Made There: Harvesting fleece on a Yakima Valley alpaca farm

Jennifer and John Ely of Sage Bluff Alpacas employ kindness, hard work and enthusiasm to produce prized luxury fiber for yarn and garments.

Jennifer Ely walks through the grass down a long pathway on her Prosser alpaca farm to access a pasture gate. Some alpacas need a bit of attention on their hooves and heads – mostly a little filing and the equivalent of a bang trim. Jennifer stands back to let the alpacas pass, holding a hand up to shield her eyes from the sun as she watches. The animals cautiously make their way toward a farmhand, who stoops to pour feed into a small trough. With that, the animals pick up the pace.

Sage Bluff Alpacas was not a lifelong dream for Jennifer and her husband John. In the late 2000s, they went to a farmers market where they happened to meet a herd of alpacas and their handler. And as love is wont to do, it struck without warning, rendering the affected party totally helpless against any other path than the one on which the heart now travels. Six months and hundreds of hours of research later, this love of alpacas led the Elys to remodel the house John grew up in, renovate the land and bring alpacas home. 

The Elys’ love for these charismatic critters led the pair to a business that has a balance of nature, enterprise and respect for the animals – with Sage Bluff’s alpacas generating revenue in a wide variety of ways.

The Elys were committed to building a business around the alpacas rather than a hobby farm. For Jennifer, some of the perks of caring for alpacas were that they would be unlikely to hurt her and they’re not food. She didn’t want an animal for butchering. What the pair wanted for their business was a balance of nature and enterprise.

Sage Bluff Alpacas runs on eight revenue streams. Perhaps the most recognizable is fiber.

“We try to let every fleece tell us what it wants to become,” Jennifer says. “And once you've worn alpaca, you won't wear anything else.” 

Products made with alpaca fiber go on a journey before they become yarn or garments. Alpaca is considered a luxury fiber. It’s warm, soft and strong, and unlike sheep’s wool, there’s no lanolin, a plus for people with sensitivities. Jennifer and John have their herd sheared each spring, in part to make the animals more comfortable for Yakima Valley’s hot summers. Because the fiber is so valuable, becoming a specialized shearer takes years of practice. The Elys’ go-to shearer, Gina Gouveia, is highly sought for her expertise.

Alpacas are sheared in three sections. The main section, the blanket fleece, runs from the back of the neck to the tail and from the spine midway to the ribs. It’s the prime textile fiber. The second cut is the neck, hip and shoulders. That fiber, often coarser, is typically used for rugs or felted products. The third cut, the leg and belly fiber, is often used for felted products or fleece lining.

The blanket fleece is where Jennifer has her fun. The product is laid out on a skirting table, examined, and sent to the mill for processing. Sometimes the fiber will be paired with another natural fiber, like merino, to add color interest, but the end product from a blanket fleece is always a luxurious yarn or garment. Each alpaca gives unique qualities to its own fleece. 

“And I think Miss Athena here, with her long staple and her beautiful uniformity and fineness, is going to become a two-ply fingering weight,” Jennifer says. “We may or may not add a little merino, but she’s so gorgeous.”

Throughout the year, the farm hosts events that feature the creativity of spinners, knitters and weavers to display the beautiful ways fiber can be dyed, blended and crafted into products. However, Jennifer says, “Within the alpaca industry, I’m kind of an odd duck because I’m a fiber producer but I’m not a fiber artist.”

The alpacas also provide other business opportunities for the Elys. Jennifer and John mentor and train other alpaca startups in a handling method called CAMELIdynamics, which emphasizes respect, kindness and safety with efficiency and fun. Other streams of income include breeding and even selling their animals’ waste as “’paca poo” for fertilizer.

“It is a real partnership between my husband and myself. He does a tremendous job taking care of the property and the animals, and I get to enjoy the animals and take care of the clients. And it’s a real collaboration between the two of us,” Jennifer says.

Back in the enclosure, the alpacas have had their hooves filed and the fleece trimmed away from their eyes, restoring their full line of sight. After they all return to the pasture, Jennifer stands at the gate, her eyes following the roaming alpacas. A contented smile appears before a small breath catches in her throat as if in awe.

“I think owning alpacas has probably been as balanced as my life has ever been. I find that being here on the farm and raising alpacas in particular affords me the opportunity to get outside in the fresh air, in the sunshine, and enjoy what I’m doing,” Jennifer says. “We have just about the loveliest friendships within the alpaca industry, and we're grateful for that every day.”

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