The Department of Transport tells us 10,000 cars go past the herd of alpacas grazing at Mount Compass every day, and Chris Williams suspects most of the drivers think they’re lamas. When he’s at the Willunga Market on a Saturday morning they ask: “What do they taste like?”
He gives one of his friendly smiles for he understands that generally we don’t know much about his Huacaya, a domesticated species of South American camelid. Why would we; we just see them as as friendly, funny little things with long necks.
However, his 200 hectare property, home to more than 1500 alpacas, is the third largest of its kind in the world behind their place of ancestry, South America, and his operation, Ambersun Alpacas, represents an amazing story of vision and achievement in South Australian small business.
And his wife, Adrienne Clarke, who first came up with this alpaca idea, is special in her own right having in 1987 become the first-ever female fire fighter in the South Australian Fire Brigade, and a year later winning the Bay Sheffield.
The Mount Compass dream is also far from over – it will soon become a destination for tourists with a farm visit, shearing demonstrations and a restaurant with, of course, alpaca meat on the menu.
They plan to grow their own fruit and vegetables for the restaurant using a sophisticated natural spring water system that flows into a huge lake, and will soon manufacture its own line of pillows and quilts on site creating even more local jobs. They are already leaders in the world because no one else is doing every facet of the rapidly growing alpaca industry.
This just didn’t happen. Chris was born in Victor Harbor and left school at 15 to become a junior stock agent in Naracoorte, only to be lured back to the city to play league football for South Adelaide in 1978.
Things didn’t work out so he was back on the stock trail on which he won two Mail Medal in country football, and later worked for his dad’s camping business.
In the late 1980s Chris was working for the family business at the Royal Adelaide Show, where Adrienne fell in love first sight with a young alpaca. She “just had to have one” as you do, and the notion got serious when her fire station supervisor mentioned that he had six alpacas, from which he earned more money than from the SA Fire Brigade.
Chris said they bought a ‘stud boy’ (the correct terminology is a macho) and five female alpacas for $14,000, and this 26-year-old journey started from there. “This whole business, the 1500 alpacas here and the 200 we have in five countries Europe, all started from this risk.
“I was living in a shed in 1988 and we had a business where I used to put my big stud males in the back of a van and tour NSW and Victoria every month,” Chris added. “I did this for 12 years doing matings for alpaca farmers – it was a very good business.
“The quality of breeding was the best in Australia so people paid big money to access the genetics. We built a beautiful house here and then all of a sudden it stopped – the GFC hit, and we had a drought. I read in a magazine about alpaca shows coming up in Germany, Holland and Switzerland, and with our last $14,000 of overdraft I went to see if I could discover ideas to keep this business alive.
“There was pressure; the house was at risk, but I just saw it as a bigger challenge. I went to the Germany show and this guy invited me back to his alpaca farm, and while I was there he was distressed because his shearer had a shoulder operation and couldn’t work. I said I could shear them for him, and he was amazed.
“I then worked for all his clients through Scandinavia sheering 2000 alpacas in 15 different countries. At the end of that year I met three people who came out here and spent about $150,000 each on alpacas. We were back in the game.”
Yesterday Chris left on his tenth annual alpaca shearing campaign, starting with his fifth business trip in China, and will also travel north west almost to Kazakhstan, into Mongolia and to the province of Leone in North Korea to open more doors in the alpaca world. “It’s about building markets… trust and a relationship,” he said.
Chris is on the board of the Australian Alpaca Association, and he believes its biggest challenge is developing opportunities, particularly export markets.
“We have people knocking at the door for export orders for the meat, but right now alpaca farmers need to create their own market.
“I guess we have had to be the pioneer in all this, but also the entrepreneur, trying not only how to do X,Y & Z, but how it could give us a return.
“Most of the manufacturing, whether it be scouring, carding and spinning is about China. There is so little manufacturing done in Australia now, and we need to look abroad.
“There is demand for our fleece in China, and we are talking about using our very finest alpaca quality for quilts, and making the outer covering of silk.”
It seems trying to explain the difference between an alpaca and a lama is like comparing a sheep with a goat. Similar size, but vastly different. And don’t dare compare the fleece of a sheep with that of an alpaca when Chris and Adrienne are around.
“The alpaca fleece is very lightweight, silky and soft,” he said. “It’s more like cashmere than wool. It is the flavour of the month in China and we are seeing a lot of interest to start up the breeding aspect. It is what happened in Australia in 1988-94 when we started looking at the business seriously.
And unlike sheep and goats, the alpaca doesn’t rip everything out by the roots so you don’t get a dust bowl; the grass keeps coming back. They have soft feet; another positive for the environment.
We could also go into detail how they also do their droppings in the one spot meaning you’re left with well fertilized mounds with the surround dirt becoming baron in summer. Nonetheless, their toilet habits, friendliness and eating manners makes them a good pet.
You may see an alpaca advertised on the net for $200, but it’s like buying a plain old sheep at the Strathalbyn stock sales where the prized stud ram costs thousands. Chris and Adrienne’s alpacas are mostly valued at $2000-plus, and the genetic value is there.
Of course it will be some time before we predominantly go to the local butcher’s shop to buy an alpaca fillet for tea ahead of a leg of lamb.
Slowly but surely, however, Chris will convince us that alpaca meat can also be something very special, as he recently did on display at the Cellar Door Festival at the Adelaide Convention Centre. And yes, there he was asked: What does alpaca meat taste like?
With a smile, he says straight away people always want to compare it with something. “I say it is a little bit like a sweet lamb with no fat, crossed with milk-fed veal, crossed with blue fin tuna,” he adds.
“They’re surprised at the tuna, so I get a piece of backstrap thinly sliced and give it to them raw; like a Japanese sashimi.
“As part of my sampling at the Cellar Door Festival I gave them a thin slice of alpaca with either raw soy sauce, soy & musubi, soy & horseradish, and ruby grapefruit coriander.
“Just try it, I asked them. I didn’t say anything; I just saw the excitement in their eyes.”
And at the market there are the alpaca burgers, shnitzels, sausages, metwurst, salami and smoked alpaca. Just one thing, if you drive there towards Mount Compass from Victor Harbor just don’t look right into the eyes of those friendly, funny little things with long necks. You wouldn’t watch a Lambert movie before having a lamb roast, would you?