WOODLAND — Tired of Southern California and its city living, Karin and Randy Finch left for greener pastures — literally.
The Finches made that decision in the mid-1990s when they had hit their 50s. They found themselves a slice of land in rural unincorporated Clark County … and a herd of alpacas, the silly-looking cousin of the more well-known llama.
They operate White Oak Alpacas, 39908 N.E. 12th Ave., Woodland, named after a 300-year-old oak tree in the middle of the pasture where the alpacas graze. The ranch is hilly and scenic, normally offering a view of Mount St. Helens. But on a recent Wednesday morning, the haze was strong from wildfire smoke covering the region; the grasses brown from a summer of little to no rain.
Journey to alpacas
After leaving Orange County, Calif., and his successful tree-pruning service, Randy Finch knew he wanted to get back to working the land. He and Karin Finch just didn’t know right away that it would be shearing alpacas for their fiber.
“We just wanted to get out of the urban environment. It was a good business, but you know, if you’re running your own business, at some point, you have to figure out what your exit strategy is,” Randy Finch said. Before the tree service, he spent time in the Navy working with submarines.
Turning their attention to alpacas was part chance and part careful deliberation. They had just purchased the 30 acres where they were going to build a house, at the urging of his nearby uncle. But owning that much acreage means paying high property taxes.
“If you live on a bit of land, you need to do something productive with it,” Randy said. The land, they said, had previously been used for elk and cattle ranching and was already tied to Clark County’s Open Space Farm and Agriculture program through the Clark Count Assessor’s office.
The county’s Current Use program offers tax relief for people who run a commercial farming operation through the production of livestock or agricultural commodities. There are 2,465 parcels in the program.
So, what would they do with their farm? While Karin Finch was flipping through an Alaska Airlines in-flight magazine when she came across an article about an alpaca ranch, she said, and was compelled to make a call.
“I wanted an animal I could handle,” said Karin Finch, who for the first 15 years mainly took care of the ranch while her husband still operated his tree business in California. Cattle were too large and they didn’t want animals that were primarily raised as meat producers.
White Oak Alpacas: whiteoakalpacas.com or 360-263-7214
“But I didn’t have much experience with alpacas other than they were dang cute,” Karin Finch said. “So part of it was novelty.”
The Finches know that there’s contention over whether raising alpacas constitutes a livestock business. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., issued a report in 2017 that criticized the business of alpaca fiber farming as a tax loophole.
“See my torn clothes, muddy boots and calloused hands? There’s no question whether these animals are livestock or not — they need daily care and you don’t just walk away from it,” Randy Finch said after a morning of chores.
According to the last Census of Agriculture in 2012 completed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 54 farms in Clark County with 1,000 total alpacas. There were about $82,000 in sales.
With 68 alpacas, 27 of which are theirs and the rest they are boarding for other ranchers, White Oak Alpacas’ revenue streams come through boarding, sales — including from selling the animal itself (breeding), selling the raw fleece and finished goods (like gloves and scarves), and doing talks at knitting guilds and spinning groups.
Other alpaca ranchers have been looking to alpacas for their meat. In the United States, eating alpaca is rare, if not taboo, although it’s more common in South America and other regions. Raising alpacas for their meat, in addition to their fiber, is something that the president of the Pacific Northwest Association of Alpacas, Tammy Watkins, has been considering. She runs an alpaca farm in Benton City.
“It’s just something you come around to. You go, yeah, they are livestock, and livestock — it’s meat that we eat,” she said. “There’s definitely a movement to educate people on the uses of alpacas.”
A fiber person
The Finches don’t advocate butchering and eating their animals. “I’ve run into a couple of people in this area (who eat or sell alpaca meat),” Karin Finch said. “I’m not going to fault someone for it, but I’m a fiber person. I can use their fiber. So let’s give them a nice life as best we can.”
She eventually wants to start her own line of hand-spun yarn using the fiber that “the mills can’t handle,” such as baby alpaca fiber, which requires much more cleaning to process, she said. Though she has her own tools to process fiber, she ordinarily sends it to local mills, such as Spring Harvest in Amboy, and Ewethful Fiber Farm and Mill in Halsey, Ore.
“I’m trying to find several (more mills),” Karin said. “Three out of four I used in the past closed.”
If You Go
• What: Washington State University Clark County Extension’s annual Harvest Celebration, through the Small Acreage program. A free tour of 10 farms throughout Clark County. White Oak Alpacas is open to the public all day throughout the event, where people can get up close with the alpacas, fiber processing and hand spinning.
• When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15.
• Cost: Free.
Now in their late 60s, the Finches don’t plan on going anywhere. Their children have no interest in the business, but it does provide a summer job for the grandkids.
They’re not doing so much alpaca breeding anymore (which, Karin Finch said, would bring in as much as $1,000 per alpaca; $100-$200 for “fiber quality animals”) but are focusing on the community. They’re participating in the upcoming Washington State University Clark County Extension Harvest Celebration and farm tour on Sept. 15.
Karin Finch has also been trying to work on the farm’s digital presence so people know more about White Oak Alpacas and happenings such as their annual “Sheared Delights” event.
They also hope that some of their alpacas will find new, caring owners.
“I’m basically interested at this point in placing some of my animals in good homes,” Karin Finch said. “I’m less motivated by money than finding a home where they’re going to be loved and appreciated.”