Running an alpaca ranch is almost too cute

The Boston Globe    
By: Cindy Atoji Keene
Photo: By Matthew Healey

Photo Caption: Matthew and Amy Varrell, owners of the Harvard Alpaca Ranch, with two of their alpacas.
Original content from The Boston Globe.       

Time for an adventure? Alpaca my bags. As the owner of an alpaca ranch, Matthew Varrell has heard that joke — and a few others — before. Alpacas are undeniably quirky and adorable, so it’s no wonder tourists from as far away as Asia flock to Varrell’s Harvard Alpaca Ranch for photo ops and alpaca souvenirs. But there isn’t a lot of petting — alpacas, as cuddly-looking as they are, don’t like to be touched.

For visitors, the animals are a livestock novelty, but for Varrell and his wife, Amy, they’re an income stream, thanks to their breeding potential and the value of alpaca fiber. Although the alpaca boom of the early 2000s is over, it’s trending back up, thanks to creative alpaca repurposing. Need an alpaca for a birthday party? Alpaca summer camp? Alpaca corporate outing? Varrell has hosted a bachelorette party – he thought it would involve an alpaca dressed for strip-tease but it turned out to be much tamer — just a visit by the bride-to-be and her friends to the pasture.

The fiber market is also gaining traction. Last month, the 15-alpaca herd at Harvard was shorn, yielding 145 pounds of raw fleece that is highly sought after because it’s soft, lightweight, warm, and naturally hypoallergenic. Varrell sends the shearings to a fiber coop and mill, where it’s processed into socks, boot inserts, hats, ornaments, dryer balls, mittens, gloves, and more. “The general rule of thumb for alpaca farmers seems to be that the fiber harvested from an animal should generate enough income to pay for the annual upkeep of that animal, not counting the cost of the land, taxes, and more,” says Varrell. He also sells “magic beans,” manure from the alpacas that is mostly pellets or “beans” and has a high concentration of nutrients to improve soil and water-retaining capacity.

While Varrell waxes poetic about the “incredibly relaxing and rewarding alpaca lifestyle,” he admits that they’re a 24/7 responsibility. “We don’t have a huge desire to take a break from the alpacas,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t mind a break from the accounting and marketing part of the business, but we knew what we were signing up for when we jumped into this.”

Read the rest of this story at The Boston Globe.