Peter Ziek couldn’t have been much more of a city slicker during his formative years. Born in Manhattan, Ziek was raised on Long Island in the shadow of New York City’s skyline.
“I grew up with a goldfish,” said Ziek, who, with his wife, Barbara, now owns 107 head of alpaca at their Wild Hair Alpacas farm in Black Forest.
Part agricultural business, part service industry, part retail, the Zieks have developed a retirement plan that has been a plus for mind, body and pocketbook.
A retirement investment
It was 1999 and the two decided to visit what was billed as an exotic animal exposition in Denver. At the time, Peter was working as a manager at IBM in Colorado Springs, and Barbara was a middle school teacher in Academy District 20.
“We wandered around this coliseum that had everything from snakes and lizards to Watusi cattle,” Peter said. “They were trying to get people interested in raising animals commercially. There were elk farms and llama farms … We came across this pen and we did a double-take. At the time, alpacas had only been in the country about 10 years.”
Alpacas were first imported to the U.S. as an exotic species in the mid-1980s from hubs in South America — to include Chile, Peru and Bolivia, he said.
After visiting alpaca shows and farms and researching the business for more than a year, the Zieks purchased two pregnant alpacas at a total cost of about $30,000.
“We went through our business scenario — If we retire in five or 10 years, and if we never sell an animal and lose it all, is it gonna kill us?
“The answer was no. … We could have weathered it,” he said.
Alpacas are hardy animals that adapt to many different environments. Peter likened their personality to that of cats — intelligent and independent.
The average lifespan for alpacas is also similar to a cat’s, between 15 and 20 years. They can weigh, fully grown, anywhere from 100 to 200 pounds and stand about 3 feet at the withers, where the neck and spine come together. According to Peter, there are 22 officially recognized colors, which makes clothing manufactured without dyes a selling point to consumers.
As for care, Peter said they are fed hay daily because grazing in Black Forest would not provide the needed sustenance. But other than that, they are self-sufficient and need only to be tidied up after.
“They poop in common poop piles, but you have to clean up,” Peter said.
“It’s very considerate of them,” said Barbara.
The Zieks’ retirement plan has proven fruitful so far. The couple purchased 35 acres in the northeastern corner of El Paso County and lived on the property while raising their animals and building their home.
Today, the farm breeds and sells alpacas, shears other farms’ alpacas, and produces fiber (about 600 pounds a year) that is turned into raw fleece and yarn. Barbara manufactures products such as vests, shawls and lampshades and even outsources the production of alpaca fiber rugs to a company in Texas. She has also written two children’s books about alpacas, “Zadie and Plain Vanilla, the Rainbow Alpaca,” and “Zadie and Plain Vanilla, the Rainbow Alpaca, Save Christmas.”
She is working on a third with the working title “Spit Happens” about alpacas getting loose and spitting out the Black Forest fire. The fire had significant meaning for the Zieks.
“We were evacuated,” Peter said. “We had one trailer that would hold maybe six animals. We couldn’t make 16 trips. We called the breeders association and said we needed help. Within an hour we had 10 trailers at our gate ready to take our animals. They ended up at four farms in Douglas County until they could come home.”
The Zieks have a shop on their property that they open for a weekend each month, and for the month between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. They are currently working on a website for retail sales, and rely heavily on word-of-mouth referrals, Barbara said. The couple will even do a fashion show in their barn this August.
“Peter walks the alpaca in front of the clothes made from his fiber,” Barbara said.
She said there has been a resurgence in homesteading of late, and alpacas on small-acreage farms have ridden that wave of popularity.
Peter said, profits aside, the animals just make him happy.
“I certainly didn’t want to sit in front of a television set in my retired years,” he said. “That’s a great way to die quick, as far as I’m concerned. … And you take one look at these guys and you start to smile. They just make you feel good.”
[su_box title=”Wild Hair Alpacas” box_color=”#005ac3″]Established: 2000
Contact: 719-495-6693; wildhairalpacas.com[/su_box]