THE FUTURE OF THE ALPACA INDUSTRY ? OUR VISION
VICTORIAN EASTERN REGION
The title of the topic is a mouthful to say and an even bigger task to contemplate but undaunted a group of approximately 25 VER members met to discuss it on a warm Sunday afternoon armed with the ubiquitous supply of butcher?s paper, felt markers, a whiteboard and ample quantities of sweets and nibbles for brain food. We were fuelled, prepared and ready to tackle the issue. The following is a synopsis of our discussion. It does not pretend to offer all the answers nor does it necessarily reflect the views of all members within the region. It is presented as the consensus of ideas advanced by those present on the 14th October.
THE INDUSTRY AT PRESENT
Alpacas were re-introduced to Australia in the 1980s by entrepreneurial souls who took large financial risks to establish the industry. In spite of the cries of many who knocked the venture comparing it to farming emus and ostriches, alpaca numbers have continued to rise. Australia now boasts the largest alpaca numbers outside South America. Herd numbers range from single digits on small acreage to many hundreds in broad-scale farming operations. Some breeders choose alpacas as pets whilst many others raise animals with a view to financial gain through the sale of bloodlines, fleece and other associated products. Australian bred alpacas have been exported world-wide to develop fledgling industries in other countries.
Whilst alpacas have now become more familiar on the Australian farming landscape, and numbers have dramatically increased, the average price per animal has correspondingly decreased, encouraging more people to undertake breeding alpacas and compete for market share. Current world economic circumstances have resulted in reduced demand for luxury goods with the net result being low fleece prices and little return to farmers.
Like most other industries, the alpaca industry is composed of a number of inter-related facets. Mathematicians understand Venn diagrams and most of us know the ever widening ripples that occur when a stone is tossed in to water. Both of these analogies could be used to understand the alpaca industry. At the centre of the circles are the animals and breeding operations and surrounding this are sales opportunities for animals and related products, services to breeding and retail, education and training, marketing and so on. Professional associations such as Australian Alpaca Association Ltd are also in the mix. Whilst our discussion was convened by VER and all present were members, it is worth noting that many participants in the alpaca industry are not members of AAA or perhaps of any association.
Not all members of AAA are, or want to be, involved in every aspect of the industry but it is important to recognise the merit of each, and the relationship between them. As members of the VER, and more broadly speaking, the AAA, we are an association of people with a common interest in promoting the alpaca industry both for our own individual benefit and for the benefit of others. As the famous saying goes, ?no man is an island? and equally, no alpaca breeder can realise true potential alone. We are all dependent on a thriving industry as a whole in order to achieve commercial viability and indeed sustainability.
The following broad headings, in no particular order, outline the major components of the alpaca industry at this point in time ? Fleece, Animal Sales, Services, Meat, Hides, Value Added or Associated Products.
It is widely recognised that alpaca fibre is a luxury fibre that possesses amazing and desirable properties ? lightweight yet high thermal value, hypoallergenic, wide range of natural colours. And yet, in the current economic climate, growers receive a very low price for their product. Australia has a long and revered record as a world leader in the wool industry and there is a wealth of knowledge available which should be able to be tapped into and adapted if necessary to the alpaca industry. World demand for premium fibre exceeds supply and still Australian growers struggle to cover shearing costs, let alone earn a viable income for their product. Why is this the case?
VER members listed the following existing sales outlets for fleece ? AAFL, private sales to spinners and weavers, manufacturers of clothing, bedding and carpet. Fleece can also be sent for processing at mini-mills and value-added by individual breeders or processed at larger commercial mills off-shore. This might necessitate joining with others to reach minimum processing quantities.
An emerging concept for fleece sales is Premium Alpaca, the system instigated and administered by Paul Vallely from Australian Alpaca Fibre Testing. His system relies on individual breeders banding together to form collection groups for specific fibre colours, adhering to strict protocols regarding shearing, skirting and classing, with the end result being bales of pure alpaca fibre of consistent quality, micron and length, able to be sold to specific commercial markets. Maximum input from the individual grower participant is required at all stages to the point of baling the fleece.
Alpacas are bred and sold as breeding animals, herd guardians and pets. A much smaller but increasing number are now sold for meat production.
There are a large number of ancillary service providers who also make up the alpaca industry as it stands today. These cover areas such as transport, shearing, dentistry, veterinary services, husbandry, agistment, specialised alpaca equipment, computer software, judging and showing, and marketing.
Alpaca Meat and Hides
There have been several attempts in the past to establish a market for alpaca meat and with increasing numbers of animals now in Australia it would appear to be a logical next step to establish this firmly as yet another link in the industry chain. Illawarra Prime Alpaca now appears to be leading the way in this regard and have systems in place to use and sell the animals from nose to tail.
Value added or Associated Products
This group could be a category in its own right or a subset of any of the above categories.
It includes any alpaca related product that has value added to it by the individual breeder and may include hand crafted items, photographs and alpaca themed gift products, education and workshops, farm stays and visits. Definitely an area where creativity may be the name of the game!
Of course we all want to see an ongoing viable industry where the world at large recognises and acknowledges the alpaca breed as a whole for the amazing and endearing qualities we know and love, and is prepared to financially reward breeders for the elite products produced. This would ensure there were always opportunities for eager new entrants to the alpaca world to choose a level of involvement in any aspect of the industry and reap the corresponding rewards.
THE WAY FORWARD
The easy aspect of the discussion is to outline the vision. A far more difficult task is to list the steps to reach that goal and more onerous again is to actually perform those steps, day by day. Undaunted and fortified by high caffeine and sugar intake, our intrepid VER discussion group pressed ahead. At the end of the day we had talked a great deal and had outlined the following points as steps toward the end goal. Of course this is not a comprehensive list but rather a broad outline.
Define own goals
The first step starts with the individual. As a group we recognise that individually we need to define our own breeding goals and work to achieve this end. For many newcomers to the alpaca industry, it is common practice to start with a small number of animals and commence breeding with no particular aim in mind. As we all know alpacas are endearing animals and it is all too easy to be captivated by them and breed any or all colours without regard to market demand. Savvy commercial livestock breeders of sheep and cattle work to clear market specifications. If the market demands wool of a particular micron, crimp and staple length, sheep breeders will selectively breed (and cull stock) to achieve that end and meet demand. Why do many alpaca breeders not do the same? We all know the rules of supply and demand. If you expect high return for your product you must produce a product that people want and are prepared to pay to obtain. We cannot simply rely on the fact that we know alpaca fibre is superior therefore the world must know. As growers we must produce the fibre in the condition, form and quantity that manufacturers can use. Each buyer of commercial quantities of alpaca fleece has clear specifications outlining what is required for the particular manufacturing operation involved. The carpet manufacturer will obviously require higher micron and longer staple length than the company producing fine quality cloth for tailoring men?s suits.
The above discussion is not intended to deter people from owning alpacas simply for pleasure or even breeding them as a hobby but if we are to advance the industry as a whole and expect a return on investment we must adopt a more professional approach. Spend time now clearly defining your goals and work to achieve that outcome. Breeder A may choose to breed animals purely for bloodlines. Breeder B may choose to sell animals as pets or herd guards while Breeder C may have a keen interest in fleece sales for textile manufacture. In this case Breeder C would breed to the manufacturer?s mill specifications with respect to colour, micron and staple length. Each and every aspect of his/her business would then be underpinned by this pre-determined goal.
Breeders A, B & C may each band together with similarly minded people within the region to garner support and bolster knowledge in particular areas of interest. By developing small networks of like minded breeders within the region there would be a forum to discuss and implement plans to advance individual and collective goals
Defining and adopting a clear set of goals for your operation does not preclude or diminish a love of alpacas but it does help to set a direction for you and your industry. Alpacas by their very nature conjure up images of cuddly pets but we are looking to a future where they are seen as a commercially viable livestock choice. The industry has proven to date that it can be sustained in Australia. Surely the next step is to notch it up another level - by shaking off the current quasi- hobby lifestyle farming image and proving that alpaca farming can compete with other livestock enterprises as a valid choice.
This naturally follows from the point above. Each player in this field must be realistic when setting goals. It is ridiculous to believe that owning 2 or 3 alpacas will provide sufficient income to cover costs. People must look at economies of scale and be mindful that infra-structure costs for small numbers of any type of animal can be similar to those for much bigger herd numbers and yet returns are nowhere near the same. How many of us have been approached by people owning 2 or 3 alpacas complaining they have nowhere to sell their fleece? What owner of 2 sheep can sell their wool clip easily? People must be aware that no-one is going to come knocking to purchase small quantities of fleece. Similarly it usually requires some effort on behalf of breeders to sell animals as pets and herd guards.
The Premium Alpaca concept and other groupings of growers with similar product to sell may however be one way around this problem. Whilst commercial buyers are not interested in directly dealing with small numbers of fleeces from many small producers, they are interested in buying large quantities that may have been originally sourced from many producers. Similarly it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any meat producer to deal with erratic inconsistent supply of animals for slaughter from large numbers of individual breeders. However regular guaranteed supply from one collection point would be welcomed.
Respect the choices of others
Within the region, the 3 breeders A,B and C mentioned above would also support those with different breeding plans and goals to advance the industry as a whole. This may be by attending education or social events, using related services, purchasing alpaca products or promoting others to a wider audience. The collective power of a group is always greater than the sum of the individual parts. There is much to be gained from working together.
Buy alpaca products & services
As growers we must use and promote our own product. We cannot expect the world to buy what we produce if we ourselves do not purchase and use it. Make sure you own and regularly wear and enjoy at least one item of clothing made from alpaca. Sleep on alpaca bedding or consider using beautiful alpaca carpet or rugs underfoot. Give alpaca products as gifts. Every little bit helps and shows others the benefits and joys of using alpaca products.
This item should really head the list and cannot be emphasized enough. As breeders we know and love alpacas and their many benefits - as animals to the products that can be produced from them. BUT THE GENERAL PUBLIC MUST ALSO KNOW. After all we are aiming for global desirability.
We are wasting our time if we do not promote our product to the world at large at every opportunity. This means every one of us constantly and consistently presenting alpacas and product in the very best possible light to maximize and foster public awareness and interest. Much has already been done to educate the public to the existence of alpacas. We must now focus on always offering a desirable product in the form that the market requires.
Look back at your own breeding goals and market your business accordingly. If you are selling elite breeding females perhaps your advertising will be focused on existing herd owners wishing to improve their own genetic database. However if you are aiming to sell pets and/ or herd guards, naturally you will be more outward looking in your approach to promotion. Alpaca breeders will already have their own animals to fill these roles. You need to focus on tree changers and sheep/goat breeders. Breeders targeting their sales at newcomers to the alpaca world will need to concentrate on hobby farmers and those on small acreage. It is not rocket science but it does lead on to the next point about showing and judging.
Showing and judging
Historically showing alpacas has been an important way of educating new breeders on what is perceived as the breed standard, providing a network of like minded people and allowing individuals to benchmark their breeding programme against high standard animals. All of these are valid reasons for showing and are to be encouraged.
We must however remain ever-mindful that often showing can foster a closed shop mentality. If we are trying to sell to the world, we must be showing the world what is on offer. Is there always a high degree of public awareness, education and inclusion in every show? Or can it become a case of those in the inner circle concentrating so hard on the hard work of showing that others are excluded? Are the public always invited to every show and made to feel a part of the process?
And what of the showing and judging rules? Are the judges looking for qualities in the animals on offer that reflect what industry requires with respect to fleece quality and structure? Is there currently any category for judging carcase quality for meat production? In other words do the show standards reflect commercial reality? On reflection, most members thought not.
So what does this ultimately mean? We are showing alpacas to compete for prizes but the winners of the present categories are not necessarily animals that will perform well commercially. Carried to the extreme this argument suggests we may be running beauty pageants for alpacas with the sole aim of participants being the pursuit of a ribbon.
The VER has already resolved to no longer instigate or participate in shows that do not offer a high degree of public involvement. Colourama which ran so successfully this year will again be timed to coincide with a high profile public market. At each show, including those managed by local agricultural societies, there will be exhibition space set aside to promote the alpaca industry in general.
Members will also be pushing for a timely review of show standards to reflect what industry demands. A number of suggestions were made that could be instigated relatively quickly and simply such as introducing new classes that reward quality product production animals and encouraging more participation of wethers.
A far greater proportion of alpaca owners participate in showing their animals than in any other mainstream livestock industry. And certainly this appears to be so amongst members of AAA Ltd. It would be interesting to note if this is in fact the number one reason for joining the association. Other livestock industries place a great degree of emphasis on commercial viability as breed standard. Perhaps the alpaca industry should take note and concentrate more fully on developing the industry side of the equation before showcasing the animal per se.
Play your part for the greater good
In the current financial times, the various AAA regions are under intense financial pressure to provide services to members. It is imperative that members themselves understand that there is no magic wand or invisible band of workers to carry out tasks. Apart from a small number of paid part-time workers in the central AAA office itself, all board members and office bearers are volunteers. They are AAA members and alpaca growers like every one of us, with similar work and home commitments and time constraints.
Each individual member must contribute to collectively share the workload and advance the cause, promote the industry and make things happen. Now is definitely the time to stand up and volunteer some of your time and effort to benefit both yourself and others. A small contribution from each member would make an enormous difference to our activities.
The task itself was huge but the group participants were largely upbeat and excited for the future of the industry. There was a clear feeling that much had been achieved to date but more could be done to improve the situation and to adapt to the prevailing world economic conditions. We, as producers, believe in our product and understand we must take every opportunity to impart that belief and desire to participate to buyers and ultimately the end users of the product. Now is the time for a call to arms to ensure that the alpaca industry continues to achieve the outcomes we want. Each and every player in the industry must stand up and do their bit to advance their own interests but ultimately the interests of us all.