Read Before You Breed

By Linda Cortright (Reprinted from Wild Fibers Magazine, Spring 2005)

Mike Safley is one of the leading doyens of the North American alpaca industry and though some of his actions have incited controversy over the years, his experience and knowledge of this enormously competitive business can not be casually dismissed.Synthesis of a Miracle, promoted as “compelling reading for anyone who owns or breeds alpacas, or anyone merely interested in the history of these enchanting animals” is more than an alpaca retrospective; it is a fascinating study about the rewards of determination. And given Safley’s nature, this mindset is made eminently clear in the book’s introduction. “One day I will breed better animals than you.” Safley lightheartedly remarked years ago to Don Julio Barreda, a world-class Peruvian alpaca breeder to which Barreda graciously replied “Thank you for telling me. When a man knows someone is walking behind him, he walks a little faster.” And so,Synthesis of a Miracle begins: part man, part animal, part science and all parts determination.

In 1924, six-year-old Julio Barreda moved with his mother from the industrialized Peruvian city of Arequipa to the family hacienda in Macusani – a stark land high in the Andes surrounded by icy mountains and little air. Julio’s father had recently died and his mother was returning to Accoyo, the family ranch, to be closer to her father. Speaking only Spanish, Julio initially had a difficult time making friends with the neighboring shepherd’s children, who spoke only in their native Quechua. Helped by a little tutoring in the language, Julio is eventually befriended by two boys in town and the three amigos spent the next 10 years playing in the altiplano, enjoying horses, cows, sheep, lizards and, most of all, alpacas.

When Julio’s grandfather died, his mother inherited a portion of Accoyo, including 500 alpacas, and the seed was planted for his dream of becoming a world class alpaca breeder. His mother had different ideas. “Quit thinking of alpacas and make something of yourself,” she cautioned. “You will not be an alpaca shepherd.” Although he received a scholarship to the university, Julio turned it down. Instead, he wanted to develop his own alpaca herd using some of the breeding strategies he had studied among the leading cow and sheep breeders. Unfortunately, Julio had no money to build his herd.

For a brief time Julio attempted to develop a gold mine with backing from an aunt. But those efforts failed and he began wondering if his dream of raising champion alpacas was just that – a dream. Desperate for income, yet committed to his goal, Julio met an American engineer who needed assistance building an airport. For the next year, every penny he earned working on the airport was sent back to his mother with the instructions “buy alpacas.”  By 1946, his determination had won her over and she transferred control of Accoyo to her 28-year-old son. The young Bareda had indeed become an alpaca shepherd.

Although Julio’s alpaca business began with the acquisition of Accoyo, the groundwork for his success had been laid nearly a century earlier by the famous Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, a man whose interest and determination revolutionized the world of agriculture through his study of pea plants. Most readers will recall from high school biology,(albeit vaguely) the difference between dominant versus recessive genes, those four-part tables of AA, Aa, and aa combinations that comprise the foundation of Mendel’s Law of genetic inheritance. And though readers may initially be disconcerted to be thrust headfirst into a lesson on genotypes and phenotypes amidst glossy pages of alpaca pictures, anyone seriously considering raising alpacas should have a thorough understanding of these genetic principles.

The third person of dogged nature that Safley examines is Frank Michell, a tall, English gentleman who had served in World War I as a Royal Air Force pilot and who was no stranger to challenge. His entrée into alpacas happened quite by accident while attending a party in post-war London. It was there that he met an actress wearing a luxurious fur coat – made from chinchilla! The impact of this encounter (with the coat we assume) became the catalyst for Mitchell’s decision to sail to South America in pursuit of this fancy rodent. What follows in the book is a marvelous section from Mitchell’s diary concerning both the obstacles and opportunities encountered during his initial trip to Peru. And though very little of this section relates directly to the formation of his alpaca textile mill, Michell & Co., it provides an interesting framework for his professional choices in developing the business and the manner in which he interacted with the ranchers.

To the casual reader, Synthesis of a Miracle is a well written and enjoyable account of the alpaca industry; it is not the definitive tome, nor is it intended to be. Safley’s style provides the reader with a sense of personal connection to a few of the “founding fathers,” or at least the “great uncles,” of the modern alpaca business. One does not have to be deeply involved with, or anticipating a career in, alpacas to reap the benefits of his knowledge. However, a significant portion of the book is intended for the serious breeder. There are numerous chapters and charts devoted to defining specific breed standards: What characteristics are heritable, which ones are valuable, what might be considered objectionable and finally, what is not acceptable. Like the men who came before him, Safley is equally determined to achieve the mark of excellence in breeding for the ideal alpaca. Synthesis of a Miracle is his own blueprint for attaining that goal.

The growth of the alpaca industry in South America has been by affected political unrest, terrorism, and corruption. In North America, the obstacles have been less overtly threatening but similarly challenging, and certainly Safley knows from where he speaks. After all, he is the one who has made countless others “walk a little faster.”

© copyrighted 2005, “Wild Fibers Magazine”


“When I get a little money I buy books;

and if any is left I buy

food and clothes.”

 Desiderius Erasmus (Dutch priest, humanist and editor of the New Testament, 1469-1536)

Synthesis of a Miracle, 390 pages, full color photos by C. Bruce Forster, cost: $100. Available at Northwest Alpacas, 11785 SW River Road, Hillsboro, Oregon 97123 or

About the author: Mike Safley, an Oregon native, purchased his first five alpacas with his father, Ken Safley, in 1984. Since then he has served as president of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA), served on the board of directors of the Alpaca Registry Inc., created and edited Alpacas magazine. He is also an accredited alpaca judge and has judged shows in the United States, Peru, Australia and Canada. Mike lives with his wife and four children on their Northwest Alpacas Ranch that they share with more than 350 alpacas.

Reproduced with permission from:  Northwest Alpacas: raising suri and huacaya alpacas for sale, alpaca investment, and alpaca business plans for alpaca breeders and owners worldwide. Copyright © Northwest Alpacas.