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Air force investigator turned alpaca farmer

Alvina Maynard opens River Hill Ranch in Richmond

By Abigail Laub
For BG Magazine

Alvina Maynard shrugged her shoulders at the freezing temperatures earlier this year, as she walked up the hill from her house to the field where her Suri alpacas graze.

Alvina Maynard is the owner of River Hill Ranch in Richmond.
Alvina Maynard is the owner of River Hill Ranch in Richmond. (Photos by J.A. Laub Photography.)

“Alpaca (fur) is extremely warm,” she pointed out, feeling the soft fur of the alpaca shawl she was wearing.

The married 30-year-old owner of River Hill Ranch in Richmond is working hard to establish her picturesque new farm, nestled on a hillside above a creek. Situated less than 10 minutes from I-75, the farm still feels like it is far out in the country.

A former Air Force (now a reserve) officer, Maynard enjoys the switch to farm life. She grew up in the country and appreciates that her daughter will have the same experience. And despite what may seem like an interesting career change, the California native sees many parallels between her international career — in criminal/counterintelligence investigations and special investigations — and managing a farm.

“The longer I’ve been in the alpaca world, the more I realize my skillsets translate,” she reflected. “As a federal investigator, your

biggest strength needs to be talking to people, building relationships, building rapport, logical and creative thinking, time management and project management. All aspects of running a case involve money, coordination, staying organized and paying attention to small details. All of those things translate directly into running a business.”

She cited Air Force lingo, “Flexibility is the key to air power,” just as flexibility is the key to running a business.

When it comes to alpaca farming, Maynard said, it is imperative that she understands and read the 28 animals (29 if you count the guardian dog, Ruth) she shepherds on the farm that opened in December.

“They have different personalities just like people do,” she said, pointing out a young brown alpaca named Mocha who is especially friendly.

Every day is filled with unique decision-making. Finely tuned intuition she gained from years as an investigator pays off, she said.

While normal daily tasks, such as excessive poop shoveling, might not be as glamorous as one of her Air Force assignments — one took her on an airplane that did “doughnuts around Denali” while visiting missile posts with United States Northern Command Gen. Gene Renuart — Maynard said it was time to be free of all of the traveling and time away from her husband (a fellow federal investigator and Kentucky native). It was time to embrace simple, purposeful living, she said.

Steering the course of River Hill Ranch

Rather than farm alpacas for breeding and livestock purposes, River Hill Ranch is focused on the textile and fashion side of the business — a relatively new endeavor in the United States. Maynard first bought alpacas in 2009 while living in Tucson, Ariz. She had been to Peru twice and knew what they were, but after extensive training and  education, she realized raising alpacas could become a viable career.

Maynard has a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University and received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Air Force Academy. She jokes that she never believed she would be “investigating” the fashion and textile industry as part of her career.

Suri alpacas produce a thinner, silkier fiber that works well for sweaters, scarves, hats, blankets and socks that will last a lifetime.
Suri alpacas produce a thinner, silkier fiber that works well for sweaters, scarves, hats, blankets and socks that will last a lifetime.

Most of the American market typically is dominated by breeding, but, “In order for the industry to survive, we have to complete the livestock model, so we got into it for their fiber and other products of the animal,” Maynard said.

Suri alpacas make up only 30 percent of the alpacas in the U.S. The animals produce a thinner, silkier fiber that translates beautifully into high-quality products such as sweaters, scarves, hats, blankets and socks that will last a lifetime.

Maynard still is in the early stages of developing her business plan. Right now, she’s wading through research and investing in the farm, she said.

One adult alpaca can typically produce three sweaters a year. A high-quality alpaca sweater, which is hypoallergenic and has no lanolin, sells for several hundred dollars. Sweaters are made from the prime fleece of the animal, the top layer, but more fiber can be harvested for other products, Maynard said.

The market value – if you add everything up – for one adult alpaca is $1,000 a year “after all of the processing has been worked out,” Maynard said. She estimates that it will take about 10 years (and 200 alpacas) to get to her long-term goal, which is getting $200,000 per year out of their wool and making the farm a sustainable, profitable business.

But she won’t get to the $200,000 mark on her own. Maynard’s husband works full-time and “can only do so much” on the farm, she said.

On her own, Maynard estimates that she can care for up to 50 alpacas. To reach her long-term goal, she will eventually have to hire help.

Her short-term goals are to get involved in the Kentucky Proud program and local events. She hopes to partner with Acres of Land Winery in Richmond, and wants to offer field trips and tours. Agritourism efforts can bring extra cash she can invest in the farm.

She also is looking for markets for other alpaca byproducts, such as the carcass, meat and fertilizer from the manure. Alpaca meat is extremely lean, Maynard said, high in protein and iron, but Americans are unfamiliar with it.

Getting it right

It is important to Maynard that she be “purpose driven” and “help the industry grow.”

She’s excited to be a student again and give her daughter unique educational opportunities. Her daughter will learn about the science of raising and caring for alpacas and the business of marketing alpaca products, Maynard said.

With alpacas, the stakes are high to get it right, so Maynard makes certain her animals are given the best care and live in a low-stress environment. Ruth, the Italian Maremma sheepdog, helps with that. A highly trained, intelligent guardian dog, she blends in with the pack and alerts Maynard through specific barks if anything is awry. She already has saved the farm’s barn by alerting Maynard of a water main break that was flooding the brand new structure late one night, just two weeks after they moved in to the home the family built there.

Now that her family is getting settled in at the new farm and homestead, Maynard said her biggest challenge now is getting focused.

“There’s so much that can be done, but it’s about giving a lot of thought to prioritizing and figuring out what’s the best next step,” she said.

To find out more about River Hill Ranch, email [email protected], or call (859) 408-5132. Follow the farm on Facebook.

Abigail Laub is a writer for BG Magazine, a publication of The Lane Report.