Alpacas - llama-like animals with coats that yield a luxury yarn - appear to have one-upped the ostriches and pot-bellied pigs, animals with high prices for breeding stock that quickly crashed.
“It is absolutely still a breeder's market,” said Miriam Donaldson, who, with her husband Jack, owns 150 alpacas on their Alpaca Jack's Suri Farm east of Findlay.
Many alpaca owners say they have made money with the exotic animals that for a decade have sold for tens of thousands of dollars. They predict more years of profits from selling the young.
What happens when most alpacas have to earn their keep from the value of the fiber sheared from their coats is uncertain, however.
“There's a huge discrepancy between the value of the fiber and the value of the animals at this point,” said Karen Dewhirst, general manager of the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America.
Mrs. Donaldson, who sells fiber directly to crafters on weekends from her small shop, said such receipts cover the cost of feeding her animals.
Cathie Hulbert, president of the Ohio Alpaca Breeders Association, said fiber sales from her 22 alpacas northwest of Findlay are enough to cover the cost of shearing the animals and little more.
The women agreed that fiber sales aren't enough to pay for the animals at today's typical prices of at least $8,000 for young females and up to $50,000 for the very best breeding stock.
That's partly because not enough alpaca fiber is available for mills to specialize in alpaca. Ms. Dewhirst's fiber cooperative in Tennessee gets 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of fiber a year. A sweater, for instance, requires about a pound of fiber.
To David Anderson, an Ohio State University veterinarian specializing in alpacas, people who hope to make money from the animals' fiber alone can't pay more than $500 per animal. He predicts that the market will shift from a breeder's market to a fiber market in five to 10 years.
Whenever the shift happens, the last people to buy animals at high prices will be hurt, and those who bought first will have received the return on their investment.
“The time to get into it was a few years ago,” he said.
Mrs. Donaldson, however, said some investors who board alpacas at her farm have earned returns of 35 percent a year recently.
Alpaca buyers tend to have been successful in the stock market or their professions and have decided to cash out and move to the country, growers said. Only a few people in Ohio are raising alpacas as a full-time occupation. Most treat it as a retirement or hobby that they hope will pay.