Alpaca: It's what's for dinner!?

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Photo by Kelly Dwyer
One Minnesota farm is touting alpaca burgers and steaks
Over the last decade, small herds of alpaca have sprung up across the country as the price of choice breeding stock skyrocketed. An award-winning animal would routinely fetch five- or even six-figure amounts on the market and, as a result, entrepreneurs nationwide invested in what seemed like a lucrative business.

Much like in its native Peru, alpaca fiber is prized in the U.S. for use in blankets and apparel. However, one Peruvian custom has not emigrated with the animals: alpaca as a food source.

One Minnesota couple is hoping to change all that.

 

A couple of years ago, Roger and Gina Welck, a former 14-year Frito-Lay employee and a surgical nurse, respectively, tired of the corporate rat race and city life. They relocated from the suburbs to a tidy farmstead near Princeton and embarked on a new life as alpaca ranchers.

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Photo by Kelly Dwyer
Twisted Suri Alpaca Ranch
The Welcks invested greatly in this new business, spurred by the market's high prices. But they watched as the nation's economy--and by extension, the alpaca market-- suffered a blow from which neither have yet fully recovered. While blue-ribbon animals continued to reap high amounts on the market, the average price sank significantly.

Another issue was the limited fiber-harvesting years of even the finest animals. An alpaca has only a handful of years of commercial-quality fiber production and only a couple more years of breeding ability. That combination was taking its toll on the ranchers, diverting time and resources away from the still profitable alpacas. 

Faced with a dramatically different environment than they had envisioned, Roger and Gina chose to create their own market opportunities. Besides the wool, they recognized potential in the untapped alpaca meat market and started researching the possibility. High in iron and low in fat and cholesterol, alpaca meat proved to be a viable alternative to beef, lamb, and pork.

Australian breeders had already introduced the concept to the English-speaking world when they began marketing alpaca meat as a delicacy to gourmets and foodies Down Under a few years ago under the brand name LaViande.

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Photo by Kelly Dwyer
Three female alpacas, from L to R: fully mature, cria, young adult

Last fall, the Welcks partnered with other ranchers in a new venture called La Pacos, creating America's first domestic alpaca meat distributor. With offerings like jerky, meat sticks, ground meat and steaks, La Pacos is hoping to introduce the country to this unique protein source.

The Welcks have encountered some resistance to their ideas, mostly from other breeders. Since the average U.S. herd numbered around a dozen, many other alpaca owners had come to view their animals less as livestock and more as pets. As a result, Roger confesses, "I've gotten a couple of angry emails."  This is despite the fact that alpacas would seem to be horrible pets, being very aloof and relatively affectionless animals.

Through the La Pacos website, Roger and Gina have already begun processing orders from as far away as California.  This summer, they are planning to offer their products at the Mill City and Minneapolis Farmers Markets.  The Hot Dish imagines it's only a matter of time before State Fair-goers are daring each other to try the alpaca-meatball-on-a-stick.

We visited the ranch and brought back lots of pictures... and lots of meat. 

See the results of our taste test of the alpaca steaks, burgers, and more.

La Pacos website- for information on alpaca meat

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Photo by Kelly Dwyer
Alpaca Fiber Yarn
Twisted Suri Alpaca Ranch- produces a wide range of products, from alpaca fiber yarn and rugs to smoked dog bones and fertilizer.  "We try not to waste anything," Roger says, "We're looking at apparel grade leather in the future. We might be the first in the U.S. to do that too."


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