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C?&?M?Acres finds its niche

By Staff | Feb 4, 2011

Christian Davies explains to Alpaca 101 students — while demonstrating with Sparky, a young suri — that alpacas don’t have front teeth on the top. They have a dental pad.

MAXWELL – C&M Acres has a strong reputation within the industry. Its animals frequently earn ribbons at shows, and its owners are considered expert enough to lecture at Iowa State University.

Despite their industry success, farm owners Christian and Michelle Davies still frequently hear the question from outsiders: “What are those?”

“Those” are alpacas – New World camelids that are smaller than llamas and produce a finer fiber.

The Davieses have 96 alpacas on their farm southeast of Maxwell. Although the plan four and a half years ago was to breed alpacas and market their fleece, the success of C&M Acres has surprised even its owners.

The couple had a business plan, which they’ve followed.

Students at a recent Alpaca 101 class at C & M Acres get a chance to get acquainted with one of the young huacaya alpacas. The huacayas have a teddy bear-like coat.

“Other than that the farm grew a lot quicker in size than we wanted to, but yeah, we’re working with the plan,” said Christian Davies. “It’s just quicker growth than what we budgeted and planned for.”

Before they launched C&M Acres, the Davieses were looking for a business opportunity that would provide some stress relief and “make me not work so much at my office,” said Christian Davies, an executive vice president and chief financial officer who still overseas operations for a variety of companies. “We wanted something small enough that Michelle could handle, something that wasn’t a meat animal and didn’t bother her allergies.”

In any case, it’s really the Green Bay Packers that the Davieses have to thank for leading them to alpaca production. While staying in Minneapolis to catch a Packers-Vikings game, they switched on the TV and caught an episode of the cable show “Dirty Jobs.” Its host, Mike Rowe, was working on a New Jersey farm, helping shear alpacas.

As it turned out, alpacas filled all the Davieses’ requirements.

Christian Davies grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa; his wife grew up in Urbandale.

Christian Davies spins prepared alpaca fleece into yarn during a recent fiber-processing class at C & M Acres. Once he demonstrated the technique, students had the opportunity to try their hand at spinning. The Davieses offer two classes at C?&?M?Acres: Alpacas 101, which covers topics including the history of the South American natives, facility needs, time commitment, upfront costs and a basic business plan, as well as an all-day fiber-processing class.

“But I also have a love for farming and animals. I think I would have been a natural had I grown up on a farm,” Michelle Davies said.

Not that it matters.

“Most alpaca farmers have no farm background whatsoever,” Christian Davies said.

However, the Davieses are accountants, and that background proved helpful as they set up their business plan. Because alpacas are considered by the IRS to be livestock, there are a number of tax benefits available for alpaca farmers, and the couple investigated them all.

Revenue from alpaca farms also gets a boost from being a closed market.

A student in one of the alpaca classes at C & M Acres works on a sampler other students have started on the floor loom that Christian Davies uses to make scarves and tapestries.

Alpacas are South American animals, first imported into the United States in the early 1980s. However, imports were stopped in 1998 to allow the U.S. industry to establish and expand. Since there is still very limited alpaca production in the United States, each alpaca is worth a considerable amount as a breeding animal. The national selling price for females is in the $8,000 to $12,000 range.

The Davieses sell open, bred, proven and unproven females, as well as proven and unproven breeding males, and geldings.

In addition to stock, they sell fiber at every stage of production, from raw fleece to woven tapestries and knitted scarves. The Davieses also sell felted items; board and broker other people’s alpacas; provide breeding services to other farms; and hold open houses and classes to introduce others to the benefits of raising alpacas.

Although neither Davies had a background in fiber arts, they began learning about a year and a half ago, taking classes to become skilled in spinning yarn. Michelle Davies has taken on the knitting projects, and Christian makes scarves and tapestries with the help of a small rigid heddel loom and a large floor loom. Besides showing animals and having vendor booths at alpaca shows and expos, Christian Davies also sells loomed items at high-end art shows.

Alpacas are fairly hardy and easy to raise, but running C&M Acres is still hard work. Christian has kept his day job; Michelle now stays home to take care of many of the day-to-day operations.

Christian Davies pulls back the fleece of a young suri alpaca to let students in an Alpaca 101 class feel the dreadlocked coat of one of the animals. The other type of alpaca, the huacaya, has a teddy bear-type coat.

However, when Christian Davies comes home from work, all it takes is a few minutes of watching the alpacas to change the worst day into a good one.

One of the females, KPRI Rochelle, is a big girl who likes to bounce around the pasture, stiff-legged – a behavior known as pronking.

“When you see her do that, no matter how your day has been, you have to smile,” Christian Davies said.

Contact Barbara Wallace Hughes at (515) 573-2141 or bwh@messengernews.net

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