Alpacas: Good for the Heart & the Planet

How Alpaca Farming Qualifies as Sustainable Agriculture

Published May 27, 2024

Written and researched by Grace Rector

Durrant Farms would not be possible without our amazingly fluffy and friendly alpacas. Contrary to what one might believe, we did not only choose to farm alpacas because of how cute and fluffy they are, that’s just a bonus! We chose alpacas because they are actually one of the most environmentally sustainable livestock on the planet! But what does it mean to be environmentally sustainable? In today’s world, we tend to see the word ‘sustainable’ thrown out a lot, but it’s rarely defined. Definitions of sustainability differ across disciplines, but in this instance, we mean that alpacas are able to maintain a healthy relationship with the environment through satisfying today’s needs, i.e. fiber production, without harming future needs and resources. With over 8 billion people roaming the planet today and fast fashion chains over-saturating the clothing industry, natural and sustainable textile resourcing can seem like an impossible feat. These fluffy animals are here to show us how it is possible. 

Before we get into how the farming of alpacas positively influences the fashion industry, let’s look at alpacas’ direct relationship with the Earth. Unless you’ve found yourself caught in between an alpaca spitting match, they tend to be quite gentle creatures. Their feet are more similar to paws than hooves, so as they roam the earth, they tread gently and their soft feet don’t tear up the ground. Additionally, when alpacas graze, they pluck at the grass without damaging the root systems, allowing for the plants they consume to regrow. In comparison to goats and sheep, alpacas generally do not require as much food and water to survive. Alpacas only need about 1.5 gallons of water and less than a liter of grain per head per day. Last but certainly not least, let’s discuss the benefits of alpaca feces or as I enjoy calling them, alpaca beans. 

Alpaca beans are incredibly nutrient rich and act as an amazing fertilizer that you don’t have to compost! We compost a small portion of their droppings, but most of it goes directly into the soil in places that we are working to encourage growth. Alpaca beans contain the perfect levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium which can help plants to grow strong roots, leaves, and flowers. Other benefits include increasing the health of the soil, promoting the soil’s ability to retain water, and reducing disease and pest issues. Another honorable mention is their lack of strong odor! While you can use various other livestock manure as fertilizer, it requires composting before being applied to the soil because it could burn your plants due to the high levels of natural gasses, such as nitrogen or ammonia. Alpaca feces is slow to release its nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium and therefore, you won’t have to worry about it burning your plants. Other livestock manure, such as that from horses and cows, contain seeds of the plants they consume and may cause unwanted sprouts in the garden. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about that with alpacas because their digestive systems are so efficient that by the time they release their droppings, any and all seeds have been thoroughly broken down. All this being said, it becomes apparent that farming alpacas can have many amazing benefits to the land on which they roam and shows that carbon neutral farming is possible!

Now that we’ve discussed alpacas’ relationship with the land itself, I want to talk about how they benefit the fashion industry. The modern day fashion industry is overrun by fast fashion production which has unethical effects to both humans and the planet in a multitude of ways. One reason that fast fashion is unethical is due to the harm that some clothing materials can cause our bodies. As humans, we adorn our skin in clothing everyday, so being conscientious about the quality of material we are wearing should be a priority. However, many people do not have access to quality materials or even the knowledge of how some clothing materials can be harmful. Clothing material is either made up of synthetic or natural matter. Typically, when consuming fast fashion, the clothing you are buying will be made up of synthetic materials. Many synthetic materials used today contain various harmful properties that have the potential to hurt both our bodies and the natural environment. For example, acrylic is a popular synthetic fabric used in the clothing industry that has carcinogenic properties, and can cause the wearer various physical problems including headaches, nausea, weak limbs, and dizziness. Moreover, fabrics such as acrylic or polyester release toxins into the environment when they are disposed of while also taking up to 200 years to decompose. Additionally, the production of merino wool, a top competitor of alpaca fiber, oftentimes requires a method called Superwashing, and this process releases many dangerous toxins into the environment. Harvesting alpaca fiber is more sustainable and ethical in this case because it does require as intense of a washing process and it is a completely natural material that doesn’t contain harmful properties that might harm your body. 

Now, let us discuss the efficiency of harvesting alpaca fiber in comparison with other natural materials. Did you know it takes 4-8 cashmere goats to make one sweater? And it takes over 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton t-shirt. Not only are alpacas sustained by less food and water than goats and sheep, they also produce quite a bit more fiber. One alpaca shearing can produce up to five sweaters. Alpacas are relatively colorful creatures and their fiber can range between 22 different colors, so there is no need for dyeing the fabric. While you can dye alpaca fiber, it is important to be conscientious about what type of dyes you use. Artificial dyes typically contain harmful properties such as what we discussed with synthetic fabrics. One of our alpacas, Ralph, has some deep red spots among his creamy fiber making for a beautifully unique design that I wouldn’t dream about dying. 

Lastly, I believe it is important to mention the ethics around the trade of alpaca fiber. Many workers in the fashion industry are taken advantage of, often working too many hours with too little compensation. This is especially prevalent in the fast fashion industry. That is not to say  that alpaca farming and fiber production is 100% ethical for the alpacas and the humans handling their fiber. The majority, if not all, forms of natural resourcing and its interaction with the supply chain have the potential to be unethical. Durrant Farms is committed to turning the tide and supporting ethical and sustainable practices of fiber production. We do this by taking a look at the whole supply chain and making decisions that support ethical progress within the industry. For example, we believe that all living beings are deserving of love and compassion, and we bring this practice into the pasture with how we treat the alpacas. We treat the boys as if they are family because to us, they are. We use rain barrels to collect water for the alpacas in efforts to reduce water output, we feed them local hay, and provide them with all the dust they need to roll around and bathe in. We have also recruited a local shearer that shows special care and compassion for the animals he works with. Additionally, we have made the decision to sell our fiber to a mill within the United States that ensures their employees are treated fairly for their efforts in production. Keeping the fiber production within the U.S. limits our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions which would increase drastically if we were to extend the trade internationally. Navigating sustainability in a world flooded with overconsumption of natural resources is no easy task, but nevertheless, Durrant Farms strives to practice ethical and fair production for humans, animals, and the natural world.

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