Story by Janice Crowl
Photo by Olivier Koning
When Tess Wilkinson first saw a photo of an alpaca in a magazine, it was love at first sight: The creature looked like what you’d get if you crossed a camel with a teddy bear. She kept the photo for years, dreaming that one day she’d own a herd. Dream became reality in 2006 when she and husband David moved from California to Na‘alehu and started Big Island Alpaca Farm; today they have thirteen animals that produce fiber and crias, or babies, for sale to whoever might be needing an alpaca.
Wooly, but hardly wild: Saratoga, a huacaya alpaca, greets visitors to the Big Island Alpaca Farm in Na'alehu with kisses. Native to South America, these good-natured llama relatives are prized for their soft fleece. But a pedigree alpaca like Saratoga doesn't come cheap: You can take her home for $11,000.
Alpacas are camelids, and like camels they have padded toes rather than hooves. They’re related to llamas (but smaller) and vicunas (but bigger). They’re timid, inquisitive and like to be stroked under the chin. (Don’t go for the top of the head— they’re apt to hurl a noxious blob of saliva and stomach acid at you.) Their hair is softer than cashmere, warmer and stronger than wool, has no oily lanolin and is hypoallergenic. In South America, where they’re native, alpaca fiber is woven into ponchos, sweaters, mittens, hats … the sort of stuff you’d need if you lived high in the freezing Andes.
Which begs the question, Why breed alpacas in Hawai‘i?
“Why not?” answers Tess. “It’s fun! They’re like giant teddy bears.” Fun, perhaps, but hardly profitable. The Wilkinsons send the hair—five to ten pounds per animal—to a fiber mill on the Mainland to be spun into yarn, but it’s spare change. And alpacas gestate for a whole year, making it hard to earn a living selling the crias.
For Tess it’s a labor of love. Alpacas answer to their names, and each one has a personality. Indiana, a feisty male, is always ready for a fight, unlike the farm’s show champion and No. 1 stud, General Beauregard, a sweetheart with the softest fur and award-winning crimp (judges look for a superior kink in the hair). Saratoga greets visitors with furry-lipped kisses.
Ten alpacas can thrive on a one-acre pasture, and they’re good lawn mowers. But cuteness doesn’t come cheap. A single alpaca costs $5,000 to $15,000, and because it’s a herd animal you need at least two—a sole alpaca gets lonely. For Tess and David, at least, the price is worth the chance to watch their alpacas at dusk when they “pronk”—leap with all four legs off the ground, like carousel horses.