been interested in weaving and sewing, and she was considering investing in llamas as a supplemental source of income.

Curiosity led the couple inside and in the back corner of the lot, they encountered their first alpacas. The alpacas were smaller and more manageable than the llamas, and their value was greater at the time. The Frazers decided alpaca was the way to go. Within the next year, they had packed up their belongings, bought a house and a 20-acre plot of land in Heber, and purchased their first pair (soon to be trio) of alpacas: a pregnant mother and her baby.

Nearly two decades later, River Bed Ranch is one of the longest-running alpaca ranches in Utah. The Frazers have expanded their brood to 36 alpacas — 13 males and 23 females. The oldest is 15 and an offspring of one of the original three females. Frazer owns a combination of the two types of alpacas Huacaya and Suri which are differentiated by their fiber ("Wool is for the sheep industry," says Frazer). The more common variety, Huacayas, have short, crimpy, fleecelike fiber, while Suris have long, flowing, dreadlock-like tendrils.

At first glance, alpacas appear to have been lifted off the pages of a Dr. Seuss storybook. With their long necks and small heads topped with tufts of unruly fleece, alpacas look similar to llamas but are about a third smaller with straight ears. Giant orb-like eyes and a short, fuzzy snout and cleft upper lip evoke the semblance of a perpetual smile. Instead of hooves, alpacas have two-toed feet with soft, leathery pads. Add to these external features the alpaca’s three stomachs and tendency to spit when sparring over food, and you have a creature quite unlike the average animal companion in the U.S.

Alpacas originally flourished in the high Andes Mountains and played an important role in the ancient Incan civilization in South America. They were imported to the United States in 1984 and since then, alpaca ranches have popped up all over the country. In Peru, alpaca fiber was once reserved for royalty and referred to as the "fiber of the gods." For modern-day ranchers like Frazer, alpacas provide a primary or supplemental source of income, and moreover, they don’t make bad pets.

Alpaca fiber is as soft as cashmere and as warm as wool, without the itchy, irritating sensation, Frazer explains. It is hypoallergenic, water-resistant and available in a multitude of colors. The structure of the individual fiber is much like human hair, with a hollow core that serves as a thermal base. The Frazers shear their Huacaya alpacas every summer and Suris every other summer. Each animal produces six to eight pounds of fiber, which is sent off for processing and subsequently returned to the ranch, where Frazer spins or weaves a portion of the fiber into garments herself and sells the rest via the Internet or at fiber shows.

Selling the fiber pays for the upkeep and maintenance of the animals, Frazer says, but the main profit comes from breeding and selling the offspring. The Frazers are constantly buying and selling animals to shake up the gene pool for more efficient breeding. Every summer, Frazer selects matches based on gene mixes that she thinks will result in improved fiber quality and strong confirmation. As for color, "There’s no predicting," says Frazer.

After replenishing her herd each year, Frazer chooses which mothers and offspring to put up for sale. Female alpacas sell for $8,000 to $20,000, and although she says most of her profit goes back into the herd, Frazer does make a little money on the side. Male alpacas and those who are not up to snuff in the reproductive arena are often sought as pets. Alpacas are easy to care for because they’re very stoic and hardy and they rarely get sick, says Frazer. Animal lovers looking for a twist on the family dog, however, should be advised that alpacas can live for up to 25 years.

In the females’ pen at River Bed Ranch, the animals lounge lazily, chewing the cud that remains from their morning meal. Each alpaca sports a collar with identification tags, although Frazer knows their names by heart. Blackberry one of the more dominant Huacayas — pushes her companions out of the way when they get too close to her cria, who is about four months old. "She’s bossy," Frazer explains. "They all have different personalities." The females tend to be more aloof and the males more social, she says. They’re all very curious and gentle and will readily approach strangers, but they don’t like to be touched, she warns.

"The primary reason I do this is that I love animals, and I love fibers," says Frazer. She has started several ranches around the state of Utah and helped many of her customers get into the business. "I’ve met some of the most delightful people, developed great relationships and made a little money along the way," she says. "Great peace of mind and joy comes from raising these creatures."

An additional benefit for the Frazers is that they have been able to use their assets to invest in college funds for their grandchildren. Each year at Christmas, they gift one baby to each grandchild, and the profit from that animal goes into the child’s Escrow account. "It’s our own 529," she explains. Unlike the money disappearing from Wall Street, this is one type of investment that’s not going to be taken away, she says. It’s fair to assume that Frazer will be nursing her alpaca portfolio for years to come.

To find out more about Frazer’s alpacas and River Bed Ranch, visit http://www.utahalpacas.com.

Vital statistics

Animal companions:

One dog, one cat and 36 alpacas

Favorite activities:

Weaving, spinning, hiking, skiing, fishing

Favorite travel destination:

A small island outside of Sarasota, Florida where Carol and Tom spend part of their winters

Favorite movies:

Sundance films and "eclectic, off-the-wall stuff"


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