CRYSTAL LAKE – While researching business opportunities eight years ago, Paul and Gail Wasserstein discovered alpacas at the Lake County Fair.
"I found them enchanting," Gail Wasserstein said.
Three weeks later, the couple brought five alpacas to their home in Barrington. They recently moved – with their herd of more than 50 alpacas – to a 37-acre former horse ranch near Crystal Lake. They plan to expand their business, Andean Vista Ranch, into a full-time job after retirement.
Alpacas, a member of the camel family, are native of South America. They were first introduced into the United States in 1984 and remain a cottage industry here. More than 90 percent of alpacas live in Bolivia, Chile and Peru, according to trade groups.
However, their numbers are growing in the U.S.
Illinois is home to 4,482 registered alpacas, according to Alpaca Registry Inc., an industry association for owners and breeders which said virtually all alpacas are registered.
McHenry County is home to about eight alpaca farms and new farms continue to pop up throughout the state, said Don Kent, president of the Illinois Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association and owner of Tall Corn Alpacas in Marengo.
"It's still a very, very small industry. It's a niche market," he said. "But more and more farms are sprouting up."
Alpaca fleece is touted as hypoallergenic, nearly 10 times warmer than wool, breathable, and it competes with cashmere as a luxury fiber, Gail Wasserstein said .
The Wassersteins moved to the ranch on Oak Ridge Road last November and spent two weeks transferring their herd to the new home. Nearby homeowners have welcomed the couple and their odd-looking animals to the neighborhood.
"We had cars pulling over to the side of the road to see them," Gail said. "[Our neighbors] were all very nice and very welcoming."
Gail works full time as a human resources manager in the manufacturing industry while her husband, Paul, now works part-time. He takes care of the day-to-day needs of the herd. Gail oversees the breeding and showing of the alpacas.
Though neither had a farm background, they decided to try raising alpacas. One acre can support eight to 10 alpacas. By comparison, the rule is about one horse per acre, Gail said.
"They don't require a lot of care," she said. "It's more about how much time you want to spend with them."
When Paul lost his job, they started selling alpacas for additional income. Their first alpaca sold for more than $22,000. Prior to the recession, Gail estimated they had average annual sales of more than $100,000.
"Just like everything in the economy, [prices for alpacas have] softened now," Gail said.
There also are tax benefits to owning alpacas and other livestock. For one thing, it allows the Wassersteins to get agricultural zoning for their property. Property taxes are much lower on land used for agriculture than for commercial or residential property.
"My first return on investment was when I filed my taxes and received back all the federal taxes I had paid in my [human resources] job," Gail said. "[The tax advantage] was the last thing I heard that catapulted us into alpacas."
Gail said they used a year of her income to cover the costs of buying a start-up herd. They jumped in after discovering the tax benefits. Since then, they have reinvested much of their profits into the business in their quest to breed the perfect alpaca.
The Wassersteins take part in alpaca shows around the country and have produced several national champions from their breeding.
"Showing is the best marketing we feel we can do for our business," Gail said. "To get out there and have our breeding program evaluated against other breeding programs. We strive to be one of the top breeders in the country."
The Wassersteins enjoy working with the alpacas, which is perhaps the most attractive part of their retirement plan.
The money and tax benefits were all "added pluses" to "finding something that we loved to do and a business that we could run and enjoy," Gail said.
"We don't ever plan to retire," she said. "This is what we plan to do."