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The Other Economy

It’s the road less traveled. Down Ten Eyck Road, out away from any main highway, Sandy and Arnie Poutala maintain a herd of alpacas. The gentle and curious South American creatures flock to the fence line to greet any traffic, creating a novel discovery for weekend car adventurers.by: POST PHOTO: NEIL ZAWICKI - Sandy and Arnie Poutala decided in 2003 to buy three alpacas. Today, they have 64.

But that’s only part of the picture on the Poutala farm. It’s part of a network of compounds throughout Sandy that offer a sort of light agricultural tourism as a product. The U-pick berry farms, pumpkin patches, Christmas tree farms and various animals all vie for the attention of urban road trippers looking for a country outing that could render a jar of preserves, some yarn and maybe some impressive Facebook photos.

“I am always amazed by the people who come out and feel like they’ve discovered us out here,” Sandy Poutala said. “They drive by and they see the alpacas and they get out to take pictures of them, but they always call them llamas.”

The Poutalas bought their five acres in 1979; Sandy ran a photography business and Arnie worked in the employee health insurance industry. Along the way, like many others in the Sandy area, they acted upon most every light bulb that appeared over their heads concerning what they could do with their land. There’s an outdoor wedding venue, complete with an amphitheater and a finished tree house that is part public-use cabin, part bed and breakfast, and all Swiss Family Robinson. There’s also a miniature cottage that Sandy used to photograph children for her business.

And then there are the alpacas. Sixty-four of them.

“It was going to be our retirement income,” Sandy said. “I retired from my photography work, and we decided that it would be easy to be alpaca farmers.”

Sandy laughs when she says “easy to be alpaca farmers,” but when they bought their first three alpacas in 2003, it seemed like a solid investment. Baby alpacas can sell for as much as $15,000, and adults go for at least $200, depending on their breedability.

The decision to go into alpaca farming came at a time when the Poutalas bought the extra five acres next to their farm and needed a way to keep the farm deferment. Putting livestock there was logical, but it had to be the right kind. They say Les Geren at Geren’s Farm Supply gave them the idea to raise alpacas.

“I didn’t want to raise anything I’d have to slaughter,” she said. “The alpaca’s fiber is very high quality. A skein of alpaca yarn sells for about $16, a 6-pound bag of raw fiber goes for $160, and finished fiber is $8 an ounce.”

Of course, selling the animals as a breeder is lucrative also. With this in mind, the Poutalas became alpaca farmers.

“The market was awesome in 2003,” Arnie said. “Our goal was to produce a North American alpaca herd and produce a finer and finer fiber. And then, with the housing market dropping and people losing jobs, everything changed. People weren’t starting alpaca farms. We basically thought we could produce a high-quality fleece and people would buy it, but it hasn’t worked out that way.”

“If you’re a breeder and you can’t sell them, what do you do?” Sandy added.

“We kept thinking it would turn around,” Arnie said.

Surrounded by a herd of their female alpacas, as they play with them and feed them, it is clear the Poutalas are not lamenting their choice. They’re having fun, and they speak as experts in the world of alpaca raising.

“They are really pretty to look at,” Arnie said. “They’re what I like to call ‘pasture ornaments.’ They’re very quiet and they don’t stink. They’re just a really nice animal.”

“I made lots of yarns from the fiber and felts,” said Sandy. “We’re trying to get out to the people. We’re in the Sandy Mountain Festival parade each year. Mostly the way I sell it is to go out and have trunk shows, or to the wedding traffic that comes through on the weekend all summer long. I’ll give them cards.”

The wedding traffic is another part of the Poutalas’ enterprise. Sandy had a gazebo and amphitheater built when her daughter wanted to get married in 1990. Today, they rent the venue to wedding parties and offer a trout pond as well. The tree house is offered as a bonus for wedding guests and even alpaca customers. The property resonates with the Jeffersonian spirit, the idea that the perfect life is one spent on a quiet piece of land where a livelihood can be had through simple things. Thomas Jefferson himself began Monticello as a one-room cabin and over the years built it out to the architectural marvel it would become. In this sense, the Poutalas and their contemporaries are of the Jeffersonian model. Still, they’d like to move more of the alpacas.

“I’m not selling alpacas like I’d like to,” Sandy said. “People always think they’re beautiful, but there’s always a reason that they can’t buy now. So I’m even doing a buy one get one free type of thing.”

Of course, if a person would like an alpaca, Sandy explains that they need two of them, because alpacas are herd animals and will get lonely.

One more thing: The Poutalas also sell alpaca manure for $20 a pickup load.

In this idyllic setting, it’s easy to think of worse ways to make a living. And anyway, they have an awesome tree house.