Connie and Thomas took many drives out of Portland, where they'd raised their kids, to check out property in the Hood River Valley area. They found the ranch, which was, recalls Connie, "kind of junky." Around the same time, they met a nearby alpaca rancher who explained to them how the animals could help bring in money, via their highly-prized and super-soft wool, not to mention tax benefits. Connie was sold, but Thomas took a little more persuading. "I grew up on a farmand I've always loved animals," she says. "But Thomas was a city guy. His mom didn't even let him have a dog." A year working as manager on a neighboring alpaca ranch converted Thomas; now he speaks about his charges with the zeal of the new convert.
One of the first things the Bettses discovered about alpacas was their not-insignificant cost: Their average price is around $10,000, but this can rise to $100,000 and above, depending on breeding history, sex and color. They started the business with four pregnant alpacas — Jasmine, Mamani, Zamora and Snow White — and though, as Connie says, "you finance them as you would a car, making a down payment and further installments while they're reproducing," they installed the yarn shop as a key element of the business. The Bettses offer visitors spinning-wheel demonstrations, and sell packets of handspun yarn (each labeled with a picture of the alpaca that it came from), as well as hats and scarves. (One of the herd's fleeces, from Snow White's son Royal Dutch, recently won a prestigious award at the national alpaca conference; the cup is proudly displayed in-store.) On weekends, she says, they have between 15 and 20 cars parked in their drive; on their busiest-ever day, she counted 28. This year, they'll be open seven days a week for the first time, a testament to the success of the Hood River County Fruit Loop, a coalition of local farms, orchards and wineries that has produced a 35 mile "route map," encouraging visitors to stop by various attractions, including Cascade Alpacas.
This small-scale local co-operation chimes with Connie's vision of her business as "a green, whole-cycle, full-circle kind of operation. Alpacas are remarkably low-maintenance for livestock — all you have to do is feed them, shear them, let them out to pasture and clean out the barn — and I just feel so good about the product we're selling and the fact that it was all produced here." That's why, despite healthy revenues of $100,000 last year, she's not interested in standard models of growing the business. "We're not interested in having a concession in every airport," she says. "I don't want the stress of having employees or management or responsibility. I mean, some days we don't have time to go to the bathroom, but I don't mind — this is fun for me."
Would she advise imminent retirees in the Bettses' position to take a similar leap in the dark? "We were lucky," she says. "We had the flexibility to gradually ease into this and wind down our other jobs. But I think our success shows that an entrepreneur doesn't necessarily have to have youth on their side." As she speaks, Cassandra, their youngest and friendliest alpaca, comes up for a nuzzle. "And I'd have missed out on all this," she says, giving Cassandra a squeeze. "So I say if you have a passion about something, then go for it, whatever your age."