Federal grant boosts North Yarmouth alpaca farm

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NORTH YARMOUTH — An alpaca farm and producer of natural fiber textiles has received a $30,000 economic grant from the federal government.

Suri Paco Farm was one of nearly 300 organizations across the country to share a $40 million Value-Added Producer Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The funds are earmarked to strengthen rural economies.

The farm, located on Windward Passage, is Maine’s only recipient of the funds. Founded by Ken and Claudia Raessler in 2000 as Royal River Alpaca Co., the business specializes in Suri alpacas – “Paco” is the South American Quechua people’s word for alpaca – and produces socks, scarves, fingerless gloves and hats. Their products are shown on suripaco.com.

The grant will support three initiatives: an industry feasibility study to define market potential for alpaca wool products, a working business model for Maine producers of alpaca products – who will work collaboratively to produce those items, since manufacturing a greater amount is more economically feasible – and a long-term strategy for branding and marketing of those products.

“The goal of the grant, the work project, is to put the Maine (alpaca) farms together,” Claudia Raessler said last week. “… It’s a chance to take what has been a cottage, small-farm production model, up a step. Most of the farms don’t send any volume of fiber (for commercial manufacturing) like we’ve been doing, because they don’t buy other fiber, and so it’s a chance to take what we’ve done ourselves, and expand it even a little further.”

She added that “it’s economic development for farms … and to get their products to market in an affordable and marketable way. We recognize that this is not high-volume production … but it has a niche market that is very appealing.”

Ken Raessler said several participating farms would probably not have done anything with their fiber, “but now they have a product with which they will likely be able to double their profits.”

Ken Raesller is a practicing anesthesiologist with Spectrum Medical Group in Portland, while Claudia is a consulting attorney to the Portland-based law firm of Marcus, Clegg & Mistretta, where she primarily practices corporate business law for nonprofits. Along with their alpaca farm, they also have a vineyard that last year produced about a ton of grapes that are being made into wine.

After the couple purchased the 25-acre North Yarmouth property in 1999 and finished their house, they decided to build a barn and start a farm. They discussed populating the farm with horses, sheep or goats, but said they leaned toward llamas and ultimately were inspired to go with alpacas, another member of the camelid species.

“It was really an interest to have an animal that was not too hard to care for, that was used to the cold climate, that had some value other than its meat, and that you didn’t end up slaughtering every year,” Ken Raessler said.

Alpacas also have high value as breeding stock, “so we saw it as a way to diversify our retirement,” he said, chuckling.

Alpaca fleece is lighter, but is as warm or warmer than wool, Raessler said. It also does not trigger as many allergies or cause as much itching, he explained. The material’s appeal is also its shine, luster and soft feel.

The business shifted from breeding to using all the fiber from alpaca fleece that the Raesslers had at their disposal. Very few Americans were domestically manufacturing alpaca products on a larger scale about a decade ago, Raessler said.

An alpaca produces about four to eight pounds of fiber a year, he noted. Every May the Raesslers’ stock is sheared, and the fibers are gathered and separated according to where on the alpaca’s body the wool originated. The fiber is sorted by color and graded by quality, and sent to a Waldoboro wash facility, which the Rasselers helped establish.

The farm’s 40 alpacas generate about 160 pounds of fiber, so each year the Raesslers purchase between 4,000 and 10,000 pounds of the material from farms around New England and the Midwest. That fleece is washed and baled, and the product is either sold or sent to spinning mills to be made into yarn. The material returns to the Raessler’s farm, to be either sold wholesale or sent to manufacturers to be made into the products the business sells.

Besides its website, Suri Paco also recently started selling its items from The Alpaca Shed on Temple Street in Portland.

Although the business demands a large time commitment from the Raesslers, they said it’s a good feeling to be able to develop something that a lot of other people aren’t doing.

Ken Raessler said “this is not very common, where people are actually running a totally vertically integrated production chain.”

And with the grant-funded initiative, Claudia added, “it isn’t bad to be able to say that you’ve done something to contribute to the Maine economy.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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Some of the inhabitants of Suri Paco, a North Yarmouth alpaca farm and producer of natural fiber textiles that has received a $30,000 federal grant.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.