A little off the top

Published 11:34 am Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The sounds could have come from any barbershop in the city.

People were laughing and making small talk over the buzz of the clippers.

Those in line for haircuts waited patiently for their turn.

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And after every cut, someone would come by to sweep up all the loose ends from the ground.

But these were not the usual buzz cuts.

By the time they’d finished with a customer, these massive clippers had sheared between seven and 10 pounds of alpaca fleece.

The annual shearing of alpacas is one of the biggest and most profitable events to hit any alpaca farm, including the Golden Eagle Alpaca Farm in Whaleyville.

“It’s one of our biggest days,” said John Gasser, owner of the farm.

These shearings take place in the spring only after the cool weather has passed and the warm weather has yet to set, in order to keep the alpacas as comfortable as possible.

It’s a long wait for the desired product.

The fiber from alpaca fleece is used in the same ways as wool from sheep — for making knitted and woven products such as sweaters, blankets and bedding.

“I have a pair of socks made of alpaca fiber,” Gasser said. “They’re the best socks I’ve ever had in my life.”

The fleece of an alpaca comes in more than a dozen natural colors, so there are no dyes or chemicals added. Additionally, Gasser said, the alpaca skin secretes fewer oils, making its fleece easier for many consumers to wear.

“For people who have problems with allergies and stuff like that, alpacas can be very helpful for them,” Gasser said.

The high quality also yields high profits. Gasser said he gets roughly $3 per ounce of fiber, which adds up quickly using his nine alpacas on site.

Gasser got into the alpaca business last year, when he opened his farm in July. Looking for something to do after retiring from his wholesale produce business, Gasser was intrigued by the ease of caring for these llama-like species.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of time,” he said. “You have to look after them, that’s for sure, but if you have good fences and have a big dog or llama to look after them, you’re fine. The ease of care is wonderful.”

There are other benefits to raising alpacas, as well.

Trenton Bishop, who owns and operates Box Elder Ranch, said the alpaca community is a tight-knit one.

“It’s a wonderful industry,” Bishop said. “The people are just great.”

Bishop researched the industry for more than two years before opening his own farm in 2008. While he does sell some fleece, Bishop’s farm is more focused on pure-blood breeding of the animals. Through his work in the alpaca community, Bishop has met farmers and alpacas from around the country.

“I’ve really enjoyed the community that is the alpaca industry,” he said. “The products that come out of the alpaca fleece are absolutely amazing, and the people are truly wonderful people. There’s nothing really like it.”

Both farmers said they welcome visitors who want to come meet the alpacas in person.

“They’re the sweetest things,” Gasser said. “People should really get the chance to see them.”