Part of the family
By RANDY GONZALES
OSBORNE -- In their family, Mitch and Vickie Vandament have one grown son and a daughter-in-law -- and 57 alpacas.
The alpaca herd the Vandaments keep in two barns just north of town seems like part of the family. They live on 40 acres, hence the name North 40 Alpacas for their business. Each alpaca has a name and its own personality. When Vickie shows up at the barn, they come right up to her -- for a reason.
"She's the treat lady," Mitch said.
Sure enough, on a recent afternoon, a white alpaca named Faye ate treats from Vickie's hand.
"They definitely know my smell," Vickie said. "They love me."
The Vandaments started thinking about raising alpacas -- which first came to the United States in 1983 -- to supplement their income in the 1990s. Mitch still farms and ranches, while Vickie is a district manager for a rehabilitation company for speech and occupational therapy.
In 2004, the Vandaments started with three alpacas. They started selling the fleece for income. Now, they still sell the fleece, but they also are breeders. Of their 57 alpacas, 40 are males.
The fleece is sheared once a year, in early June, with each grown alpaca producing approximately 8 pounds of fleece. The Vandaments get approximately $2 an ounce when they sell it.
There are three categories of fleece. The No. 1 category, which comes from the backs and belly, is the best and is sold to Shepherd's Mill, a fiber processing mill in Phillipsburg. There, it is turned into items such as caps, gloves and scarves.
The No. 2 category comes from the shoulders and neck and mainly is used for rugs. No. 3 category, which comes from the tail and legs, can be used for insulation.
What makes alpaca fleece so desirable, Mitch said, is it has just 2 percent lanolin in it. That prevents it from being itchy.
"With 2 percent lanolin, that's the key ingredient," he said.
Alpaca fleece comes in 22 natural colors, but the white fleece is valued the most because it can be dyed different colors. Still, the Vandaments have alpacas of all colors in their herd.
"I love the variety," Vickie said.
The Vandaments and the neighbor kids who help keep the herd take turns naming the alpacas, just as if they were their own children.
"Very cute and huggable," Vickie said of the alpacas. "Unconditional love right here."
After a long, hard day at work, Vickie knows how to let the stress leave her body.
"I love to come out to the barn, enjoy my evening, talk to the animals," she said. "I've always been an animal person."
The Vandaments experienced some stressful times in the business a few years ago. The alpaca industry suffered along with the rest of the economy in 2008. Now, it slowly is making its way back. Mitch thinks it's still a good investment.
"For the long-term, yes," he said. "For the long-term, put out a high-quality product out there ... that's enjoyment."
The alpaca business was booming in the United States years ago. Then the recession hit.
"There's quite a few people (who) got in for the wrong reasons, thought they were going to make a quick buck," Mitch said.
The Vandaments, however, are in it for the long haul.
"It's our 401(k)," Vickie said with a laugh.