Monday, June 22, 2009

Alpaca Farming in Wisconsin with Geoff Rostan

Geoff Rostan first encountered alpacas in a travel magazine pulled from an airplane seatback. Intrigued, he began casual research which gradually intensified as the stresses of the corporate world mounted. Like more and more North Americans smitten with the animals, Rostan decided to try his hand at alpaca farming. It was the genesis of the Timber Ridge Alpaca Farm.

Rostan says with a grin: “The most experience I had with animals was raising our family dog.” He’d done his research though, and it began to pay off. Not long into the endeavor, he secured early retirement and now raises alpacas full-time. “I work harder now than I ever have, but I also enjoy my work more than I ever have.” Currently, Rostan’s herd numbers just under thirty animals, and he has plans to double it.

The Timber Ridge Alpaca Farm is nestled in the hills near Monticello, Wisconsin. In a state where the norm for animal agriculture consists of raising swine and dairy cattle, Rostan's Huacaya alpacas are a unique and regal jewel of the American livestock industry.

Rostan describes the response of local farmers. “They generally respond with a lot of questions. During our first open house, many of the neighbors stopped by to see 'Just what was going on up on the hill.' Many of them expressed that they were glad that I was keeping the land in agriculture.” Evidently Rostan has gained more than just their interest. “Recently, a couple of the guys helped me make hay on the 12 acres that I had planted last year.”

Timber Ridge's profitability is a combination of breeding and fiber. Rostan believes that “the future of alpacas is in the fiber itself but it will still take some time before there are enough alpacas in this country to make a viable fiber market.”

Fiber is sold to a variety of outlets. Hand spinners buy raw Timber Ridge fiber as well as fiber which has been processed into yarn and roving. Customers are both local and extend beyond Wisconsin. A family member attends fiber festivals twice a year and sells a large amount of the Timber Ridge annual shear.

“I have two local 'mini-mills' that I use for our processing,” Rostan says. “We also belong to The Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America. We supply them with a portion of our yearly clip, and in return, we can buy high quality alpaca products at a wholesale price.”

Wisconsin winters do not pose a problem for the alpacas. Rostan shields them from the wind and gives them shelter when the temperatures drop. Summers require a little extra care. “Our temperatures are more moderate than in other areas of the country. We may have a few hot, humid days during the summer, but they usually don’t last that long. On those days, I will go out to the barn and spray their undersides to keep them cool. They really love it.” The alpacas actually line up for him when he pulls out the hose.

According to Rostan, the number of breeders in Wisconsin has more than doubled since 2001. “We have a large network of very dedicated breeders that are always willing to lend a hand when someone needs some help. We also have a strong regional association called The Great Lakes Alpaca Association which meets four times a year to provide educational seminars and discuss everything from birthing crias to marketing. The University of Wisconsin Veterinary School also sponsors continuing education seminars for alpaca breeders and veterinarians that have ranged from reproductive issues to parasite control.”

When asked how the sluggish economy has affected Timber Ridge and the alpaca industry, his answer is upbeat. “Because of our soft economy, there are some excellent opportunities to acquire some wonderful alpacas at reasonable prices. Now would be the best time to invest. Ultimately, the market will come back out of the recession. For those who were smart, they will be positioned very well. There are some great tax incentives for the small business owner right now that can really help too.”

Rostan is a man who appears to truly enjoy what he does. He surveys his herd and recalls an alpaca that had a habit of untying his shoes. He continues to point out various personality intricacies of his herd. Beyond breeding and sheering for fleece, he finds a lasting satisfaction in introducing people to alpacas and watching the transformation that occurs. When asked if he had any regrets, a serene Rostan answers: “Only that I didn’t get involved sooner. These animals are not only a joy. They are an antidote to stress.”

To share the experience, visit the Timber Ridge website at www.timberridgefarm.com/

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