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July 30, 2019
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
The heyday of the alpaca industry was the late 1980s. So why did Mark Gilbride and his wife and business partner, Sharon, invest in seven pregnant alpacas in 2000 to start an alpaca farm? They saw an opportunity.
Instead of trying to make money selling fiber alone, the Gilbrides capitalize on "selling" the tourism aspects of Lazy Acre Alpacas. Based in West Bloomfield, N.Y., part of the Finger Lakes region, the farm draws tourists as its main source of income.
"When the economy took a dive, so did the alpaca industry," Mark says. "We had elderly people who flooded the market with alpacas because they were trying to get out of it."
While that provided a way for others to get into the industry, new alpaca farmers had to figure out how to make it profitable.
"The shearing alone would not sustain the farm," he says. "We had to think of other ways of making money. That's how I reinvented the industry through agritourism."
The Gilbrides own 160 acres and raise a herd of 65 Suri and Huacaya alpacas. About 12 crias — baby alpacas — are due next month.
Mark has no prior farming experience, but Sharon was raised on a dairy farm. Still, they had quite a bit to learn about alpacas back in 2000.
Tourists visit the farm each day during summer. Tour buses help ramp up the number of visitors as each bus brings between 30 and 40 people. The farm's location in the Finger Lakes ties into the region’s other big attraction: wineries.
Mark has made valuable connections in the local business community, joining the Canandaigua Chamber of Commerce and Finger Lakes Visitor's Connection. He also attended a seminar hosted by the latter where he learned about the bus tours and made some connections in the industry.
Now, he works with several tour bus lines that visit a few times a year.
Mark isn't shy about offering his farm's glossy, full-color brochures to drum up more interest in the farm.
"We entertain everyone of all ages," he says. "Everybody really enjoys spending time with the alpacas and seeing a 185-year-old farm that's still sustainable and the buildings are still standing. We go in the basement of a barn and look at the construction of it, all hand-hewn."
Guests receive a walking tour of the vintage farm, visit with the alpacas and get an opportunity to peruse the gift shop.
Shearing the alpacas is offered only one time during the year. The farm usually closes during shearing.
"It takes work," he says. "It's not a good day to see the animals because they're stressed from the process. There is screaming and spitting going on. People could interpret it the wrong way. We hog-tie them to protect them and the people working on them."
Operating a gift shop in one of the farm's vintage barns has proven to be a lucrative revenue stream. During the holiday season the Gilbrides set up pop-up stores in Pittsford and Canandaigua.
The animals produce an average 12-pound fleece each and 27 micron count. The Gilbrides sell the fiber to producers and buy gift items back at a reduced rate because they provide the fiber.
Sharon makes felted items that also sell well, but many of the items in the shop are made from other alpacas’ fibers to ensure they have enough items in stock.
Little goes to waste. After shearing, the swept-up fiber scraps are turned into dryer balls. Over the past nine months the farm has sold 1,500 of these eco-friendly dryer balls to people concerned about chemicals in their dryer sheets.
The Gilbrides plan to expand the gift shop to another floor in the three-story barn so they have more room to sell stuff.
The farm sells alpaca manure in the spring to local Community Supported Agriculture farms and private individuals.
They also rent out a room in the farmhouse through Airbnb.
"It's proven profitable," Mark says.
For any farmer interested in expanding into agritourism, Mark says they should to someone already doing it. And, as he has found, partnering with local travel and tourism organizations can also open up opportunities.
"Farming is all about leveraging your resources," he says. "You have to find a way to market your product and make the best of it."
Sergeant writes from central New York.
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