Classing the key to growth in alpaca industry says producers
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
This article was published as part of The Citizen's 2016 Salute to Agriculture, which can be viewed in its entirety here.
Two days a week, three people get together at the Shears to You Fibre Pros mill, just south of Palmerston, and work to grow the alpaca industry.
The first is Deb Griffey, the owner of the mill, who is joined by alpaca farmers Henry Mengers of RR1, Hanover (Andre’s Alpacas – Andre is Henry’s middle name), and Dee Graham of the Lucknow area (DL Farms).
The three are friends and they spend Tuesday and Wednesday of each week classing alpaca fibre – sometimes from Mengers’ or Graham’s farm, but usually fibre that Griffey has purchased from alpaca producers from all over the country.
Mengers and Graham, both retired teachers, have upwards of 60 alpacas on their respective farms, while Griffey no longer has animals of her own. Griffey used to have an alpaca farm two different times, but officially got out of owning animals of her own when work at the mill began “taking over her life”.
With a handful of employees and thousands of pounds of fibre making its way through the mill every year, it’s easy to see that it takes a lot of work to ensure everything runs smoothly.
What the trio do every week is called classing and not just anyone can do it. In fact, there are only 15 people in Ontario who are registered classers – having taken both phases of the course and graduated.
Classing is the meticulous scrutinizing of alpaca fibre, dividing it among six possible grades, three different lengths and seven possible colours.
What the process does is insure the quality of fibre ahead of sale or ahead of eventually using the fibre to make a multitude of products from socks to mittens to sweaters and scarves, and of course yarn, one of the industry’s most important products.
The classification process begins with a three-day course that teaches the basics of classing. Many people take this course on an annual basis, Mengers said, and take that knowledge and apply it to their farms. Graduating the first part of the course, however, does not make you a classer, he said.
Fewer take on the second part of the course, which is much more labour-intensive. It includes four days of class time, but then a lot of practical work, such as the classing of 200 fleeces (that must come from two different breeds of alpaca) and then 40 hours of work under a qualified mentor.
The course’s final test is the submission of 25 samples that need to be graded.
The whole process takes about two years, the three classers say, and they are three of the 15 in the province who have gone all the way.
Classing, the three agree, is all about quality control. When alpaca products are out in the world, classing ensures that products that have been properly classed keep up the good alpaca name.
Griffey says that the fibre dictates the product when it comes to creating something out of the fleece of an alpaca. If the grade is high (a one or two is the highest, meaning the softest and highest quality), it can be turned into some of the best and most profitable alpaca products there are. However, if the grade is low (six is the lowest), they are used for alpaca products that are still high quality, but don’t require the softest fibre, such as socks or insoles.
This is where classing comes in, she says. A classer can’t take sub-par fibre and make it great, but someone who doesn’t know how to class can do the exact opposite and take good fibre and make it “crap” without much effort.
It represents a lack of understanding in the business, Griffey says, when a farmer simple sheers a fleece and wants all grade one and two fibre. You get what you get, Griffey says, and it’s up to a classer to tell you what you have.
Mengers says that classing alpaca fibre is also the industry’s path to growth.
Currently, the alpaca industry is considered a cottage industry, he said, with between 200 and 300 alpaca farms throughout the province – some of which are closer than you think with John and Maureen Hengeveld’s Cranbrook Acres Alpacas farm established just south of Brussels.
By implementing an industry-wide classing system and establishing standards for their products, alpaca farmers can take their business to the next level, he said.
At its height, Alpaca Ontario, of which Mengers is the president, had 180 member farms (not all alpaca farms are members of the association) sometime between 2010 and 2011. That number has since decreased slightly due to the economic downturn around that time.
Mengers is one of the charter members of the organization, one of the first 30 members of Alpaca Ontario when it was founded in 2001.
Graham is also a director of Alpaca Ontario and serves as the chair of the events committee. Griffey is also involved with the organization as the chair of the fibre initiative.
The work of the fibre initiative is aimed at the industry-wide standard of classing. When it’s implemented, Griffey says, she hopes the brand will be called Canadian Classified.
The hope of alpaca farmers, she says, is that it will be an industry-wide brand similar to Ontario Pork or Canadian Beef where consumers will see the brand and know they’re buying from a farmer who adheres to quality the customer can trust.
All three say that alpaca fibre is one of nature’s most amazing creations. It naturally wicks moisture and it’s warm, but it also breathes.
Mengers says, however, that alpaca fibre likes assistance, so many alpaca products include a small percentage of other products, whether it be silk, bamboo or nylon, to name a few.
The industry is growing, the trio agrees, but it’s happening slowly. The trick is that the value of alpaca products needs to be communicated to consumers.
While a pair of alpaca socks may cost more than a standard pair of cotton socks at Walmart, the benefits are far greater.
Once a customer tries an alpaca product, Mengers says, they are often hooked. But that first purchase often comes by way of a luxury gift purchase for a friend – then word of mouth takes over.
Mengers says that he sold a pair of alpaca socks to a friend of his, a pig farmer, who wore them every day for a year. The man was instantly converted. He didn’t have to wash the socks as often as you would conventional socks and the comfort sold him, Mengers says.
While all three sell their products at their farm gate, they are often best seen at craft and trade shows. Local alpaca farmers are planning a presence at the 2017 International Plowing Match, which will be held in Walton, but nothing has been confirmed.
Alpaca Ontario is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. Its special anniversary show will be held at the Orangeville Event Centre April 8-10.
For more information on the organization, visit its website at alpacaontario.ca.