Interview: Karin Finch of White Oak Alpacas Ranch

Four alpacas in a barn stall.
Two alpacas in an outside field.

What inspired you to be an Alpaca Rancher?

White Oak Alpacas started many years ago with a dream of someday owning a little piece of rural land to retire on, away from the hectic rush of the city. Though many years from retirement, we always had our eyes open and in 1994 opportunity and preparedness crossed when we found that perfect spot to live and ranch, and our "little bit of land" had grown to thirty acres. The challenge that soon faced us was how to afford the potential property tax consequence of owning so much land. Alpaca ranching was the answer.

Being raised in the city and naming every animal we owned, we knew we didn't want to raise anything that might be killed for its market value. So cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs were out, and we didn't know enough about horses. Besides, they are huge! As fate would have it, we saw an ad about alpacas in the in-flight magazine on a trip to Seattle. It was love at first sight for me; Randy took a bit more convincing. Alpacas look like a cross between a giraffe and a teddy bear. They are small enough that I can look them in the eye with mutual respect, not intimidation. Not only are they cute, but alpacas are raised for their fiber (wool), not meat. We could name them and hug them – it was the perfect match!

How do you select the names for your alpacas? And how do you remember them all?!

Most of the current herd were born here so I have known them since birth. Each animal is unique; it’s a matter of figuring out their unique qualities. It might be size or color, eye color, their personality, or how their topknot is curly, straight, or parted. Right after shearing is the hardest time to tell them apart as all their fiber 'tell tales' are evened out.

A white alpaca walking in a field.
A brown alpaca’s fleece before being sent to the mill.

Approximately how many skeins of yarn does one alpaca yield?

That's hard to gauge! The best part of an alpaca’s fleece is their blanket, which runs along the top of their body from the base of their neck to the base of their tail and halfway down each side of the alpaca. That is what I usually use to make most of my yarns. Say the alpaca had a three pound blanket, after skirting (getting rid of grass, hay, etc.) I send it to the mill. The mill washes, picks, cards, and spins it into yarn. I figure for a 10 - 15% loss of weight for all this processing. I would put the rough figure at 10-14 skeins of 3 oz weight per fleece.

The neck and leg/belly can be made into yarns for rugs and/or blended with other wool to make yarn suitable for outerwear.

Each alpaca’s production varies from year to year because of age, health, and breeding requirements. For instance, a pregnant female will typically produce less fiber length while pregnant and nursing.

Karin Finch posing with two white alpacas wearing top hats.

How would you describe an alpaca's personality?

The best way I’ve found to describe them is: catlike. Some want to be friendly and get to know you, others are curious but wary, or not interested. They warm up to you as they get to know you and build trust. They can be goofy, aloof, sweet, grumpy, competitive… almost any 'human' emotion you can name.

What makes an alpaca different than other camelids?

Alpacas, along with the South American vicuna, are the smallest of the camelids. Their cousin, the llama, is usually double the size of an alpaca. A small or younger llama will weigh 200 pounds or so. My largest female alpaca is 220 pounds. Like humans, they are all different; we have smaller and larger than average on property.

Fun fact: alpacas are related to the giraffe!

Why did you choose to be an alpaca rancher as opposed to a llama rancher?

We chose alpacas because I thought they were cute! I had heard of various uses for their fiber and their size was ideal, as I was going to be the primary care giver and I am only 5’2. We are not into hiking and that was the major reason people had llamas at the time. 

What was your hobby before fiber arts and the world of alpaca ranching?

I have always been into crafts, dabbling in: sewing, embroidery, macramé, ceramics, painting on fabric, and counted cross-stitch. 

Which type of alpaca produces the softest fiber?

There are two main types of alpaca: Huacaya and Suri. The Huacaya has fluffy 'poodle' looking fleece. The Suri alpaca has shiny, long, and silky locks that look a bit like dreadlocks. Both can be soft, depending on the animal.

Softness is a tactile issue. Some say a very low micron number, the diameter of a hair, increases the softness of the fleece. It also depends on the consistency of the fibers in the fleece. If the fibers in the fleece are very similar in density, diameter, and length, it will give you a softer-to-the-hand feel. If there is a lot of difference in the fibers, your hand will pick up the difference and it will not feel so soft.

Alpacas are single coated animals and bred for less 'guard hair'. Guard hair is coarser than the rest of the fiber; if it is spun along with finer fibers it will tend to stick out and have a 'prickly ' texture. Some people feel they are allergic to wool or alpaca when instead it is a discomfort of the coarser fiber sticking out.

Very fine alpaca fiber, lower than 20 microns, is usually very soft; however, the finer fiber is not always the best choice for every garment.

What is the most surprising thing you've learned about raising alpacas?

It has opened the world of fiber arts to me. I am now a spinner, knitter, and needle felter - it is endlessly fascinating.

What does boarding alpacas look like?

We board alpacas for others who don't have time or space to care for their alpacas. They pay us a monthly fee for the care and housing of their animals. They have unlimited access to their animals, and in the past our boarders have trained and taken their alpacas to alpaca shows. They are responsible for all veterinary costs relating to their animals.

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming an alpaca rancher?

Call and make an appointment for a visit with us if you are in the Pacific Northwest area, or find a breeder to visit. While visiting, discuss the care and housing of alpacas with the breeder. Breeders will usually ask if you want alpacas for 4-H, fiber stock, or breeding stock. You should consider what your goals are with having alpacas and how much land you have.

Alpacas are great small acreage livestock. They are easy on the land, don't challenge fences, and eat less than most other livestock.

If you are into fiber or want to be, find a rancher that matches your interests and can help you.

What is your favorite alpaca memory thus far?

It was the day we brought our first alpacas home. We created our picturesque landscape and loved seeing the alpacas grazing in the pastures.  

Shelves of bagged, brown alpaca fiber.
A carding machine on a table.
Fiber processing station surrounded by baskets of alpaca fiber.

What plans do you have in the works over the next year as an alpaca rancher? What are you excited about?

We are working on getting a new website up so we can sell products from our alpacas online. We will also be continuing to educate the public about alpacas and why we raise them.

Where can people find your fibers and yarn?

Right now people can contact me through our current website or Facebook page to set up a visit to my farm store; we are open by appointment only.

White Oak Alpacas booth.
White Oak Alpacas booth in a barn.

We'd love to know more about your annual event "Sheared Delights"! Can you tell us more?

This is our big barn event with alpacas, fleeces, rovings, and yarns for sale. Attendees can meet the alpacas who produce the fiber we love to spin and knit. There will be spinners spinning, fleeces being skirted, knitters knitting, and alpacas giving kisses. You can see how fleece becomes a finished product. Each year we host a variety of fiber arts vendors too!

In 2019 you can join us at this free event on Saturday, May 18th and Sunday, May 19th from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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