- Associated Press - Sunday, October 1, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Making money off an Andean animal’s wool is tough, but a Mustang couple said they’re making it work.

Kathy Fleming told The Journal Record that what began as an interest in alpacas evolved from a hobby to a business with plenty of foot traffic from international tourists. Yarn proprietor Keeley Northup sells yarn from unusual animals, but said it is hard to make a profit from alpaca wool in the U.S.

“It’s not a going business for most people,” said Northup, owner of Sealed With A Kiss yarn shop in Guthrie. “I’m glad they found a way to make it work.”

Fleming and her husband, Mike Fleming, first came across alpacas when they were traveling in Oregon in 2006. They bought their first alpacas in 2010.

“We started with alpacas because they were cute, but they needed to earn their keep,” she said. “You shear them, so we had to figure out what to do with the fleece.”

They wanted to raise awareness about the animals, so they started with an information booth at the Oklahoma State Fair.

It wasn’t long before people wanted to buy products made with alpaca wool, Mike Fleming said. Passersby touched the soft puff of wool on the table and felt the socks the two owned. But those products were for display only, and the couple weren’t vendors, so they couldn’t sell them.

Now they traveled to other alpaca shows and also have booths at the state fair and Minco’s annual honey festival in December. Mike Fleming said sales were large enough they decided to open a store.

They began in Yukon in 2013 on the city’s Main Street, which is on Route 66. Though there were some people who stopped in as part of a trip down the historic highway, it wasn’t much, Kathy Fleming said. And in the metro, there were interested knitters and crocheters, but they didn’t want to drive to Yukon.

Two years later they moved to Stockyards City, just a half-block from Cattleman’s Steakhouse, at 104 S. Agnew Ave. Plenty of potential shoppers are in the historic neighborhood, and the first year sales tripled. Expenses increased too, but profitability has close to doubled, Mike Fleming said.

Alpacas are wooly animals from the Andes Mountains in South America, with Peru registering the largest herd of about 3.5 million. There were about 150,000 registered alpacas in 2009, according to University of California Davis agricultural economics researchers Tina Saitone and Richard Sexton.

There was an alpaca bubble in the U.S. in the early-2000s. Mean auction prices rose to as high as $31,000, according to the UC Davis researchers’ 2012 study, “The Alpaca Bubble Revisited.” But in most cases, it cost more to maintain the animals than the wool would bring, Saitone’s and Sexton’s research showed. Prices were driven largely by speculators, and average auction prices plummeted by $30,000 per animal in 2011, compared to 2005 prices.

A Colorado-based foster organization, Cross Creek Alpaca Rescue Inc., estimated there are about 120,000 animals registered in the U.S.

The Oklahoma herd doubled from 727 alpacas in 2007 to 1,489 in 2012, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service data. The number of farms increased from 71 to 105 in the same time period. The sales value also doubled in that time, but that figure likely includes animal sales, not just products, said Troy Marshall, Oklahoma state statistician with the USDA.

Northup said she carries unusual fibers at her yarn shop like alpaca, Tibetan yak, cashmere and a rare alpaca relative, the vicuña.

“Novelty fibers are hot, like bison, mulberry silk and different grades of alpaca,” she said.

Processing costs are expensive, like any manufactured commodity, and processors buy wool by the pound. She said she doesn’t buy from cottage producers.

Kathy Fleming said she learned about processing alpaca wool from people at livestock shows. After shearing the animals, she separates the wool into softer and coarser grades, removing vegetation. The two have equipment that processes the wool into fleece, which she sends to mills and a cooperative that make it into socks and yarn.

Unlike many retail stores, she said she doesn’t think her business has been hurt too much by online retailers such as Amazon.com. That’s in part because she doesn’t sell much on her website. It’s hard to sell a $20 pair of socks on the internet, she said.

“You have to feel them,” Fleming said. “We get (sales) bumps after Christmas, because people get a pair and they come back and ask for more.”

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Information from: The Journal Record, https://www.journalrecord.com

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