BY MARY BEVANS GILLETT Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — BEULAH — An alpaca isn’t the first farm animal that comes to mind in northern Michigan, but a large herd of the gentle animals are making their mark in rural Benzie County.
The Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm is located between Frankfort and Beulah at 4907 River Road, less than a half-mile from Gwen Frostic Prints. Chris and David Nelson own the 145-acre property that is home to more than 45 alpacas, as well as the Crystal Lake Alpaca Boutique and two herding Great Pyrenees, Banner and Naomi.
The Nelsons have lived in Benzie County for 22 years; they relocated to northern Michigan from Indiana to open the Platte Lake Veterinary Clinic in Honor, where David is a veterinarian. They decided to begin raising alpacas 12 years ago.
Today, Chris oversees a very busy business of raising, breeding, boarding, selling and showing champion alpacas.
“This is a business. We are a working farm, with 24/7 upkeep,” she said, and added the entire family has been involved over the years, including adult children Stephen, Michael and Andrea. They specialize in selective breeding and are committed to raising healthy, quality Huacaya alpacas.
“This is the fastest-growing livestock industry in the United States,” Nelson said of national efforts to increase the U.S. alpaca population, produce animals with excellent fiber and improve the herd through breeding.
Nelson’s herd produces an average of 11 babies or crias each year that usually are sold to other farms. Several of their offspring helped start new alpaca farms.
“Right now, the money is in breeding and selling … and producing excellent fiber,” she said.
Additional revenue is earned through manufacturing the fleece, boarding and boutique shop sales. They recently began selling alpaca manure for gardening.
“We are able to turn a profit, but we’ve worked very hard for 12 years to get here,” Nelson said. “There were times when we thought, ‘what are we doing?’”
The efforts paid off with various awards. Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm recently was named the 2013 National Huacaya Small Breeder of the Year, while individual alpacas earned national recognition. Last spring eight of their animals placed at the Michigan Alpaca Breeders Show and Fiber Fair, and eight at the 2013 Futurity Alpaca Show.
Recognition has resulted in the Crystal Lake Alpacas being frequently sought for breeding to improve a herd’s genetics.
Alpacas are members of the camelid families, as are llamas, vicunas and guanacos. Alpacas are smaller than llamas and usually weigh 150 to 170 pounds, stand 36 inches tall and live as long as 20 years. There are two varieties, huacaya and suri. Distinguished by their long necks, thin legs, cloven hooves and very large eyes, alpacas are especially known for their fleece.
Legend has it that Incas bred alpacas 6,000 years ago to make clothing for royalty. Alpaca yarn is one-third the weight of wool and softer than cashmere. Nelson said the fleece’s fiber strands have hollow pockets which make it very warm, strong and soft without bulk. One alpaca can produce five to 12 pounds of fleece each year with one annual sheering, enough for six to eight sweaters.
Nelson takes the fleece shorn from their herd to a mill in East Jordan to make into yarn and roving.
The animals are gentle and quiet, often nibbling grass, strolling the grounds or softly bleating while visitors look through the fence. Females produce one baby per year, known as a cria until it reaches maturity at age two.
“They have been called therapeutic animals because they are so calming … they even reduce blood pressure,” Nelson said.
Alpacas are native to the Andean Mountain region of South America, with 99 percent of the world’s three-million population living in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Importation into the United States occurred four times between 1984 and 1998 before borders were closed and shipping of alpacas was halted. There are approximately 160,000 registered with the North American Alpaca Registry and only 4,000 registered with the Alpaca Breeders and Owners Association.
Interest in alpaca products led the Nelsons to open the Crystal Lake Alpaca Boutique in 2012. The shop is an extension of the farm, located in a small barn that Stephen renovated using boards from adjacent trees to line the interior space and fashioning display shelves and tables from the logs’ cross sections.
Inventory includes alpaca sweaters, socks and clothing as well stuffed animals, books, gifts and related items. Bins of yarn and roving are displayed, along with the name and photo of the alpaca it came from. Nelson uses 12 fair trade vendors, with a percent of sales donated back to South American artisans. The shop has been successful with sales doubling within the first year.
Future plans include putting in a fodder system and continuing efforts to improve the herd.
“I would like to continue to be the ‘small breeder of the year,’” Nelson said, “I don’t want to increase the herd … just make it better, not bigger.”
The public can meet the Crystal Lake alpacas and learn more about the lifestyle during National Alpaca Farm Day, slated for Sept. 28 from 1 to 5 p.m. There is no charge to attend. Nelson will present a seminar about owning and raising alpacas at 4 to 5 p.m.
For more information about Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm and Boutique, visit www.CrystalLakeAlpacaFarm.com or www.CrystalLakeAlpacaBoutique.com.