It’s warmer, softer and stronger than sheep’s wool. It was called the “fiber of the gods” by the ancient Inca civilization of South America.
In modern days, it’s been compared in quality to cashmere and mohair. It’s hypoallergenic, too.
“It” is alpaca fleece, and it’s the livelihood of Karen Ball and Russell Ratti. They own Heart & Soul Alpacas and Spinnery in Penn Valley.
Although they’ve been working with alpacas for years, they blended their families and alpaca businesses in January 2011. Ratti joked they chose the name Heart and Soul because of the “blood, sweat and tears” they put into the family business.
“We really love what we do,” Ball explained.
And when it comes to alpacas, Ratti, Ball and their five kids pretty much do it all.
— They raise, breed, show and sell champion alpacas all over the country.
— They shear their own 30-head herd and about 10 other alpacas they board on their 20-acre ranch.
— They operate the only commercial alpaca “spinnery” in Northern California. In addition to their own high-end fleece, they spin fleece into custom yarns for alpaca ranchers from California to Colorado.
— They have a store where they sell socks, sweaters, scarves, hats, rugs, blankets and all kinds of yarns.
— And they even sell excess, composted alpaca manure that they don’t use to fertilize their own garden and lawn.
Getting to know you
While they’ve been in business together nationally for two-and-a-half years, Ratti and Ball have had a relatively low profile locally. In the past, they have participated in the annual Gold Country Gathering Alpaca Show at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.
This year, however, they plan to showcase their Penn Valley operation in celebration of National Alpaca Farm Days, Sept. 28 and 29. Located at 17274 Cattle Drive in an industrial park just off Highway 20, the Heart & Soul store and spinnery will be open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In addition to selling alpaca clothing, blankets, rugs and yarns, they will be giving tours of the adjoining spinnery. Ratti will demonstrate the meticulous process and machinery they use to clean, card, spin, weave and finish alpaca fleece.
They will also have some of their purebred Suri and Huacaya alpacas on site for people to meet. Serious breeders and buyers can make appointments to visit the Heart & Soul ranch, which is in the rolling hills about seven miles outside of Penn Valley.
For people, who can’t come to the open house, Heart & Soul will be showing its animals and products again at the fairgrounds at the annual alpaca gathering Oct. 19 and 20.
Taking care of business
With an eight-month backlog of fleece to spin, Ratti reported they plan to expand the size of the fleece mill. Right now, the mill processes 50 to 100 tons a month of rug yarn alone, he said.
Additionally, depending upon the type of yarn, the spinnery has machines that can produce anywhere from 500 to 1,500 yards of yarn per hour.
Heart & Soul belongs to the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America Inc. Ratti said they invest 50 percent of their fleece in the cooperative.
According to its website, AFCNA “is an agricultural cooperative owned and operated by alpaca farmers seeking the benefits of economies of scale to add value to their raw product and strengthen their marketing power.”
Like other agricultural cooperatives such as Welch’s, Sunkist and OceanSpray, AFCNA collects, grades and adds value to the fiber produced by member farms. It manufactures and sells high-quality alpaca fiber products under the brand name America’s Alpaca. Co-op members share in the profits.
Heart & Soul also contributes fleece to the charitable organization Sock Brigade, which donates military-grade socks to U.S. troops overseas.
All in the family
“We both started in 4-H with our kids, and now it’s become full time,” Ball said.
“Really full time,” Ratti added.
Because of the volume of their business, they are no longer involved in 4-H, but the kids are still learning the hands-on business of animal husbandry.
Blending their families from previous marriages, Ball has four sons (Joshua, 18; Joseph, 17; Benjamin, 15; Samuel, 11), and Ratti’s daughter, Michaela, is 16.
Ratti, Joseph and Benjamin do the heavy work of shearing the fleece. It’s very similar to sheep shearing, but we do it on tables, Ratti explained.
All the kids help out on the ranch and in the store and spinnery after school, Ball added.
She said she chose alpacas as the family business, because “I’m an animal lover. I can’t do the slaughter thing.”
Hugging one of her pregnant females, she concluded, “Every one of our alpacas has a name and a personality to me.”
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.