Fiber Podcast #2: Alpaca, Fiber Farming, and the Emerging Slow Fashion Movement

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Posted: July 12, 2017

Hosted and written by Appalachian Transition Fellow, Sam Hamlin

In late April, I traveled with my colleague, Appalachian Transition Fellow, Hope Hart to Alvina Maynard’s alpaca ranch just outside of Richmond, Kentucky. We were ready to learn more about alpacas, fiber farming, and Alvina’s perspective on how to grow the natural fiber sector in Kentucky. After winding through a curvy, tree-covered road we came upon the beautiful green rolling hills of River Hill Ranch, where Alvina raises anywhere from 75 to 100 alpacas, depending on the time of year. We sat down with Alvina on a sunny, 83 degree, April day to interview her for CFA’s first ever Breaking Beans Fiber podcast.

Alvina explained to us that she started alpaca farming through a combination of her love of the outdoors, inspiration from other veteran-turned-farmers, and by following her calling. “I wanted a space that provided genuine connection; to experience both adventure and tranquility at the same time. So, alpacas…not only are they quiet animals but they’re relatively small livestock, they’re easy to manage, they have padded feet instead of hooves, so all of those aspects appeal to having children around.”

First named as official livestock in the 2008 Farm Bill, alpaca farming is a relatively new in the U.S. As a growing sector, there are lots of opportunities for new farmers and entrepreneurs to explore this unique industry. Alpaca are non-aggressive, curious animals who produce an incredibly soft fleece that can be used to make sweaters, socks, hats, mittens, and much more.

Each April, Alvina completes an annual alpaca shearing at River Hill Ranch. She sorts through each fleece and determines its quality and She sells to a variety of processors on different scales, all who transform raw fleece into yarn and sometimes into value-added (or finished) products, such as socks and hats.  Alpacas are multi-purpose animals: on the River Hill Ranch website, you can find beautiful alpaca shawls, gloves, hats, headbands, boot inserts and more for purchase. In addition to fiber products, Alvina also sells alpaca meat. Alvina explained that alpaca meat “tastes like sweet version of beef, but with the texture of tuna. We want to make sure nothing goes to waste.” You can visit Good Foods Co-op in Lexington, as well as Game, a restaurant in Louisville to purchase some for yourself. You can find all of Alvina’s products at the Richmond and Lexington farmer’s market in the summers or year-round on the River Hill Ranch website.

During our time with Alvina on River Hill Ranch, we had the opportunity to learn about a variety of fascinating topics related to alpaca farming: from grass management, to silvopasturing, to the exciting possibilities of using plants, such as pokeberry and goldenrod, as natural dyes for textiles. We even had the opportunity to assist Alvina in herding her female alpacas across the pasture by moving electric fencing and putting my four-wheel drive to good use going up and down the rolling hills of her ranch.

But, perhaps the most exciting part of the day was getting to talk with Alvina about her vision for the larger natural fiber and slow clothes movement. Alvina shared that, “caring for the world starts with caring for the earth and I am super excited to be a part of this. It found me. And this is a way that we can impact positive change in going forward by bringing that awareness to our relationship to our clothes and how that impacts our planet. I’m at farmers market and still a lot of people look at me with confusion in their eyes….because not a lot of people understand where their clothes come from.”

As I have embarked on my current project mapping the natural fiber sector, I have noticed the confusion that sometimes appears on people’s faces as I tell them that I work for a farmer advocacy organization. Due to the rise of synthetic fibers and throw-away consumer culture, most of us don’t have knowledge about where our clothes come from or what kinds of labor went into making them. In our interview, Alvina pointed out that “the fashion industry has made it so that they want us back in the store every three to six weeks. And so clothes have become disposable, because synthetic fibers are cheaper, they’re made predominately by synthetics, which are plastic. They’re not biodegradable. So not only have we increased our consumption rate of clothing, but we’ve also made them out of a non-biodegradable substance that is going into a landfill. This return to natural fibers coming back around to being mainstream is going to be a huge environmental impact.”

The slow fashion movement, is gaining traction as many people are becoming more conscious about the environmental and human impact of the current global textile production system. Slow fashion advocates and farmers, like Alvina, are leading the way in reviving the natural fiber textile sector in Kentucky, and beyond. “Change will really happen in our society, when it is driven more by demand” Alvina pointed out. “Not a lot of people understand where their clothes come from or what they’re even made out of…In recent history, the slow food movement has seen a lot of success where it has brought that awareness mainstream, where people are asking questions now of where their food comes from, what’s in their food, and what went into making, growing, processing their food…So I’m really excited that the slow fashion and slow clothes movement is also starting to gain traction, and people are starting to ask those questions now, where their clothes come from.”

For more from Alvina, make sure to listen to our extended interview that includes more stories about fiber farming, alpaca, and the local clothes movement. You can find out more about River Hill Ranch on their website, Facebook and Instagram pages.

To keep up with Community Farm Alliance’s natural fiber sector mapping project, check out our website and Facebook page or sign up for our CFA’s monthly newsletters by becoming a member.

Lastly, be on the look out for opportunities to support your local fiber farmer at your farmers market and on our blog in the coming months.