Ilko alpaca ranch producing high-quality fiber and hope
An hour west of Steamboat Springs, north of Craig but tucked quite a ways into the mountain wilderness, is found a sanctuary of hope and hard work.
Winding through the snowy hills and high plains past a small handful of prairie-dotting homes along unpaved county roads, the concerns and speeds of nearby civilization are left behind, and, rumbling down the hill that dead ends at the Ilko ranch, a visitor first spies dozens of fuzzy heads turn atop spindly necks to see who comes to observe their little home.
The heads belong to Huacaya alpacas, a little more than 50 of them in all, penned together by gender to avoid over-breeding. The alpacas belong to the Ilkos, Johnny and wife Laura.
The Ilko ranch — it’s been in Johnny’s family since before he was born — was once home to sheep, like many others ranching in northwest Colorado. But the younger generation thought they’d give something new a try and experiment with a niche that, locally at least, makes them a pretty rare breed.
“As much as we can, we love to shop from small businesses,” Laura said. “It’s going to take the little person to keep going.”
Johnny and Laura are evangelists for the emerging product that is alpaca fiber — it’s not called “wool,” technically, Laura explained; that’s the word for the stuff that sheep produce specifically — and they believe that the lanolin-free, allergy-friendly strong, soft, durable medium can increasingly be part of the garment market. They are at the vanguard of that growth, but they hope to see it grow more yet.
The thing about alpaca fiber, which the Ilkos sell in various forms through two online-based businesses, Living Water Fibers and Alpacas and Selah Yarn Co., is that, at least at the moment, it’s not cheap to produce.
Walking through the process of fiber production, starting with breeding and caring for the animals themselves, then progressing into the once-yearly shearing of the animals, moving through “skirting,” or preliminary processing to sort less-useful fiber to a painstakingly small-scale “carding” function of smoothing and normalizing the fiber into a state where it can spun, following finally by spinning the fiber into yarn — and, in many cases, re-spinning it into two-ply yarn — before a garment can actually be produced, Laura made it clear that even once the alpacas are shorn, it would take an individual dozens of hours to produce a single end product.
“With so many fewer alpacas than sheep, it’s a lot cheaper to produce sheep anything,” she said. “There’s so much more sheep, there’s just more resources. That’s just economics.”
Alternatively, the Ilkos send away the majority of the fiber to be processed. A handful of mills exist in the U.S. — and it’s important to the couple to sell fully American-made whenever possible (some work is done in alpaca homeland Peru) — but, because of the relative rareness of alpaca ranching, it’s a slower, more expensive process than the significantly more common wool production plants. Should alpaca ranching in the states grow to be more common — and the trends and legislation changes indicate it might — that could change incrementally. But in the meantime, this is the paradigm.
And, so, the product is necessarily expensive. Living Water Fibers and Alapacas is the outlet that sells garments like socks, hats, gloves and sweaters. The site displays undeniably beautiful products, and, according to the Ilkos, their pure-alpaca products are also less itchy, more durable, softer, more water-resistant and longer-lasting than wool-based equivalents. But they’re pricey. A scarf costs $50. One sweater goes for $154. A throw blanket sells for $250.
“Obviously people will say they can go to Walmart and get something for a lot less,” Johnny said. “But this is a luxury American good, and that’s just the fact of the matter.”
Steamboat Springs, Johnny said, is into it, buying a good chunk of their merchandise. And the company sells plenty to be shipped to online customers.
The dream is to put together enough capital to be able to purchase the equipment and build the facility that would mill the fiber locally. But it’s a massive cost and not something the Ilkos find themselves particularly close to realizing.
In the meantime, the sanctuary that is the Ilko alpaca ranch sits hidden in its little pocket of heaven. It’s perhaps thematically appropriate that the Ilkos, who also run Calvary Chapel in Craig, name their animals after Biblical figures.
“So many things are closing,” Laura said. “I’d love something sustainable. We aren’t going anywhere, we’re invested.”
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Agriculture, employee retention and diversity will share the spotlight at the 28th annual Economic Summit on Friday, May 20.