COMMERCIAL TOWNSHIP — At mealtime, 14 alpacas jockey for position to stick their fluffy heads in Keith Moore’s green feed bucket, which he keeps slung around his shoulder.
Feed time has gotten busier in the past four years at Meadows Edge Alpaca Ranch in Port Norris. Keith and Barbara Moore started with four alpacas in 2008 and a long-range plan to breed alpacas on their expansive property off Berrytown Road.
“You build your herd. And we knew we wouldn’t sell any animals for four or five years,” Keith Moore, 49, said. “We’re getting right where we want to be, and now we’re ready to start selling them.”
Related to llamas and members of the camel family, alpacas are domesticated South American mammals prized for their warm and soft fleece.
New Jersey has 71 businesses belonging to the Alpaca Farm and Breeders Association, a Nashville, Tenn.-based industry group.
For the past few years, the Moores have been selling alpaca fiber they sheer off their growing herd, with the colorful fleece used to make socks, hats, yarn and other products.
A single alpaca can produce 7 or more pounds of fiber, although quality is important to pricing and for breeding, Keith Moore said.
The Alpaca Farm and Breeders Association says an ounce of raw fiber can be worth $2 to $5, with the product becoming more valuable as it is cleaned, knitted and finished.
Meadows Edge opened a showroom to sell alpaca products, including socks priced at about $20 a pair. The ranch sends some of its alpaca fiber to a co-op that crafts it into socks. The farm buys the socks at wholesale prices and they sell at retail, said Barbara, 52.
Breeding alpacas takes patience, because gestation lasts longer than 11 months.
That’s plenty of time for stressful events such as during Hurricane Sandy, when flooding at the ranch forced Moore to move the alpacas from the barn to a garage, and then to a trailer off the property in the middle of the night.
The Moores both work at the long-running business of Barbara’s family, Miller Berry & Sons Inc., which makes casket mattresses.
They saw the alpaca business as a way to provide a secondary income
“We’re hoping, when we retire, we have some source of income coming in besides what little bit we’ll get from Social Security,” Keith said. “By then, it should be well established — selling animals, selling breeding.”
Getting into the alpaca business involved a significant upfront capital cost — about $30,000 for two female alpacas, they said.
They have been able to reduce some other costs, because they already owned the land and Keith grows his own hay on 33 acres of the property.
Cindy Berman, a spokeswoman for the Alpaca Farm and Breeders Association, said the industry was introduced commercially in the United States in 1984.
“Before that, they were mostly seen in zoos,” Berman said. Her organization’s members have more than 170,000 alpacas.
“A lot of farms start with a few, and then it grows,” she said.
Barbara Moore said she had first noticed alpacas in a magazine article as the couple were looking for uses of the land, including potentially raising goats or other livestock.
“I just fell in love with the looks of them. We both like animals and we have all this land. … When it’s nice out, we sit on the porch and watch them. They’re so graceful and so quiet,” she said.
Contact Brian Ianieri: