Before she can even open the gate to the pen, Francis Johnson is practically surrounded. It's mealtime and her alpacas know it. In the same family as llamas, the alpacas look like miniature versions of their animal brethren. She pets them"”even with a little mud and plant matter on their coats they're still as soft as cashmere"”and they follow as she heads to the food bin. There's only one of her and nine of them, mother alpacas with their children, sticking their long necks in her way as they try to score a pre-meal munch.

"I should have closed the gate," she laments, meaning the gate that closes off the feed bin. But it's too late for that. She strategically places the bowls so that no hungry alpaca is shut out from their mid-morning breakfast, deliberately placing a bowl on the far side of the fence so that a recuperating mother eats her specially prepared diet and not someone else's. They grunt and moan, sounding not unlike camels, either because they're nervous, or because mothers are trying to call over their babies, or for any other reason. Some of them are bossy, others are shy, but all of them have clear personalities. Johnson even boasts that her farm is home to "the friendliest alpaca in the world," named Trillium.

Johnson loves the alpacas, even with all their nudging at mealtime. After they're done eating, one with a reddish-brown coat wanders over and stands quietly in front of her. "What is it?" Johnson asks sweetly. "Did you get enough to eat?" The young creature silently stares back at her and Johnson remarks how pretty its large black eyes are. "Alpacas just sell themselves," she says.

When Johnson and her husband moved into their home in Batavia nine years ago, they didn't have plans for the more than 30 acres that came with the property. But four years later Johnson "fell in love" with alpacas at a farm close to her sister-in-law's home. Since then, Johnson's been raising, boarding and breeding the South American animals on her land, called the Farm at Brushy Fork.

For Johnson, who emphasizes the several models that alpacas provide, the benefits to raising these creatures are many. For one, they're typically gentle and "very smart," says Johnson. There's also a growing demand for alpaca fiber, which is as soft as cashmere. But there's big money to be had in the breeding and selling of alpacas. Males can fetch anywhere from $1,500 to more than $9,000, while good female alpacas cost on average upwards of $10,000. Animals with great bloodlines sell for double or even ten times that.

Alpacas can have only one animal a year, but they're known to live for 20 years, Johnson says. Because of the market for these animals, alpacas are a way to make an investment without risking money on the stock market. Johnson gives talks to investor groups and animal lovers about the benefits of owning alpacas. If an investor buys a female and it gives birth to a female the next year, they've essentially already earned their investment back. And there's still more years of breeding after that.

Alpacas aren't slaughtered for their meat, which can make it easier to cozy up to them. "You're not going to kill the family pet," Johnson says.

Plus, alpacas are tax-deductible and as long as you show that you're trying to make a profit off the animals, you can deduct farm supplies, veterinary expenses, mileage, fencing and other related expenses. They don't take up a lot of room: Johnson has only two acres of land closed off for the animals, noting that you can keep up to six on an acre.
However, Johnson wants an end product. "We're not breeding collectables," she says. With fiber from her animals, as well as some that she imports from Peru, she's started BellezAlpaca, a finished line of alpaca products. She and a handful of knitters create wraps, shawls, ponchos and more. There are two types of alpaca: huacaya, with fluffy fleece, and suri, which has silky dreadlocks. Each can be used for fashion. All of the products Johnson makes with her own or fellow breeders' alpaca fiber features pictures of the animals on the tags. Customers can wear something made from the animals they've just met.

Always ready to praise the various alpaca business models, she also does alpaca product parties. Similar to Tupperware parties, guests learn about the versatility of alpaca fiber and, if Johnson brings one along, alpacas themselves.

Whatever the reason to own alpacas, Johnson and fellow breeders have just made the process easier with the Cincinnati Alpaca Cooperative. Along with Tanglewood Alpaca Farm in Fayetteville, Sleepy Ridge Alpaca Farm in Bethel and East Fork Alpaca Farm in Batavia, these four farms are committed to providing knowledge, care, and personalized attention. Ohio has more alpaca farms than anywhere else in the country, and farms in the northern part of the state are especially established. But Johnson and the others in the cooperative aim to show others that they don't have to make a long drive to get the best care and advice. "Someone four hours away isn't going to drive down to help you," she says. "The best you can get is a phone call."

Johnson estimates that there are approximately 20 alpaca farms in Greater Cincinnati area, going up as high as Morrow and Lebanon, but there's plenty of room for people just starting out. In late September, the cooperative hosted a tour that included their farms, plus a few others. The popularity of alpaca business models could be on the rise. Robert Kellum, one of the owners of Sleepy Ridge Alpaca Farm, says many of the visitors on this year's tour were business-minded, as opposed to the tourists that dominated last year. Kellum notes several people as saying, "'Maybe this is a business we could get into for retirement.'"

He adds that the cooperative is a way to help each other out with manual labor and administering shots and medicine. Johnson says that if she doesn't have something a buyer is looking for, she'll refer them to another farm in the cooperative and vice versa, meaning they're not exactly competing with each other.

Some of Johnson's biggest advice for new, small farms: "You've got to market." She says some new farms wait years until they've built up their stock before they start marketing, but by then "they're playing catch up."