Fleecing fancy

Robin Vasquez's five Italian Mermana Sheeepdogs follow her out

For R
&
amp;R Ranch, LLC owners Richard and Robin Vasquez, heaven on
earth is a cold beer, a lawn chair and a panoramic view of 140
fuzzy-faced creatures milling about the couple’s 20 acres of lush
Gilroy farmland.
Self described

paca-holics,

the Vasquezes have one of the largest holistic operations in the
state of California, harvesting an average five pounds of fleece
per alpaca once a year come shearing time and selling it to co-ops
for $10 to $80 a pound.
For R&R Ranch, LLC owners Richard and Robin Vasquez, heaven on earth is a cold beer, a lawn chair and a panoramic view of 140 fuzzy-faced creatures milling about the couple’s 20 acres of lush Gilroy farmland.

Self described “paca-holics,” the Vasquezes have one of the largest holistic operations in the state of California, harvesting an average five pounds of fleece per alpaca once a year come shearing time and selling it to co-ops for $10 to $80 a pound.

“See,” said Robin parting thick waves of fleece on an alpaca’s back to reveal gossamer under-layers of cream-colored softness. “Their wool is like butter.”

R&R Ranch, LLC has been in business for six years, but the atypical oasis is a hidden gem of sorts. Robin pointed out the surrounding community has only recently begun to notice their eclectic line of work.

“They’re very curious,” said Robin watching her long-necked friends. She stood inside a small paddock, surrounded by a sea of pillowy bodies.

A chocolate-colored baby, or cria, with long eyelashes named Ricky was sniffing a camera lens.

“People say they’re like cats,” she laughed. “They wanna be around you, and see what you’re doing.”

At a glance, the pair’s Gilroy homestead, at 325 B Denio Ave., fits the pastoral profile: Drooping trees line a long dirt driveway winding up to a flat-roofed ranch house, a rustic barn backs up to grassy fields and a motley troupe of affectionate dogs run out to welcome visitors at the sound of a car engine.

The only thing missing is traditional livestock.

Up until six years ago the Vasquezes had been leasing their land – originally a prune orchard planted in 1956 by Robin’s father – when they decided to turn their property into working ranch. The subsequent interest in alpacas was sparked by one of Robin’s clients when she was working as a full-time financial planner.

“Every time I tried to book an appointment with him he’d say, ‘No, I can’t do it, I’m going to an alpaca show,’ ” she remembered. “And I thought, ‘what the heck is an alpaca?’ ”

Six years and 140 plush companions later, the Vasquezes are clearly in their element. It’s comical to imagine there was a time the couple had no clue what an alpaca – a close relative of the camel and llama – actually was.

Robin, lively and charismatic, chattered back and forth with Richard, soft-spoken and placid, like a doting parent noting changes in behavior and appearances.

“Is that one pregnant?” asked Richard, eyeing a rotund female.

“No,” said Robin, giving the animal a once-over. “She’s just fat.”

Giving a tour of the grounds, Robin introduced herd members by name.

“That’s Coffee,” she said, pointing to a three-legged alpaca. “And that’s Toddy … Pepper; that one’s Kenzie, over there – that’s Lisa.”

The wonder animal

A staple industry in Peru, alpacas are indigenous to South America. However Richard pointed out the difference in U.S. grown alpaca fiber is quality, as regulations and standards are stricter in North America.

“We breed for fineness; not bulk,” he said.

In the nation, Robin estimated there’s about 150,000 operating farms.

“You don’t mass-produce alpacas,” she said, explaining females, or hembras; and males, called machos; reproduce a single offspring once a year. “It’s one of the things that makes them rare.”

The Vasquezes belong to a blossoming market boasting a vibrant sub-culture of passionate paca-zealots, which they said is one of the fastest growing segments of the livestock industry in the United States.

Not surprising, given the fiber’s uncanny versatility that makes cotton look like an old shoe.

According to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, alpaca fleece is more durable than cotton, fine as cashmere but warmer and lighter than wool and comes in more colors than any other fiber-producing animal – approximately 22, with a number of variations and blends.

Robin said it’s naturally flame retardant, wicks moisture away and is nonallergenic.

She’s also heard of other purposes in the works, such as home insulation and auto racing upholstery.

“The insulation factor is off the chart,” she said, pulling a fleecy scarf out of a bag. Its texture was a dead-ringer for cashmere or angora.

Alpacas are also eco-friendly according to the Breeder’s Association, which said the animals are disease resistant, have padded feet that leave delicate terrain undamaged, eat/drink less than other farm animals, don’t destroy trees and produce dung that can be used for growing fruits and vegetables.

“I think you’re going to see alpaca take off in a decade,” she said.

Good for the soul

As one of the alpacas began humming, Robin noted the animals possess a calming presence and have been used in therapy.

She looked on as some rolled in clover green patches with all fours in the air like big dogs. Others loped and “pronked” – a playful bounding maneuver reminiscent of gazelles.

In a way, the animals channel Jim Henson’s Muppet characters – quizzical and lightheartedly amusing.

Their long, serpentine necks glide up and down, side to side independently from the body in a suspended motion, rendering them strangely mesmerizing.

All have large, expressive eyes; some highlighted by a natural lining of dark hair. Others have crimped bangs covering their faces, bucked teeth or curly tufts of hair spilling over from the crowns of their heads.

“They’re all unique,” said Robin, “but everybody wants to know about the spitting.”

One of the animals let out a gurgling noise.

“That’s a precursor to ‘get of my face,’ ” she warned.

“They’re thinking about it,” said Richard, forecasting airborne saliva.

The couple is working on making their ranch more accommodating so they can host educational outings. They’re also considering putting tables and umbrellas out in the fields so people can “picnic with alpacas.”

Businesswise, the focus is on cultivating a product that’s made in the United States, is sustainable and 100 percent natural. A long-term goal includes a potential storefront featuring items made from start to finish on their ranch.

Watching the herd graze and play, Robin smiled and agreed alpacas are good for the soul.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

Leave your comments