I appear to be a big fan of controversy when it comes to alpacas. I guess it's because I care so much about them. This post generated an awful lot of controversy, as did this one.
This one is bound to stir up even more.
It started out as a reply to a Facebook post, and then got WAY too freaking long.
The original post (which I can't seem to figure out how to link to) was in response to some comments that were, in turn, in response to an article (confused yet?) which discusses the state of the Australian alpaca industry and how it is maturing. The article also mentions the meat aspect of the industry. As usual, a few voices had to come out in opposition to using alpacas as meat.
On particularly vocal opponent is Starr Cash. Starr certainly has done more than most to promote alpaca as a genuine livestock animal in terms of her extensive work promoting and organizing the fiber side of the industry. For this, I have a great amount of respect for her – alpacas are a fiber animal, first and foremost, and Starr was one of the first in the industry to recognize and vocalize the need to promote and focus on this fact. However, she and I have never quite seen eye-to-eye as far as the trajectory of the industry is concerned. In a nutshell, Starr is one of those breeders who is vehemently opposed to any promotion of the meat side of the species by the industry as a whole.
One point that Starr made is one that I found particularly interesting. She wrote:
“Lastly, we accidentally positioned Alpaca as a "huggable investment". I know, I hear you ALL groaning and gagging out there. But, it is my opinion that this could be looked at as a gift instead of a curse. We already have this established market base - an audience - who thinks we LOVE our alpacas like pets or children. They are vegans with trust funds and millenials with jobs that I never heard of but that they make 6 figures working at. The ones with the disposable income who can indulge their "green" cred with sustainable fashion statements."
I wanted to address this particular point, because I actually can appreciate that argument ... However, as someone who happens to be pretty in touch with the hipster millennial side of things (1985 model, here) … I also think that I am perhaps uniquely qualified to refute it.
Sooo, here's my newbie arrogant millennial perspective.
I bred chinchillas for 10 years. I loved my herd and I was very proud of it. I never did begrudge those who raised them for the original purpose for which they were imported into this country -- that is, fur -- but I could never bring myself to do it, and it never made economic sense to me, and it was just something that I never chose to pursue. What I did pride myself on was raising chinchillas that held up to my own personal standard: pretty to look at, in my eyes (mine may well have been show-quality, based on what I know of the standard, but I never put any before a judge); super healthy and robust; and, above all, calm and friendly. At the end of the day, my primary client base was the pet owner. I was raising them for the pet industry, which is very often demonized by the show people and the fur industry alike, but you know what? ...
I believed in them. I believed in them as pets. Unlike so many small mammals which are really best suited to serious hobbyists, chinchillas make AWESOME pets for a lot of people. They are quiet, and produce very little odor and mess; they will often bond with their humans, and a pair of chinchillas is just endlessly entertaining to watch. I've owned just about every small mammal pet under the sun, and that was the one I chose to raise, because I believed in them.
... Funny enough, it was another South American species that I settled on for my livestock animal of choice: the alpaca. I wouldn't raise alpacas if I didn't believe in them.
It was socks that first sold me. I think that socks have probably sold a lot of people. I mean, seriously. Alpaca socks kick ass. They are extremely warm, durable, and very, very comfortable. I don't think I've met anyone who has tried on alpacas socks and not been totally wowed.
... Then, once I got alpacas (a goal that I never thought I'd achieve, given their prices when I was in school) and I realized how neat they are, how unique and entertaining, and also how easy to care for, and hardy, and easy on the land -- I was sold.
Oh, also ... The person I got my first two pets from also gave us some ground alpaca meat (after first determining, carefully, after numerous conversations, that we weren't the sort of people who would scream and slap her in the face). I'm a picky eater, to put it mildly, so the fact that I liked it (and don't like goat, or mutton, or lamb, or really even beef all that much) – well, THAT was the other thing that sold me.
... Because I came from the "Pet Industry." I'd seen what happens to the Unwanted [fill-in-the-blank animal], and it often isn't pretty. I also had come from a brief stint in the performance horse industry that REALLY drilled that home.
I can kinda maybe sorta see the “huggable luxury,” argument, I think. Maybe. The industry COULD consist of a handful -- a few thousand, maybe -- head of ULTRA high end, beloved animals, all belonging to very small farms, that produce super valued, luxury fiber that would be worth a boatload due to its rarity. The end consumer knows that the animals are loved and pampered, and that enhances their products' value. They'd be the Kobe beef of fiber.
I could see the appeal of that angle, and maybe that was the goal of the industry leaders back in the late '90's and early 2000's … But that wasn't what happened. Instead, the animals got Tulip Bulbed. (Speculative market, and all that.) When a commodity – including a living commodity – fetches a particularly high value, well, it's just plain human nature to want to produce lots of that commodity and cash in on the craze, regardless of the repercussions for a future market. Not every investor did this, of course, but enough did so as to seriously affect the market – and the public's perception of the species – for a long while.
Now, the industry is digging out of that. I've seen some pretty cool articles recently touting the virtues of alpaca fiber that suggest that we're digging out rather nicely. Not only are consumers starting to realize that the fiber itself is pretty great, but all of those benefits that have enhanced alpacas' value as a livestock commodity – easy on the land, high feed efficiency, etc., etc.. – make the fiber an especially appealing option to many consumers, because it is very sustainable.
Yes. Yes, there's that buzzword that so many millennials – and so many others – are so very on about. Sustainable.
The only way that the alpaca industry will be truly sustainable is if it embraces the terminal market option. Period. The end.
An industry in which the livestock animal must be fed, sheltered, and cared for long after its useful productive life has ended – and in which those individuals whose production qualities are not adequate to begin with must, likewise, be fed and accommodated – is not sustainable. Farms will very quickly run out of capacity to house and care for these non-productive animals. Such a model makes a great hobby, sure, but in a practical sense, it is not sustainable. In a practical sense, it could be viewed as downright wasteful.
Now, please don't misunderstand me. I am not for a moment claiming that an individual farm who chooses to house and care for their B-grades and retirees is doing anything wrong. That is each individual farm's choice. That farm may choose to view their alpacas as pets, and that's perfectly acceptable – I love pets. Pets are great!
As an industry, though … As a commercial industry that wishes to present itself as the ecologically-friendly, sustainable alternative to fine wool and cashmere, well – I think that the industry, as a whole, needs to have a better option for what to do with those nonproductive animals that's a bit more sustainable and ecologically friendly than keeping them around and using valuable resources to keep them alive just because we feel bad for them.
That doesn't mean that we have to be brutal about culling. It doesn't mean that we have to put nonproductive alpacas onto barren feedlots. Quite the contrary; the terminal market represents another opportunity to present alpaca as an ecologically friendly, sustainable resource, this one of humanely raised, sustainable meat. In addition, due to the meat's high protein content, excellent flavor, and, yes, its great rarity (nobody in the alpaca industry is suggesting that we focus on making the alpaca a primary meat animal, and least nobody that I'm aware of; that idea is, indeed, kinda silly) – it should, with the proper marketing, be a very high-end by-product indeed.
… Because in my experience, hipster millennials are, on the whole, pretty okay with the idea that livestock animals die to make food for humans. We just aren't a fan of intensive (“factory”) farming, of extreme breeding practices that harm animal welfare, of farming practices that are unsustainable. And the “huggable investment” idea is, well … Kinda unsustainable.
… And vegans? Vegans won't wear alpaca regardless of how it is harvested. Vegans won't use any animal products at all. Period. No need to worry about their opinion because no matter what any livestock farmer does, a vegan will still believe that it is wrong, because vegans believe that using animals to produce anything is wrong.
So, in summary: Yes, I do believe that the alpaca industry can, and should, promote and capitalize on the “green,” sustainable, small agriculture angle. I think that developing and promoting the meat side of things as a healthy, humanely-raised, sustainable by-product is one of the ways we can do it.