Personable alpacas strut their stuff

Alpacapalooza beckons ranchers, product makers, fans

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

If you go

What: Alpacapalooza, an event in which breeders, animals and vendors will participate in two days of shows, competitions and sales of alpaca products.

When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to noon Sunday.

Where: Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds, 17402 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.

Cost: Admission is free. Parking is $6.

Information: Alpaca Association of Western Washington or 503-318-0964.

Fortunato, Brandon and Apollo scurried to the side of the barn, taking tilted glances at the humans who had let them out of their pens.

The three young alpacas settled down momentarily for a few pats and strokes of their soft fur, then bounded down the building’s open center, playfully pouncing on and chasing each other.

“Some people say that alpacas’ personalities are similar to cats,” said Daryl Gohl, owner of Columbia Mist Alpacas in Woodland. “Each one is different. Some are playful. Some are curious and want to hang out. Others are more timid.”

This weekend, hundreds of alpacas will descend upon Clark County for the 14th annual Alpacapalooza, an event for alpaca ranchers and product makers.

Visitors will be able to buy alpaca products and learn more about the strange and gentle creatures, said Jeff Williamson, president of the Alpaca Association of Western Washington, which organizes the event.

“There will be roughly 500 to 600 alpacas here,” Williamson said. “It’s pretty big. People can wander through, meet the alpacas. There are vendors with all kinds of alpaca clothing, products and socks. And it’s great fun for families and kids.”

Alpacas, with their long necks and shaggy hair, look like something you might get if you bred a poodle with a giraffe. A herd animal from South America, they tend to have calm temperaments and are much more personable than their larger cousins, llamas.

The animals are prized for their hair, which is softer and warmer than sheep’s wool and doesn’t contain lanolin, the root cause of many wool allergies.

Gohl and his wife, Ruthie, have been raising them for 14 years. They’ve participated in many Alpacapaloozas during that time, and while they won’t be showing any animals this year, they still plan to attend.

“Alpacapalooza is one of the biggest shows around,” Daryl Gohl said. “It’s also one of the earliest shows of the season. It’s always a lot of fun.”

The couple has raised about 120 alpacas since they started their ranch in 1998. Their business is mostly breeding and selling show-quality alpacas, although they also collect and sell alpaca fiber and related products.

To Ruthie Gohl, though, the alpacas are a lot more like pets or family. She knows each one’s personality and has taught many of them to come when they’re called.

When the pair sells one, “I cry every time,” she said. “But we’re fortunate to have great people to sell to, and we can check up on them and see how they’re doing. I go and do medical checkups with them, and we give people a lot of advice.”

Most of the alpacas they’ve sold have gone to ranches in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the pair added.

The industry is a lot smaller in the United States than it is in South America, where some ranchers have 1 million to 2 million alpacas in a herd. The largest U.S. farm, in comparison, has about 2,500 alpacas.

The Gohls only have about 60 animals right now, but they’re considered a midsize U.S. ranch, Daryl Gohl said.

“There’s about 160,000 alpacas in the whole U.S. right now,” he said. “When we bought this place in 1998, there were only about 13,000 in the country.”

The industry as a whole voted to stop importing alpacas to the United States at about the same time that the Gohls set up shop, because breeders wanted to be able to track the genetics of the animals and keep detailed records of lineages here, Daryl Gohl said.

Demand for alpaca products continues to grow, but some people also buy less expensive nonstud male alpacas as pets, they said.

“You can feed them apples or carrots. They’ll follow you anywhere,” Daryl Gohl said. “I have a friend that has a halter and takes his alpacas for walks daily.”

Ruthie Gohl can call her alpacas from across the field, and they’ll come to her. They’ll also raise a foot for her during nail-clipping time when she tells them “foot,” she said.

Because of their jaw structure, with no top teeth and a sideways chewing motion, they’re great for keeping a lawn trimmed if kept as pets, she added.

“They eat mainly grass, and when there’s no grass, they eat eastern hay, which is very dry,” she said.

They also don’t require an expensive home to keep them happy, Williamson said.

“A lot of the time, you’ll spend all this money on a fancy barn, and they’ll just want to be frolicking out in the rain,” he said. “All you really need is a small shelter or lean-to.”

About 160 farms and vendors are signed up to participate in the event, and organizers expect several hundred visitors to turn up and check it out.

“Bring your kids,” Williamson said. “Kids love to see the alpacas. They’re such unique animals. They’re so docile. People love them.”

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; sue.vorenberg@columbian.com ; http://www.twitter.com/col_suevo