From the Wisconsin State Journal, by Barry Adams
TOWN OF SUN PRAIRIE — The quaint farmstead on Pierceville Road has been in Erin Egan’s family since the 1890s.
The barn was built in 1917 for cows and hay storage and in later years was used to dry tobacco.
Now, 30 years after the last tobacco leaf was hung from one of the dozens of timber poles that still line the rafters, the barn, southeast of Sun Prairie, has a new use likely not envisioned by Erin Egan’s ancestors.
Erin and Paul Egan own the Alpaca Blanket Project, one of the largest companies in the country that buys alpaca fleece directly from farmers. The Egans grade the fleece and ship it to mills where the majority is woven into blankets and scarves by Pendleton Woolen Mills and into socks by Kentucky Royalty.
“We have been doing the fiber end of the business for long enough that we knew we weren’t going to have a really good revenue income based off of our 40 animals,” Erin Egan said. “There’s tremendous opportunity in this industry, but it’s very disorganized.”
Mounds, bags and bales of fleece from thousands of alpaca from 700 farms in 35 states fill the Egans’ barn. In the barnyard, the Egans’ 40 head of Huacaya alpaca frolic among the wandering chickens, ducks and lone llama. The couple also sell pumpkins, peaches, apples, blackberries, pears and raspberries.
Their alpaca farmers are paid $3 to $5 per pound for high-grade fleece with a typical alpaca yielding around seven to 11 pounds. However, only three to five pounds are considered prime fleece, Paul Egan said. More money comes to farmers when they resell the finished products at farmers’ markets, craft shows, stores and websites. Socks and scarves can retail for $15 and $60, respectively, while blankets go for around $200.
“It’s a luxury item,” Paul Egan said. Alpaca Blanket Project was located in Stayton, Ore., but when owners Peter and Carol Lundberg announced late last year they were selling the company for health reasons, the Egans, who had been using their service, bought the business, providing another layer of revenue for the family farm.
Erin, 40, knows a thing or two about organization. The Markesan native and UW-Stevens Point graduate has a full-time job at the Department of Revenue, where she’s bureau director of tax operations. The bureau processes more than 7 million individual and business tax returns and documents each year.
She also took classes at the Small Business Development Center, which guided the Egans on their business plan and helped persuade the Bank of Sun Prairie to provide financing.
Her husband, Paul, 36, spent much of his childhood in Chicago but when he was 14 moved to Westfield with his family.
He has studied graphic design, worked at a plastics factory in Portage and was a mechanic at Madison Spring.
He’s now a full-time farmer, and part of his job involves standing at a table sorting bags of fleece into five colors and into different grades.
Prime fleece generally comes from the body and is known as the blanket. Fleece filled with hay fragments and burs is unusable. Washing the fleece is futile to remove contaminants.
“It will stay through the processing, and it will break the yarn,” Paul said of hay, burs and other foreign matter. “It’s all about pasture maintenance.”
Fleece can arrive via U.S. Mail, UPS or other shipping companies but the Egans will contract a truck for shipments over 500 pounds, which typically involve farmers from a geographical area pooling their shipments.
The Egans also will pick up fleece at Alpaca shows in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. Paul provides a sort report for farmers, which provides feedback on the quality of their fleece.
Tom and Ginny Olson of Cottage Grove have been raising and shearing Huacaya alpacas since 2002 with Tom’s sister and brother in-law, Becky and Lyall White, who have a farm near Black River Falls with 39 animals.
They had been shipping their fleece to ABP’s competitor, the Alpaca Co-op of North America, but now use ABP.
Earlier this week, the Olsons delivered the shears from 18 alpaca, each stuffed into a plastic bag, to the Egans’ barn.
Tom Olson is also the president of the Great Lakes Alpaca Association, a group with about 100 members, most of them from Wisconsin.
“It’s convenience. They’re just three, four miles away,” Olson said of the Egans. “It’s also good for the state. It’s another industry that’s now housed in the state.”
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