9/8/2012 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Delaware Correspondent
PRESTON, Md. — Like many in agriculture, Phil Liske realized that he needed a second income stream.
Like his father before him, he was in the hay distributing business, acquiring and delivering hay to farmers all over the Delmarva Peninsula. However, the rising costs of transportation was eating into his profit until he calculated that he was making about the same income as his dad did 30 years ago.
“I love animals and I wanted to have a horse farm,” he said. “But my accounts receivable told me that wasn’t the most profitable business to be in.”
So Liske and his wife, Vickie, started researching other agricultural opportunities on the Internet and that’s how he happened upon the idea of raising alpacas on his small farm near Harmony in Caroline County, Md.
Their Outstanding Dreams Farm was born in 2007.
Since then, Phil and Vickie Liske have become “missionaries” for alpaca husbandry. Naturally warm and friendly, they love to share their enthusiasm with the merely curious as well as those with a serious interest in their industry.
To that end, they will host their fourth annual Alpaca Festival and Open House Sept. 15-16.
Many agricultural operations are now looking to value-added manufacturing to turn their raw product into a second income stream. Liske said the business has been financially and emotionally rewarding.
To help them decide if this was what they wanted to do, the Liskes visited an alpaca farm in State College, Pa., that specialized in breeding but which was not designed to make a profit. The breeding operation was run as a hobby by a wealthy businessman. Nice work if you can get it, but Liske and his wife wanted to generate a second income.
Next they visited a fiber artist near Frankfurt, Del., who spun yarn from her own alpaca, which she turned into knitted and woven products. This was much more like what they had in mind. Liske said she was a great help, even accompanying them to an auction in Pennsylvania where they only registered as buyers in order to attend some of the seminars.
Prices were so much lower than they expected that they bought two pregnant females, one of which already had a 4-month-old cria, the term for a baby alpaca. Their friend boarded the animals while Liske got a fence in place.
From each experience, Liske said, they learn more about alpaca farming. One of the things he learned is that the most important thing when acquiring livestock — more important than the price you pay — is who you buy it from.
“You need mentoring,” he said, “especially in the beginning.”
While you’re learning the business and as long as you stay in it, you are going to have husbandry issues, he said. In the beginning, they paid to attend a number of seminars to learn more about how to care for their animals and market their product. Still, the first year was very frustrating.
But at the second seminar they attended, about 18 months into the operation, they found a mentor and a great teacher “who could tell by the look in your eyes if you got’ it,” said Liske.
After he began to acquire some confidence and was ready to sell an animal, Liske said he vowed that he would do all he could to see that his customers did not have a similar frustrating experience.
“A guarantee is only as good as the person issuing,” he said.
He urged someone looking to acquire alpacas for their farm to deal with someone reputable (you just have to ask around) and who is willing to issue a written guarantee.
Luckily, the majority of people who raise alpacas are “very good people,” he said. He’s clearly glad he stuck it out long enough to become established.
Both Liske and his wife are self-employed and have been for some time. Vickie Liske operates a hair salon next door to their retail shop featuring alpaca clothing and other products as well as yarn; Liske still distributes hay.
Some aspects of starting a new venture came easily enough — such as customer satisfaction. They understood it is absolutely necessary and sometimes you have to take a loss to make that happen.
Alpacas live to be as old as 20. Females are ready to reproduce anywhere from 18 months to 2 years; males are ready to breed at 2 to 3 years old. The animals are at their prime around age 7.
Annie, the first alpaca born on their farm, doesn’t put on any airs, but she is the queen of hearts. On a recent day, she was nursing her son, Cole, and frolicking with the rest of the herd out in the pasture.
Even before he began breeding alpacas, Liske harvested the fiber with the help of a professional shearer, and sent it off to a mill to be spun into yarn. Recently, they joined the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America. The cooperative gathers fiber from growers all over the U.S. and Canada and oversees production of the yarn and some finished products, putting Americans back to work.
“We’ve been astounded by the demand,” Liske said.
His wife, who belongs to a knitting group, uses the yarn she sells. It is softer, warmer and lighter than cashmere or merino wool. Because it contains no dander and almost no lanolin as compared to sheep wool, it is less likely to cause allergic reactions, he said.
Alpacas are native to the South American countries of Peru, Chile and Bolivia, where they have been domesticated for centuries. Their closest wild relative is the vicuna, the smallest member of the camel family. Peru is still the center of the alpaca wool industry and some of the Liskes’ products come from Peru, but they deal with “fair trade” companies.
Eventually, there will be enough raw materials from American growers to make everything they sell in the US. The fiber produces an income, but the more it’s processed, the more value is added to the product and the larger the potential market.
In addition to their annual festival and open house, the Liskes open their farm to visitors regularly and even host tours arranged by area bus companies. They have entertained visitors ranging from school children to senior citizens. Residents of a nearby assisted living facility seemed to enjoy it most.
On one such visit, Annie was pregnant and Liske thought she might give birth before the visitors left. She didn’t, but after the residents returned home, the director of their facility called and emailed for regular updates because the residents were eager for news of Annie. When the baby alpaca was born, Liske sent photos and got the “nicest note from the director.”
It’s easy to fall in love with these curious, sweet-tempered, gentle animals. They are shy and don’t enjoy being petted. However, if they take a shine to you, they will approach you and check you out, sniffing or nibbling on your clothing.
Alpacas are rarely intimidated by children, especially if they are quiet and still (parents can use this to their advantage). They will often approach children and allow them to pet their necks.
In addition to the alpacas, next weekend’s festival also will feature craft and food vendors, children’s activities and fiber arts demonstrations.
The farm is located at 24480 Pinetown Road, Preston, Md. Open house hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.