MAXWELL - The success of C&M Acres' fiber mill has surprised even its owners - two accountants who wrote a detailed business plan.
"Our plan was, three years from when we opened, I would get to retire from my day job and just be on the farm," said Christian Davies. "It happened in three months."
Christian and Michelle Davies operate a 20-plus-acre alpaca farm near Maxwell and have been breeders and fiber producers since 2006. She has worked full-time at the farm since then while he continued to work full time in Ames.
-Messenger photo by Barbara Wallace Hughes
Christian Davies prepares a machine to spin fiber into yarn at C&M?Acres Alpaca Farm and Fiber Mill. Davies and wife Michelle added the fiber mill last year to their alpaca farm near Maxwell. The Davieses process all types of fiber from alpaca and llama to sheep’s wool and dog hair. A limited amount of buffalo and yak fiber has been shipped to C&M?from places as far away as Alaska, Canada and Montana.
Last year, they began considering adding an automated fiber mill to their operation. Today, they have a six-month backlog of fiber orders to be processed.
"We were very conservative in our (business plan) estimate; we just didn't realize how much was out there. We knew there were alpaca breeders out there; we knew there was tons of alpaca fiber," Davies said. "But we figured it would take a while for people to come to us. What we failed to realize is there's twice as many llamas running around as there are alpacas."
And, he said, there are at least four to five times as many sheep.
"We never even thought of dog hair, cat hair, buffalo, yak, bunny. We started getting massive amounts of fiber in February (2012) and we didn't start opening to the public until May," he said.
The idea to operate a fiber mill grew out of the couple's own business need.
"We started contemplating the idea because we were spending many thousands of dollars having just some of our fiber made into yarn," Davies said.
After he spent a week at a friend's mill in Minnesota, the Davieses began researching the four companies in North America that produce the machines they needed to equip their mill.
Then they waited.
"None of this stuff is sitting around in a factory," he said. "They make a piece when you order it. So in February of last year, the equipment started to come in. Then we had a lot of learning time to get up to speed. Then, we opened to the public in May."
Davies also spent a week at an existing mill in Pennsylvania learning to use the same equipment that was being installed at C&M Acres. The couple knew how to process fiber by hand, "but we had no idea how to do all of this with industrial equipment."
The equipment has to be set up differently for every type of fiber that's processed, Davies said, taking into account the length of the fibers or the amount of crimp in each one. Sheep's wool also presents a challenge because it has to be washed to take out the lanolin, otherwise the oil will gum up the machines, he said.
The couple no longer sells hand-processed fiber "because you can't produce it nearly as quickly or consistently," Davies said.
As an example, "Michelle couldn't keep enough fiber washed (by hand), and she was washing all day to keep me going in the other room," he said.
With their new industrial fiber-washing machine, she "can now do in two hours what took nine hours before," he said.
C&M is now processing about 100 pounds of fiber per week. Before they opened the mill, the Davieses were processing about 5 pounds of their own fiber.
"The reality is, we shear about 700 or 800 pounds of our own fiber; we have 4,000 pounds of other people's fiber sitting upstairs (at the mill)," Davies said.
"We can now do any size or shape of yarn, any ply, from lace all the way up to bulky," he said, "from single-ply thread all the way up to, right now, I have an order for a five-ply bulky yarn."
In addition, the Davieses have found a way to use lesser-quality fiber that wouldn't be ideal for spinning or weaving.
"We make sheet felt, using the leg or neck fiber that isn't the best fiber in the world," Davies said.
They also make a cored yarn that's wrapped around cotton or jute cord and is used for rug making.
"They're super soft," he said, "and it's a good use of fiber that would otherwise be thrown away."
C&M is the only fiber mill in the country, he said, that offers both woolen and worsted processing.
In woolen processing, the fibers are pulled and stretched, and the fibers are combed in worsted processing. The former creates a fluffier yarn that appeals to knitters, and the latter, which is known as pin drafting, produces a tighter yarn that is more favored by weavers.
The Davieses are also now mass producing fiber products for commercial companies, something they hadn't anticipated in their business plan.
"We just got a contract from somebody for making the insides of pillows. We're washing and fluffing the fiber and sending it back to them," Davies said. "We have somebody else who is working on designer, high-end New York fashion, and we're making the thread for them."
The ability to appeal to multiple markets is partially responsible for C&M's success. They raise both types of alpacas - the fluffy coated huacaya and the curly coated suri. There are 22 recognized coat colors for alpacas, and the Davieses raise black, white and everything in between.
C&M Acres sells bred and open females, herdsires and fiber animals. The Davieses also offer mobile herdsire breeding services as well as traditional breeding services at their farm. They hold classes on fiber and fiber processing, as well as general education about alpacas. They sell Shacht weaving and spinning equipment, offer farm set-up assistance and board other people's alpacas. In addition, they just refinished remodeling their farm store, where they sell fiber from their herd, along with handmade products, including scarves, felting and wall hangings.
C&M also serves as a teaching facility, serving as a sponsor for the annual camelid (primarily alpaca and llama) seminar at Iowa State University in nearby Ames, having ISU vet students get hands-on experience at the farm and allowing one ISU professor to perform blood studies on the alpacas. The university's small ruminant club generally visits about twice a year, Davies said.