Central Florida's Agri-Leader
What’s got a long neck, lots of soft fleece, no top teeth and lives just off of Kenilworth Boulevard in Sebring?
Alpacas, that’s what. Forty-eight of them to be exact.
Their owner is Richard Fankhauser, who got into the business of these South American members of the camel family 11 years ago.
“They’re a tax write-off,” he explained, adding with a big grin: “I don’t pay any income tax.”
Fankhauser used to be in the rental business. “It takes 29 years to write off a piece of property, and you always have to clean up and kick somebody out,” he stated. “(With alpacas) in five years you get your investment back.” He said when he started, an alpaca farmer could shield $95,000 worth of income. Now that’s up to $135,000.
The alpacas are a sort of retirement business for Fankhauser, who is a mechanical engineer from Ohio who also taught school in South Florida for about 30 years. Not to be mistaken with their cousin, the llama, alpacas produce a fleece that “is softer than cashmere and three times as expensive,” according to Fankhauser.
Alpaca fleece (it’s called “fleece” not “wool”) is also hypoallergenic, containing none of the oils of wool and no barbs that can cause itching.
These friendly creatures, which are indigenous to Bolivia and Peru, have only been in the United States for 20 years, Fankhauser explained. When he got into the business, “I made every mistake in the book,” he stated.
First of all, he was told the animals wouldn’t eat “coastal hay.” He thought he would try it anyway since it was readily available.
“When I gave them a bale, they gave me a look like, you can’t be serious. We don’t eat this stuff!” Fankhauser laughed.
Now he has hay imported from Maine, and the alpacas also eat alpaca feed and raw carrots. “They’re persnickety, that’s all,” he remarked.
Another mistake he made was de-worming the alpacas on the same schedule as you would a horse or cow. But it turns out the animals are more susceptible to our native parasites and need to be de-wormed monthly or more during heavy rains.
Fankhauser also said he had started just checking the dung piles for signs of parasites and assuming all was well if he didn’t find any, but that turned out to be a mistake. “I will lose alpacas,” he said, if he doesn’t keep to a strict schedule.
Other than keeping them healthy, the animals are pretty easy to raise, said Fankhauser. While they hail from the cold Andes mountain region, they do just fine in Florida, Fankhauser said, and they live for about 15 years.
This time of year, just before summer, is when the alpacas get their annual “haircut.” A group of fluffy alpacas hung out in the barn in front of a row of fans, awaiting their turn, while their skinny-necked, sheared counterparts frolicked, cool and happy, outside.
They have personalities, too. One little brown girl stuck her head under the gap in the barn wall to watch her friends get their hair cut.
They are gentle and will eat carrots out of your hand, although they may not let you pet them and definitely don’t like their heads touched.
“Sometimes they are fairly lovey dovey,” said Fankhauser, who said they might come up and nudge him for a squirt with the hose on a hot day. “Other times they don’t want anything to do with you,” he added.
“They’re very smart. Don’t leave a gate open or the whole herd will be out the door in five minutes,” he warned.
Fankhauser has three machines that process the fleece. The carding machine pulls it into a blanket, the roving machine pulls it into a rope, and the spinning machine spins it into yarn. A technician from South America comes up to help process the fleece. Fankhauser also has a machine that will knit items or he uses hand-knitters in the area to fashion a sweater, scarf, cap, pair of socks, or other piece of clothing to the customer’s specifications.
Again, alpaca fleece clothing isn’t cheap. Depending on whether it is short- or long-sleeved, an alpaca sweater can cost from $350 up to $800. A pair of socks might go for $85.
The public is invited to the annual shearings, and folks should come with a several pockets full of baby carrots for the best experience. Fankhauser also takes his animals to the Florida Flywheelers and other festivals and entertains about two families a week who want to come to the farm. Call ahead to 385-4926 to schedule a visit.
“I love to show off my alpacas,” said Fankhauser.