Cecil County ‘mini-mill’ focusing on adding value to alpaca fiber
EARLEVILLE, Md. — While spinning straw into gold only exists in fairy tales, a Cecil County fiber mill is aiming to help alpaca farmers spin their animals’ fleece into yarn for better profits.
Painted Sky Fiber Mill opened in March on the farm of Mitchell and Linda Dickinson, who also raise alpacas, in the wake of breeding prices for the animals coming down and more focus put on adding value to the sheared fleece.
“The industry really needs mills for the smaller farms to help them really capitalize on their return on investment,” Linda said. “It’s so rewarding to be able to take the raw product and be able to turn it into roving and yarn and end products.”
The Dickinsons operated a supply chain fulfillment and logistics business in New Castle County, Del., for several years and purchased the 20-acre farm in 2002 with the intention of raising horses.
They had moved to the farm while remaining involved with the business but that soon grew tiresome.
“We had a nice life but we weren’t really living the life,” Linda said.
While on vacation in 2010, the couple “discovered” alpacas and Linda said she immediately fell in love with the animals.
After a business merger two years later, Mitchell retired from the fulfillment business and they were at the farm full-time and decided shift from horses to alpacas.
“My family all thought we were nuts but we did a lot of research,” Linda said. “I was going to start with three alpacas but I made the mistake of bringing Mitchell and we got 11.”
Shortly after alpacas started to be imported from South America, the market for quality animals got white hot, with some major show winners selling for more than $100,000.
“The industry really grew out of people of wealth,” Linda said. “It was a breeder’s market. It was always about the genetics.”
Linda said alpaca prices crashed in 2010 with many registered animals losing a lot of value as breeding stock.
The Great Recession played a role as well as the growing population of the animals from the initial influx of imported alpacas from South America in the 1980s and 1990s.
“They created value in showing,” said Mitchell. “We’re now coming to the realization that this is becoming a livestock industry. It is really becoming about the fiber now. The bottom line is we’re breeding baby’s for their fiber. We’re a fiber farm.”
The Dickinsons responded to the industry shift by opening a store on the farm selling items made with alpaca fleece.
“I stole his garage and turned it into the store and it’s become very successful,” Linda said.
But waiting for a year or longer to have their fleeces processed into roving or yarn was a problem, for them and other farms in the area that either had their own stores or sold the yarn another way.
“That can kill a small farm,” Linda said. “You need that fiber back to have revenue.”
That lag time, and growing demand for items using alpaca fleece, especially from locally raised animals, contributed to the Dickinsons investing about $300,000 in their own “mini-mill” on the farm to process alpaca fleece.
It’s the fourth fiber mill in Maryland but the only one on the Eastern Shore and the only in the state to focus exclusively on alpaca fiber.
Linda said being solely an alpaca mill reduces some of the time and maintenance in switching to other species’ fiber.
The drawback is turning away that business.
“Our goal is to be the go-to mill for the alpaca farmer. It’s still out to be seen if it’s a good business decision but we wanted to go down this road first,” she said, adding they plan to reevaluate the move after a year of operation. Mitchell said their goal is to process an average of 15 pounds of fleece a day.
The process from separating yarn by quality to washing, drying and spinning takes about two days time. Linda said they try to use as much of the fleece as possible.
Separating by quality gives more value the softer strands called baby alpaca or the even softer royal baby alpaca.
The lesser grades can be marketed as rug yarn used for other items.
“It allows you to use up and make maximum use of all your fiber,” Linda said.
Operating on a relatively small scale, Linda said they are able to process fleece from one animal at a time, which many farms use as a marketing tool for their yarn and products.
“They track this fiber right back to the animal,” she said. “That’s what many of the mini-mills can excel at.”