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Retirees go to Reno for alpaca ranching

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Webster is an aristocrat with dreadlocks. The auburn fleece that he carries is more rare than cashmere and slicker than silk.

In the world of luxury fibers, Webster is the hottest commodity today.

He's a baby alpaca and the newest member of R.T. Crowe's herd on the Bar C Ranch north of Reno.

The alpaca's fiber and sweet nature have sent retirees from Reno and dot-commers from California to cash out.

Alpaca farming has become big business and the trendy thing to do with one's life and 401(k).

More alpaca ranches have cropped up in the area near the Bar C in the past decade, with a few setting up in smaller lots in Reno. Alpaca ranching has appealed to former dairy and sheep farmers and couples who want to slow down in the country.

Some investors are seeing up to a 70 percent return.

Take the owners of the Lazy K Ranch, Ed and Kay Rodriguez. In 1999, the California couple moved to the area and set up their alpaca farm on a small lot.

"We were planning on retiring but didn't know what to do. Then, one day Kay brought me a magazine and said, 'I want to do this,' " said Rodriguez, who retired as an engineer from America Online. "She wanted to raise alpacas. So we did. We bought 17 acres and that grew into 100. It's been great."

A descendant of the camel and cousin of the llama, the alpaca stands out from the crowd. Its claim to fame is its fleece, which can fetch up to $4 an ounce. Fleece is taken from an alpaca each May, with coats weighing from 4 to 8 pounds.

The younger the animal, the better quality of fiber, which means more money.

But raising them is far from kids' play.

"It's a lot of hard work, but the rewards are amazing," Jeannette Miller said.

Miller, a retired nurse from Reno, nudged her husband to warm up to the South American animals after researching the subject on the Internet.

"It was scary at first, but my wife was sold on the idea," David Miller said. "She really wanted to do this. I went for it, too. We put our life savings on the line and bought a starter herd for $80,000 in 1997."

They bought an acre five miles from the Rodriguez farm.

The Millers worked hard on their land, raising and caring for the animals with the gentleness of doting parents.

The herd blossomed under their care. The Millers made money from fleece and bought 10 more acres, which they named Sierra Nevada Alpacas. Now, the fleece pays for their feed and vet bills. The couple breaks even with their $20,000 yearly investment.

"These animals are wondrous, exquisite and stare right into your soul," Jeannette Miller said. "I look out into the valley and see the gorgeous herd. I have to pinch myself every morning, because at this moment I am the happiest person on the planet."

The Millers recently opened their farm to the Fourth Annual Alpaca, Fiber and Craft Festival. Several farmers, mostly neighbors, hauled their alpacas to the Miller compound for the day.

Each alpaca herd had a custom-made pen, filled with food and water. Farmers spent the day chatting about their new babies, the cost of medicine and the personalities of each alpaca.

No one frowned about the future of fiber or whether their herd would net them a decent living this year.

"I don't know anything else that would be more exciting than what we are doing right now," David Miller said. "It has grown beyond my expectations."