Alpaca farm, boutique near Benzonia packs in summer crowds

Not unusual for 200 people to stop by farm to watch alpacas roam the field

By Dan Nielsen
Traverse City Record-Eagle

BENZONIA, Mich. (AP) - Chris Nelson's fascination with the alpaca is obvious as soon as she speaks.

"I love alpaca socks. I can't wear any other socks now," she told the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Nelson also wore a sweater made of alpaca fiber as she chatted with customers at her Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm & Boutique.

The boutique, between Benzonia and Frankfort, is open six days a week in summer, 1-5 p.m. It remains open Wednesday through Saturday in November and December to capture income during the Christmas shopping season. The boutique sells fiber and yarn harvested from the herd on the other side of the gravel parking area.

But all the other merchandise - hats, scarves, gloves, sweaters and socks - in the boutique is crafted outside the U.S. Nelson said her herd just isn't large enough to make it viable for commercial production. She buys Fair Trade garments woven elsewhere to sell in her boutique.

Nelson bought her first alpacas 12 years ago after seeing one close up for the first time.

"I looked at their big brown eyes and I fell in love," she said.

She and her husband, David, had raised other animals on their Benzonia farm for 24 years. David, a veterinarian, owns Platte Lake Veterinary Clinic in Honor.

The alpacas roam the field or seek shade in the barn. It's not unusual for 200 people to stop by and watch them during a summer day, Nelson said. One day last year, 700 people trooped through the property. The guest book includes inscriptions of people from New York, Missouri, Germany, Japan and Thailand. Most visitors hail from Michigan and Ohio.

The Nelson's operation is a breeder farm. They raise the animals with the primary goal of selling them. They sold 15 this year and now have 45 animals. Since they need to control which animals breed, the male and female animals are kept segregated in different enclosures.

The farm is profitable, Nelson said, but not a big money-maker. Profits so far have been rolled back into the farm.

"I would sure like to pay myself," she said. "But I might get a sweater now and then."

She staffs the boutique whenever it is open. Her daughter, Andrea, handles the business' website, inventory system and social media presence from a downstate home.

Nelson said the typical alpaca can be sheared once a year and will yield 5 to 10 pounds of fiber. That translates into about six sweaters. Once animals reach the age of 7, the quality of the fiber they produce begins to decline, Nelson said.

Published: Thu, Jun 11, 2015

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