Armani Jackson, Managing Editor
Huffs, dried orchard grass and alpaca fleece; that’s the language of an alpaca rancher.
Access and Disabilities Manager Michael Mesa started Four Directions Alpaca Ranch around three years ago after seeing the need alpacas and their fleece serve in the community.
“I chose it (the name) because of the Native American heritage of both Pierce County and the PNW,” Mesa said. “Also because my business philosophy is about respecting everyone we do business with and only doing honest business. In essence sticking to the tenets (principles) of the Native American Medicine Wheel.”
A facet that hooked him was the minimal impact alpacas have on the environment.
“They’re such an efficient and green animal that I can actually reduce my carbon footprint with alpacas,” Mesa said. “And then of course having the ranch and being a disabled veteran myself, there’s some therapy work that we do with the alpacas, soldiers and people with PTSD.”
Mesa said alpacas have a gentle nature and have a soothing effect which helps with his PTSD.
“Many times they’re quite intuitive and know when a person is in crisis and will nudge until you pet them,” Mesa said. “Kind of like volunteering to be a walking stress sponge where they just take it from you. I have a picture of Mera (Primera) and I having a “Therapy Session” on Facebook, where I just sat in the pasture and she cushed (feels comfortable) next to me and lets me pet her neck and talk it out.”
Mesa’s research on alpacas started a while ago, as he was looking for a project to do after he retired that wasn’t reliant on the stock market or resulted in the purposeful death of the animal.
Washington’s weather works well with alpacas, Mesa said. Because their fleece is so dense, if the temperature goes above 70 degrees, it’s harder for them because of the insulating properties of their fiber. During the summer heat, Mesa goes home during his lunch break to wet the alpacas’ bellies.
Mesa was raised in southern California and the only real livestock was a German Shepard, Mesa said. Starting this new way of life was a major transition for him.
“I grew up in southern California and joined the Army,” Mesa said. “When I got here to Fort Lewis, it was not something I ever aspired to be. I mean I’m the original Suburban commando.”
He later got out of the Army and began selling real estate. Mesa says he became “Mr. Corporate America,” having a wardrobe that consisted mostly of suits and ties. Over time he discovered that he both needed and wanted an activity that was far more peaceful and honest. All he really needs to do is take care of the alpacas and they’ll take care of him.
“It’s just really a pure and symbiotic relationship,” Mesa said. “They don’t ask for much and yet, they give so much in return (in income while he takes care of their basic needs).”
As he continues to maintain the farm, it allows him to return to the simple activities he’d forgotten, such as mending fences. Mesa knows the alpacas also appreciate the work once it’s completed. His alpacas are Mesa’s eight employees that work for orchard grass and apples.
Currently, he’s raising eight female alpacas and two are pregnant. The babies are expected to be born in August. Females are better to raise both in terms of profit margins and breeding, Mesa said. By having a supreme female with strong genetics, it means that Mesa can transition into the breeding process. He can, in effect, improve the quality of the animal. His alpacas will “continue to be sturdy, strong and have the right fiber characteristics,” Mesa said.
This careful selection and planning process decreases the chance for severe health problems in future generations of alpaca. Ultimately, the breeding process depends on genetic and observable characteristics. Because alpacas can no longer be imported into the U.S. from South America due to foreign invasions that led to a decrease in population, Mesa said, breeders should take special care so offspring can thrive happily and healthily.
On the business end, Mesa believes that before starting a ranch, one has to know why they’re in business. Most ranchers do this as a hobby and stay relatively to themselves, but Mesa wants to develop a quality breeding program. White is the dominate color of alpacas, but he only has colored ones. He raises two fawns, one medium brown, one true black and the others are dark brown. Honey, his favorite alpaca, is actually more of a fawn blonde color.
By examining the biology of it all, a breeder can determine the likelihood of an alpaca’s observable characteristics. Also, ranchers can breed specifically for the fiber, similar to a sheep’s wool. The higher the demand, the more ranchers will breed a specific type of alpaca, as long as it’s safe and healthy to do so.
Then there’s the aspect of the waste. Alpacas have a three-chambered stomach so virtually nothing comes out the other end. And what does can be used as fertilizer because it comes out being naturally balanced. No chemical manipulation is required. Some profit comes from that because people will stop by and for $30 they can have the back of their truck loaded with fertilizer.
Mesa can also board other people’s alpacas for a fee. When people who live in apartments and other places that can’t sustain the alpaca, Mesa can take care of this animal for them. Alpaca ranches, like this one, are becoming more obsolete since developers are buying the large areas of land, says Mesa.
During winter break, Mesa finished working on the ranch store. He sells alpaca clothing, yarn, welcome mats and other items. His most popular item is socks. Alpaca fleece wicks away moisture, making socks the perfect item for people who spend lots of time outdoors. One customer placed an online order for alpaca socks from Nova Scotia.
Ranch tours are also available at Four Directions Alpaca Ranch. This past year, the farm hosted a wedding.
“I got to see some of the pictures, and it’s funny,” Mesa said. “If you’ve ever seen a photobomb, nothing beats getting photobombed by an alpaca. Pressi, my baby, she was there and they (the couple) were standing in the back pasture. The minister was there and they (the couple) were looking at each other and all of a sudden you just see these ears. It was hilarious.”
But one of the greatest joys is when he comes home after work.
“It’s kind of fun when I pull up on the driveway and they’re all underneath the little fruit tree by the gate and they see the truck or the car,” Mesa said. “They just get fired up. They run up the driveway while I’m parking the car so it’s hard not to come home and be in a good mood.”
The ranch has the capacity to hold up to 50 alpacas. Mesa’s goal is to eventually retire and become a full-time alpaca rancher.
“Part of what I want to do is share my dream with the community,” Mesa said. “You know, get kids away from video games and have them learn about something that’s really cool without having to spend $100 to come through the main gate. (I want) to raise awareness of what’s out there and what’s happening in your own backyard. It’s been a really rewarding endeavor and has blown out to more than the alpaca.”
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