Ilko alpaca ranch producing high-quality fiber and hope

'Maggie' (short for Mary Magdalene) looks into the camera for a photo at the Ilko alpaca ranch.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

North of Craig up U.S. Highway 13 and east quite a ways into the mountain wilderness is found a sanctuary of hope and hard work.

Back down the highway, a city wrestles with its economic future. But winding through the snowy hills and high plains past a small handful of prairie-dotting homes along unpaved county roads, the concerns in town are left behind, and, rumbling down the hill that dead ends at the Ilko ranch, a visitor first spies dozens of fuzzy heads turn atop spindly necks to see who comes to observe their little home.

The heads belong to Huacaya alpacas, a little more than 50 of them in all, penned together by gender to avoid over-breeding. The alpacas belong to the Ilkos, Johnny and wife Laura. These animals are both the product and source of a great deal of hopes and dreams.

The Ilko ranch — it’s been in Johnny’s family for generations — was once home to sheep, like many others ranching in Moffat County. But the younger generation thought they’d give something new a try and experiment with a niche that, locally at least, makes them a pretty rare breed.

“As much as we can, we love to shop from small businesses,” Laura said. “It’s going to take the little person to keep going.”

Johnny and Laura are evangelists for the emerging product that is alpaca fiber — it’s not called “wool,” technically, Laura explained; that’s the word for the stuff that sheep produce specifically — and they believe that the lanolin-free, allergy-friendly strong, soft, durable medium can increasingly be part of the garment market. They are at the vanguard of that growth, but they hope to see it grow more yet.

“The United States has the fourth generation going into the fifth generation of the original (alpaca) exports,” Johnny said. “Alpaca are now, just the last couple years, finally officially considered livestock, not exotic.”

The thing about alpaca fiber, which the Ilkos sell in various forms through two online-based businesses, Living Water Fibers and Alpacas and Selah Yarn Co., is that, at least at the moment, it’s not cheap to produce.

Walking through the process of fiber production, starting with breeding and caring for the animals themselves, then progressing into the once-yearly shearing of the animals, moving through “skirting,” or preliminary processing to sort less-useful fiber to a painstakingly small-scale “carding” function of smoothing and normalizing the fiber into a state where it can spun, following finally by spinning the fiber into yarn — and, in many cases, re-spinning it into two-ply yarn — before a garment can actually be produced, Laura made it clear that even once the alpacas are shorn, it would take an individual dozens of hours to produce a single end product.

“With so many fewer alpacas than sheep, it’s a lot cheaper to produce sheep anything,” she said. “There’s so much more sheep, there’s just more resources. That’s just economics.”

Alternatively, the Ilkos send away the majority of the fiber to be processed. A handful of mills exist in the U.S. — and it’s important to the couple to sell fully American-made whenever possible (some work is done in alpaca homeland Peru) — but, because of the relative rareness of alpaca ranching, it’s a slower, more expensive process than the significantly more common wool production plants. Should alpaca ranching in the states grow to be more common — and the trends and legislation changes indicate it might — that could change incrementally. But in the meantime, this is the paradigm.

And, so, the product is necessarily expensive. Living Water Fibers and Alapacas is the outlet that sells garments like socks, hats, gloves and sweaters. The site displays undeniably beautiful products, and, according to the Ilkos, their pure-alpaca products are also less itchy, more durable, softer, more water-resistant and longer-lasting than wool-based equivalents. But they’re pricey. A scarf costs $50. One sweater goes for $154. A throw blanket sells for $250.

“Obviously people will say they can go to Walmart and get something for a lot less,” Johnny said. “But this is a luxury American good, and that’s just the fact of the matter.”

Steamboat Springs, Johnny said, is into it. And the company sells plenty to be shipped to online customers. But it’s tougher sledding in Craig, a fact the couple understands but wishes could and will change.

“If you like the product, buy the product, be behind the product — if the community the area, people in general getting behind the product, then we’ll take off,” Johnny said.

The dream is to put together enough capital to be able to purchase the equipment and build the facility that would mill the fiber locally. It’s an undertaking that could employ as many as a couple dozen local folks should it ever get all the way up to scale. But it’s a massive cost and not something the Ilkos find themselves particularly close to realizing.

“We know the community is having the issue with the mines, and not having work,” Laura said. “We have the product, we can provide work. But it’s getting the pieces.”

In the meantime, the sanctuary that is the Ilko alpaca ranch sits hidden in its little pocket of heaven. It’s perhaps thematically appropriate that the Ilkos, who also run Calvary Chapel in Craig, name their animals after Biblical figures.

“So many things are closing,” Laura said. “I’d love something sustainable. We aren’t going anywhere, we’re invested.”

Laura Ilko explains the process of turning alpaca fiber into yarn a she spins some on a small spinning wheel in her family's cabin on the Ilko ranch in Moffat County north of Craig.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Laura Ilko shows off a single strand of alpaca fiber yarn.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Johnny Ilko feeds a few of the female alpacas at his family ranch north of Craig.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Several of the female alpacas at the Ilko alpaca ranch north of Craig look out of their pen at a visitor and their caretakers.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Maggie (short for Magdalene) looks pretty for a photo in her home on the Ilko alpaca ranch north of Craig.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Laura Ilko, left, and Johnny Ilko chat with Maggie (short for Magdalene) the alpaca, one of their 50-plus alpacas on the Ilko ranch north of Craig.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Some of the male alpacas poke their heads around the corner on the Ilko alpaca ranch north of Craig.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Laura Ilko demonstrates the 'skirting' process of eliminating less-useful alpaca fiber that's been shorn off some of her family's animals.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Johnny Ilko shows some pre-carded alpaca fiber.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
A particularly fuzzy-faced white alpaca tries to get in for a bite of food at the Ilko alpaca ranch north of Craig.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Laura Ilko feeds some of her alpacas at her ranch north of Craig.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
An alpaca stares off into the distance stoically at the Ilko alpaca ranch north of Craig.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press
Some adult male alpacas stand at the head of a pair of baby alpacas, which they 'teach to be alpacas,' according to Johnny and Laura Ilko, who run the Ilko alpaca ranch north of Craig.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

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