Doug and Cindy with some of their Huacaya and Suri
Over the Christmas holidays, I had an opportunity to visit Cindy Harris and Doug Fieg and their farm, Alpacas at Windy Hill, in Somis, California (in Ventura County, southern California near the Pacific Ocean).
After a peaceful, sunny morning strolling among the alpacas with my wife and 3 kids, I sat down with Cindy in her show ribbon-decked office to ask her how she's making it work with the current challenges of the industry, and how she's planning for the future.
Cindy, tell us briefly how you got started in alpacas.
I stumbled into it by accident - somebody introduced me to alpacas after I got a larger piece of property than I intended to and it looked like more fun than avocado trees! Pretty soon I was able to quit my teaching job and stay home. People kept bringing me alpacas to board and so we have a boarding business - about half of our 370 alpacas are boarded for other people. I've been doing it for about 11 years and I've never looked back - it's the most fun I've ever had.
What would you say has been key to your success?
I think believing that I can do this, wanting to do it, and making it my whole business. When you have a back door, you tend to take it. I don't have a back door, so it has to work. And it does.
There are all sorts of ways to make it work - second streams of income and things that you bring from your "other life" that help you. I have lots of computer skills that I brought from my teaching and a lifelong love of photography. So I do my own website, I do my own ads, and shoot all my own pictures. So I save myself a lot of money in that respect. And then we board for other people, so that's our second stream of income. In fact that's what lays the baseline for our maintenance.
We have about 200 alpacas of our own because we didn't stop breeding when the recession hit. We're fortunate to have space and we thought, "why would we stop breeding - someday we're going to need inventory." So we kept breeding and we're still breeding so when the market comes back and people are looking for really high quality, we're going to have it.
We keep showing because showing is the best kind of marketing I can think of - you meet people face-to-face, they can see your animals live, see the ribbons that they're winning, and it's exciting!
You were fortunate to have computer skills. I'm sure there are people thinking, "I don't have the technical skills to do the marketing." What would you say to them?
If I say I can't do something, then I can't. But if I say I can, I'll find a way to make it work. There are also a lot of talented people in the alpaca industry, many who have skills I don't have and vice versa. Just like you might trade herdsire breedings, you can trade skills.
Get together and use the strengths of the community and trade out those services. It doesn't pay to be in such competition that you can't talk to one another. We need each other in the alpaca industry - we're not that big. You may be my competitor today but tomorrow you're going to be my customer and the next week I'm going to be yours. So why not combine skills? Put a marketing group together, hold events together. We're stronger when we work together.
There's a lot of change going on with the alpaca industry. What is it that makes you persevere and push through this difficult time as opposed to giving up or scaling back and getting a day job?
I love what I do. I don't want a day job - I have one! And as long as I can make this work for me, that's what I want to be doing. So you have to be a little creative - what areas of the alpaca industry am I not tapping into right now?
Recently we have added a fiber component to our business that we didn't emphasize before. I've always said that I'm an alpaca breeder - I don't have time to do the fiber thing - that's for somebody else to do. So what I've done is gather around me a number of people who are very strong in the fiber side of things and we pool our efforts. We go together to get our fiber processed, we hold classes here - I provide the space, they provide the expertise. We draw people in from the community into the fiber side of it which very often leads to the breeding side. As breeders we have to have an end goal in mind.
You seem very upbeat about the alpaca industry. What would you say to breeders that are feeling discouraged about the future of the industry?
I'd say to them that we're just beginning, that this recession has just been a shakedown. It's made everybody get more real, it's made us all trim our costs and cut the waste out and think more clearly about our goals.
I do a lot of marketing and I see a lot of traffic coming through my door now that I haven't seen for almost 2 years. There's a resurgence of interest now that the recession is easing up a bit. Yes, prices are lower but you never make your money by having one offspring from a female and selling it and getting your money back. That's not how it happens. You buy a female because she's going to provide you with years of offspring.
Let's talk prices. Someone is selling a comparable alpaca for a lot less than what you feel is a fair price. Does that affect your ability to sell or are there other factors that matter?
If you feel confident that your female is worth $3000, then you hold that line. I've sold several alpacas in the last 6-8 months and not one of them for less than $5000. Who you buy from is almost more important than what you buy, in my opinion. Our guarantees are good - if you're not happy, then we're not happy - bring her back. I'd rather have my clients be supported - help them feel like they can count on me. And that's I think the reputation that we have.
One of the things that Doug and I have done is to give away a package of four females but the price that the person pays is that they give us back the first two female cria. So we're going to get the improved offspring back as payment, they have a huge head start in their alpaca business, and it lowers the number of animals we're feeding. If they board them here it increases board when we weren't collecting board for them before. So that's worked extremely well for us and for our clients.
Presumably there's a screening process - you're not just giving these away to anyone?
Exactly. These are people we know and maybe they're already in the industry but they were barely able to buy their first two animals and they don't know how they're going to grow their herd. This is the perfect opportunity and makes for a lot of good will and team building.
Since Openherd's goal is to help alpaca breeders market themselves, can you tell us briefly about what you do and what's been effective for you?
The first thing is that your website needs to be up-to-date and Openherd offers the most wonderful venue because you can have a website that's real and easy to keep up. There's really no excuse to have a website that's 6 months out of date. People see a date that's outdated and they stop looking at your ranch. Get the word out as much as you can to drive people to your ranch. We hold a lot of events and classes.
If you would like to talk to Cindy, you can visit her Openherd profile here: alpacalink.openherd.com
To learn more about getting a personal farm website (separate from your Openherd profile), visit our Websites page at: www.openherd.com/websites/.