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Value-Added Venture Has Good Fibre

With her kids entering their teens, but still not wanting to divide her time between being a stay-at-home mom and an off-farm job, Angie Baloun was looking for a new focus to life back in 2007.

She and her husband, who works off farm, have horses and grow hybrid poplar trees on 20 acres just south of Manitou. Their family includes twin daughters, now age 14, and two sons, 16 and 10.

It was while checking out a horse at another farm that Baloun first encountered the alpaca. She was completely smitten by the gentle, softly mummering creatures in their variety of chocolate, caramel and cream-coloured coats.

“I even got to put my hands on one,” she recalls of that day. And what she touched was incredibly luxuriant fibre. She’d later learn about its attributes – incredible warmth, softness, ease of use, and without lanolin, popular among those who don’t wear wool.

Not long afterward she purchased five females. That might be the end of story, had she just acquired a few “farm pets.” But that wasn’t her intent, nor was it to start breeding these animals for sale.

“I didn’t just get them because I thought they were neat to look at,” she says.

She had a different plan. Here was an animal just the right size and temperament to be well suited for her children to care for and learn animal husbandry. Plus, such beautiful fibre had to have value to spinners and knitters, she thought. A business plan for developing a small value-added farm product as a cottage industry took shape.

Today she has 19 alpaca, a growing inventory of fine-quality yarns in multiple colours, plus spun, woven and knitted garments and home accessories that mills and local knitters have produced with her animals’ fibre. She’s connecting with local spinners and knitters. A recent buyer paid top dollar for a fleece she recently sold.

In just four years, Baloun Alpaca Acres has exceeded her highest expectations for what it could contribute to family life, says Baloun. This has become exactly the kind of family-focused activity she’d envisaged. Her kids are as enraptured by their alpaca as she is, and wholly involved with their care and rearing.

“The input and the knowledge my kids now have is just thrilling,” she said. They’ve learned responsibility from caring for livestock, and the ins and outs of running a small business. Plus they’re becoming well versed in the finer points of fibre production.

They sit as a family in the barn talking about the fibre quality of each of their 19 alpacas, and where to send whose coat, and for what use, she said.

“We spend a great deal of time preparing those fleeces and deciding what to do with them that

To see more Baloun’s Alpaca Acres photos in our image gallery log on to: www.manitobacooperator.ca

makes the most sense to get the most return.”

What it’s added to their family’s quality of life makes this venture successful beyond her highest expectations, says Baloun.

“When I look at my life I just can’t believe that I can get up in the morning and go out and do my chores and my kids are out in the barn every day with me,” she said. “As a family we have this common goal. We always have so much discussion and things to bring us together with this business. It isn’t just work. It’s a passion and an interest.”

Raising alpaca and shipping wool is not a money-losing thing either. At this point the venture pays for itself, she said. And she sees plenty of potential to grow this further to become a profitable sideline.

They’re pursuing a high-end luxury product, and to that end they’re investing the time to learn all they can about producing it and marketing it, said Baloun.

“The potential to make money with the fibre is definitely there if you are prepared to really know your fibre,” she said.

“It’s like anything else. What you’re willing to put into something is what you’ll get out of it,” she said. “If you want to just shear an animal and ship it off and not think about it again you won’t get a return. But I am slowly building a base of customers. And as we continue I am starting to see people coming back because they liked what they bought.”

Thus far they’ve attended only a few home shows and farmers’ markets but with more inventory and confidence to answer buyers’ questions, they’ll be starting to connect with a wider market.

That’s been the other dimension of this venture she’s found so suited to their family life. There’s no pressure to expand or grow overnight.

“I’m still busy being a mom,” she said. “I’m not going to have 200 head for commercial processing. I’m doing this small scale for direct marketing. That’s what we enjoy and that’s where I want to go with this.”

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WhenIlookatmylifeIjustcan’tbelieve thatIcangetupinthemorningandgo outanddomychoresandmykidsare outinthebarneverydaywithme.”

– Angie Baloun

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Alpaca Facts

Alpacas are the oldest domesticated livestock in the world. South Americans were increasingly reluctant to export their beloved alpacas until 1984 and even now exports are restricted to limited numbers each year.

Alpacas are small, easily maintained, clean, safe, quiet, intelligent, disease resistant, require no extraordinary care and are delightful to be around.

You can comfortably stock between five and 10 alpacas per acre, making them ideal livestock for small acreages and farms. Due to their low protein requirement and extremely efficient digestive system (ruminant), one bale of good grass hay will feed an alpaca for 10 to 14 days.

Alpacas travel comfortably in the family minivan, station wagon, truck camper or in a horse trailer.

Virtually all alpacas in Canada are registered with documented bloodlines and stringently screened for health and quality of imports. Alpacas must be blood-typed in order to be registered.

Many herds are owned by families where Dad has a regular nine-to-five job, and Mom manages the alpacas on their small acreage. A large number of breeders are working couples who tend to their herd in the evening after work or retired couples looking to diversify their income.

Current membership in the Manitoba Alpaca Club is 27. Source: The Manitoba Alpaca Club website

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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