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Why the US alpaca industry needs to support terminal markets

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My wife Jennifer and I have been processing our farm's culls -- defined arbitrarily as any animal we deem unworthy of being breeding quality, males and females alike -- for roughly 5 years now. When we first began, it was in the shadow of the Great Recession, at a time when the market for breeding quality alpacas, even great ones, was facing what I would consider to be its most challenging period in the 19 years we have been around this industry. We actually "came out" of the alpaca meat closet shortly thereafter with an essay on our farm's website which more or less explained our thinking and rationale: namely that every single other livestock industry in the world, and especially those that are fiber producers, has used its culls as food animals since time immemorial. Of course as the branding consultant that we hired to help us market our meat and tanned alpaca hides pointed out to me, that essay was *way* too apologetic for something whose purposes it was to ultimately sell alpaca meat. Presto! The essay went away and was replaced by our online store, where would-be customers could peruse our various cuts, read about nutritional information, order our farm's alpaca cookbook, and of course order alpaca meat and hides!

Now obviously, not everyone shares our world view, and that's fine. The fact of the matter is, that there is a percentage of alpaca owners in North America for whom the idea of eating alpaca meat is a complete non-starter. To each their own. However, if we want to have a grownup discussion about a long-term financially viable alpaca industry, based ultimately upon producing the most high end textile fleece that we can, there is no way that happens without viable terminal markets (meat, hides, leather, etc...). How many alpacas do you think there are in Peru, for instance, over the ages of 7 or 8? The answer is not very many at all, and there's a very good reason for that: as the alpacas grow older, they produce less fleece, and the fleece itself coarsens out as well with each ensuing year, lessening it's value. In the years that we have been processing our culls for meat here at Cas-Cad-Nac, even on a relatively small scale (30 to 40 alpacas each year), we have seen the average age of our herd -- which runs between 200 and 300 animals depending upon the time of year -- go down, the average quality of the herd go up, and most importantly the metric that is impossible to ignore: the average AFD of our yearly fiber clip go down, resulting in far greater value when we sell and/or process our fiber.

 

The biggest impediment to having a healthy terminal market for alpaca in the US right now is the status, or more to the point the NON-status, of alpacas as a recognized meat animal by the USDA. In the parlance of the USDA, alpaca is a "non-amenable" species, not even open to voluntary inspection by the USDA as things currently stand. En lieu of federal USDA inspection, there are several states -- Vermont, Maine, and Oregon stand our prominently -- that offer meat inspection through their respective State Departments/Agencies of Agriculture. Most (though no necessarily all) states do allow alpaca meat which was processed and inspected in one of those other states to be sold there, even if they themselves do not offer state-based meat inspection. For us here in Vermont, New Hampshire is an excellent example of this. Attaining voluntary inspection status with the USDA is really the next big step for commercial alpaca operations to pursue. I am told that it would require both the efforts of a prominent national organization, most likely AOA, as well as a major financial expenditure -- the number I've seen quoted in various places is roughly $300,000 -- to go through the process of trials and testing necessary to get onto USDA's voluntary inspection list. Whether the powers that be in our industry have the vision and courage to pursue such a thing at this time, is really the big question before us.     

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Ian Lutz is the co-owner along with his wife, Jennifer, of Cas-Cad-Nac Farm LLC (CCNF) in Weathersfield, VT, where they live with their two teenage sons. Day to day, Ian is the webmaster, blogger, and breeding manager at CCNF. The Lutzes purchased the land specifically for an alpaca farm in 1995, and started their business in earnest in 1997, thinking that they would one day top out at a herd of roughly 30 alpacas. That plan clearly changed along the way! Today, CCNF is recognized as one of the premier alpaca seed stock producers in North America, with a herd that numbers between 200 and 300 animals depending upon the time of year. The Lutzes are also the co owners of the Vermont Fiber Mill & Studio in Brandon, VT, a business which not only processes the fiber of outside clients, but also the majority of CCNF’s annual fiber clip. As the alpaca market has changed and adapted in recent years, CCNF has been at the forefront of promoting the importance of terminal markets and looking at traditional livestock business models as a way of making the US alpaca industry economically viable for the long-term.   

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