TOLNA, N.D. - On a remote ranch home to exotic animals that snort and hum, Les and Deb Wellinghoff have found their "little piece of heaven."
The retired couple, who moved to North Dakota from southern Illinois two years ago, have launched Northern Prairie Alpacas.
Their plan is to sell their alpacas' fiber and offspring while building up the herd, which now consists of eight adult animals. They hope their business can be profitable, or at least self-sustaining, in a few years.
"Some people wonder if we're crazy. But this is where we want to be and what we want to be doing," Les says.
Alpacas, native to the Andes Mountains of South America, can thrive in wintry North Dakota, the Wellinghoffs say.
Alpacas on the Tolna ranch came through the snowy winter of 2009 to '10, their first in North Dakota, just fine, she says.
"They're highly adaptable animals," she says.
The Wellinghoffs didn't move to North Dakota, or go into the alpaca business, on a whim.
They lived in southern Illinois near St. Louis. Deb, 53, worked in corporate management. Les, 66, a school teacher turned highway maintenance worker for the Illinois Department of Transportation, retired in 2004.
Les traveled to North Dakota for many years to hunt waterfowl and became familiar with the Tolna area.
Selling their home in Illinois and retiring to the country appealed to both Deb and Les. They enjoy nature and a little elbow room.
They looked long and hard before deciding to buy the farmstead they now occupy. T
They began building fences and shelter for the alpacas at the site in May 2009. They later brought in alpacas they had purchased in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The fences are straight and sturdy, but Les smiles when a visitor compliments his fencing skills.
"It was trial and error. You should've been here when we first started," he says.
Alpacas are valued for their dense but soft fleece. The fleece, or fiber as it's often called, is shorn in the spring, much like wool from sheep.
One alpaca produces 5 to 10 pounds of fiber, which can sell for as much as $30 to $35 per pound, depending on its quality, the Wellinghoffs say.
Alpaca producers also can keep some or all of the fiber to knit or weave into products such as gloves or caps that potentially can fetch attractive prices.
Think of it as value-added agriculture: taking a commodity in its original state and transforming it to a more valuable state, like turning corn into ethanol or durum into pasta.
Deb says Northern Prairie Alpacas' "clip" this year will be used in two ways.
Members of a fiber artist guild will turn some of it to yard. The rest of the fiber from the Tolna ranch will be sent to a mill, probably one in Kansas, to be processed into yarn.