Northwest Business Magazine

Success Stories: WillowBend Alpaca Farms

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We’ve all heard of woolen stocking and sweaters, but thanks to an inventive couple and a homespun industry, alpacas may be the next big thing. See why this farm encourages others to make an alternative investment.

Patti and Doug Jennings began WillowBend Alpaca Farms in 2007, with three alpacas (two pregnant). They now have 100, and are expanding into fabric production of the fleece. (Karla Nagy photo)

Passion to succeed. Surrounding yourself with good people. Learning and building on your skills. Tenacity. These things have led to the success of WillowBend Alpaca Farms in Forreston, Ill., according to its owners.

Patti and Doug Jennings started their business in May 2007, with three female alpacas, two of which were pregnant; by spring 2009, their initial investment had grown to 21 animals. Now, in spring 2011, they manage a herd of 100. “I’ve bought a few more along the way, all with ‘baby-on-board,’ because I wanted to cultivate certain bloodlines that were beating me in the show ring,” says Patti. “But the majority have come from our own stock and initial investment.”

An alpaca farm creates different revenue sources. At WillowBend, those include the sale of animals; agisting – or boarding – of animals; hay sales; seminars; farm store sales; and breeding to its studs. Future plans involve processing the fleece into fabric for a high-end clothing line.

The retired couple began their venture as an alternative form of investing, after watching their stock portfolio dwindle. While traveling the country in a motorhome, they had noticed several alpaca farms; Patti wanted something hands-on, and Doug relished the idea of becoming a “gentleman farmer.”

But this wasn’t a case of indulging a whim. “We got into this to be successful,” Patti says. “We saw the value and decided that fast growth was necessary.”

So, before they even considered purchasing an alpaca, they methodically laid the groundwork for that success, educating themselves on every aspect of the business. This preparation, says Patti, is the main reason for their exponential growth.

They visited every alpaca farm they could find before starting WillowBend, learning as much as possible about the animals – not just obvious things like care and upkeep, but business strategies such as financing and tax incentives. They found no shortage of help among alpaca owners. “I was in the corporate world for years, and in no other industry have I ever experienced such an openness, and a willingness to share knowledge,” says Patti.

Then, Patti carefully mapped out a business plan and lined up resources. Before they even owned a single animal, they searched nearby towns until they found a veterinarian who was willing to gain camelid knowledge, and take them up on the offer to attend classes to learn about treating alpacas. After the initial purchase, Patti went to work on improving bloodlines and halter-training her alpacas, so that she could show them at Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association-certified events. This strategy served two purposes: First, she was able to see what qualities were desirable in alpacas and to network with other owners; second, she was able to use the shows to market her breeding program. Her success is evidenced by a slew of awards, championship banners and blue ribbons.

An alpaca, like this Jennings’ award winner, is valued for its fleece, which can produce garments as soft as cashmere. The crimping seen above is an indication of the quality. Because of the unique characteristics of the raw fleece, shown right, it’s difficult to find a textile mill to process the fiber into fabric for high-quality garments. But WillowBend’s owners have done just that, and they’ve received the first sample of their alpaca fabric (center).

Alpacas, indigenous to South America, are valued for their fiber, called “the fiber of the gods” in Peru. A 100-percent alpaca garment can cost as much, or more, than cashmere or angora, and is just as soft. But unlike wool, alpaca fiber is hollow, so it’s hypoallergenic, meaning that someone who can’t wear wool can wear alpaca. It also requires no “scouring” – dipping the fiber into an acid bath to remove dirt, oils and lanoline; a good deal of sheep fleece may not actually be wool but dirt and oil. That means that 5 pounds of raw alpaca fleece produces a higher percentage of usable fiber than the same amount of raw sheep fleece. Since it’s hollow, alpaca fiber is lighter than wool – but just as warm – and also accepts dye much more easily.

“The fleece is just so easy to process,” says Patti. “It’s green, sustainable, and easy on the environment.”

In the beginning, the Jennings’ sent their alpaca fleece elsewhere for sorting, processing and production, and then sold finished items like socks, scarves and mittens, along with the processed fiber, at their farm. But Patti decided to go further, and find a mill to process her fleece into thread, then fabric and ultimately, clothing.

Because of the unique characteristics of alpaca fleece, a mill needs to suspend processing of other fibers and thoroughly clean its machines, to avoid cross-contamination and to maintain the hypoallergenic qualities and softness. Also, according to Patti, the U.S. textile industry has been shrinking over the years, with the majority of weaving machinery and looms going overseas, where fabric is less expensive to manufacture. So, in addition to growing the herd, Patti has been searching for a mill that would commit to working with alpaca fiber as a woven end product. Just a few months ago, she finally found one in the South – no small feat, given the logistics involved – and is already examining fabric samples and choosing weave patterns for DesixUSA, their new clothing line.

“These garments will be sewn individually, not industrially,” says Patti. “I want a high-end fashion line, that I plan to sell in local, upscale boutiques. I want to work locally, as much as possible. Our main focus is on the ‘Made in the USA’ label. However, we are providing job opportunities locally – advertising locally, selling locally. Our designer and project coordinator is from Northern Illinois. She has since moved to the mill, to oversee every step of the process, so the construction will be done there as well. But our initial line will only be sold in Northern Illinois.”

The foray into fabric production is separate from farm operations. The Jennings’ employed three part-time workers previously, but the growth has allowed them to hire a full-time farm manager and two more part-timers, high school students who sort fibers. Sorting on the farm helps to keep mill costs down, Patti explains. On one Saturday in March, Patti and all five employees attended an on-site workshop to learn more about fiber sorting for a quality end product.

Before the workshop, the two boys sorted the fiber into three quality groupings; afterward, they were able to recognize and sort five quality groupings.

“I’ll always spend time and money to give my employees the skills and tools they need to do the best job they can,” Patti says. “I don’t know everything, so I’ll get people in here who do. I’m not passionate about the fiber. I’m passionate about the animals, and I’m passionate about growing an aspect of the business that isn’t being utilized. My animals aren’t providing all of the fiber I need, so I’m buying some from other farmers. It’s inexpensive right now, and that’s a shame. But the real shame is that this luxurious, exquisite fiber is only going to socks and scarves. By raising awareness and demand for the fiber through our company, it will ultimately make everyone’s fiber more valuable.”

Patti, too, has done her share of hands-on learning. “We’re doing a lot more health care onsite,” she says. “When I first started this, I couldn’t imagine giving a shot or assisting with a birth. But I don’t even think twice about doing those things now. We do our own shearing now, too.”

Patti isn’t just an employer; she’s also a mentor. “My high schoolers need to have passing grades,” she says. “If they’re failing a class, they can’t come to work until they get those grades up.

“This isn’t a one-man job. Everyone is important. For the kid who shovels poop, I explain how important that job is for keeping the fleece clean. But at the same time, I point out that it’s not something he wants to do for the rest of his life. Education is the most important thing.”

Patti is excited about the growth of her business. “It’s just blossomed,” she says. “I’m so excited about all of this. In the past two years, we’ve helped to establish 15 new alpaca farmers. We’re with them start to finish, from devising a business plan and buying the first animal, to breeding, showing and selling. We need to grow this to be more than simply a cottage industry. If I move onto something else, I want to leave a legacy.”

In 2008, the U.S. government reclassified alpacas as livestock, rather than exotic animals, which has helped the alpaca business. The change allowed Patti to apply for and receive a government grant. “The Value-Added Producer Grant is awarded to farmers as working capital for marketing value-added agricultural products,” Patti explains. “Our clothing line is happening thanks to the USDA.

“This used to be considered a rich man’s game,” Patti continues. “Now, when I’m at shows, I see young couples with home-schooled kids, who are raising alpacas along with chickens and goats. They have a different set of values, and they’re going back to living off the land. I love seeing self-sustaining families like that.”

For any business owner, Patti has this advice: “Accept that you don’t know everything. Be willing to step back once in awhile, and be the Indian instead of the chief. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying. But learn from them.

“And always remember that no one can do it alone. Everyone on your staff has an important role, so give them all their due respect.” ❚

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