Alpacas in action

Who knew you could put an alpaca on layaway? Or that an alpaca farm could become a multi-faceted business?

Brian and Frieda Schieber knew. The couple may be an unlikely pairing for a farm-based business – he’s a former NASA oceanographer and she’s an early childhood education specialist – but their six-year-old company, First Choice Alpacas, is on track to hit $500,000 in sales this year and has seen growth of at least 55 percent since moving to Battle Ground in 2006.

After Frieda Schieber learned the ropes on a friend’s ranch, the couple started their first alpaca ranch on Vashon Island, Wash., in 2002. But the island’s ferry-only access wasn’t conducive to growing the business.

“We knew when we started that farm that if we liked it, we’d have to move,” said Brian Schieber.

After developing contacts in the Vancouver area, the couple settled on eight acres in rural Battle Ground and set out to develop a full-service ranch. The site’s proximity to an urban area draws more visitors and buyers and allows the Schiebers to host tours, workshops, care clinics and other events for alpaca ranchers and enthusiasts.

The ranch is home to the Schiebers, as well as 25 alpacas. The couple owns eight, and the rest are owned by passive investors, some who are paying the Schiebers for their animals on layaway plans. The large, gentle animals are primarily bred for wool, and owning just one can lead to tax write-offs, the Schiebers said.

A retail offshoot of the business is Purely Alpaca. The couple sells apparel made from alpaca fibers primarily online and through a semi-annual catalog with a mailing list of 5,000. Socks are the top seller, even at nearly $26 a pair, but offerings also include sweaters, coats, yarn, blankets and teddy bears. 

The company also wholesales those products to farm stores and outdoor boutiques.

Purely Alpaca has filled about 5,500 orders in three years, and typical buyers are women ages 40 to 65, said Brian Schieber. The company markets through farm shows, alpaca publications, online advertising, mass email and direct mail.

The couple’s line of socks, Choice Alpaca Footwear, is manufactured near Philadelphia and made with fiber from Peru. While the Schiebers look for ways to support alpaca farmers in developing nations like Peru and Bolivia, they hope to develop domestic alpaca socks. They also plan to develop lightweight socks and other lightweight apparel.

While Brian Schieber is busiest on the retail and marketing end, Frieda Schieber works mostly with the animals and holds workshops to prepare alpaca owners to show their animals’ wool in contests.

“To really be successful in farming and ranching you have to run it like a business,” she said.

First Choice Alpacas

Brian and Frieda Schieber, owners

17109 N.E. 229th St., Battle Ground

www.1stchoicealpacas.com

360-666-3336

 

Charity Thompson can be reached at cthompson@vbjusa.com.

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