Alpaca operations weave into area

·5 min read

Mar. 24—TRAVERSE CITY — The Chinese New Year says 2021 is the Year of the Ox.

But 2021 may be the Year of the Alpaca in Northern Michigan.

Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm and Boutique in Frankfort opened a second retail location in Traverse City earlier this month. Cotton Creek Farms between Buckley and Thompsonville on April 2 will open an interactive farm and on-site store.

Billed as "Northern Michigan's original alpaca farm and boutique," Crystal Lake opened in 2001 on 145 acres at 4907 River Road in Frankfort. The store has been in operation for 10 years.

Kristin and Stephan Nelson, who co-own the farm with his parents, David and Christine Nelson, recently saw a vacancy in the Mercato in the The Village at Grand Traverse Commons and seized the opportunity. The Crystal Lake Alpaca Boutique opened in Suite 35 on March 10.

"We've been wanting to expand our retail location for quite a while," Kristin Nelson said. "My husband and I were Christmas shopping and saw this space was available. It's the perfect space."

Rebecca and Jason Gill are newer to the alpaca scene and northern Michigan.

Rebecca Gill said the couple bought a 27-acre parcel west of Buckley in 2016, where Jason Gill has relatives. The Gills began building a custom home and barn in 2017 and moved from Commerce Township in 2018.

"When we sold everything off, people thought we were having a midlife crisis," joked Rebecca Gill, who said friends changed their tune when seeing the alpaca farm. "This is Life 2.0 and we're just making some changes."

Besides moving from the city to the country, the Gills found something else different with 'where' they live. The address for Cotton Creek Farms is 11885 Jewell Road in Thompsonville. But the house and farm are actually located in Buckley. The mailbox is across the road and technically in Thompsonville.

Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm and Boutique is squarely in Benzie County on 145 acres. Crystal Lake is home to 60 alpacas and 13 babies "give or take every year," Kristin Nelson said. There are also five miniature donkeys and two Nigerian dwarf goats.

The store portion of Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm in Frankfort is open seasonally from the middle of May through December. Across the driveway from the store is the farm so "while you're shopping you can watch them," Kristin Nelson said.

Kristin Nelson said the farm is open from the middle of May through the end of October "when the snow flies."

Admission is $3 for those age 4 and older and $2 for those age 3 and younger. A 2021 season pass is $20.

The animal park is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, according to its website.

"You can pet the alpacas and feed them," Kristin Nelson said of Crystal Lake, the National Huacaya Small Breeder of the Year from 2013-2015.

The Crystal Lake Alpaca Boutique in the Mercato in Traverse City is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday-Monday and Wednesday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. Kristin Nelson said store hours will expand in the summer.

"Anything from socks all the way to sweaters," Kristin Nelson said of the merchandise available in the new Traverse City store. "Socks, hats, mittens, blankets, pillows, sweaters, jackets.

"It's all made from alpaca fiber. Alpaca fiber is softer than cashmere, warmer than wool. It doesn't itch and you can't be allergic to it."

Kristin Nelson said the Traverse City store has been well received in the two weeks it has been open. The Traverse City location is managed by Barb Giatti.

"It's been really good for us," Kristin Nelson said. "We're happy with the turnout so far. We're looking forward to the summer crowd. We have high hopes."

At Cotton Creek Farms, Rebecca Gill said the new interactive farm and store have been creating a buzz even before the April 2 opening.

She said a Facebook post reached 45,000 people in just 1 1/2 weeks.

"It's been amazing how much activity it's had," said Rebecca Gill, who handles sales and marketing while her husband, Jason, is on the production end of the operation.

Rebecca Gill said 80 tickets for the farm tour have been sold for the first two weeks, with more requests for private tours.

The 1,200-square-foot store at Cotton Creek Farms will be open from noon to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Public tours are offered at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Rebecca Gill said Cotton Creek puts an emphasis on agri-tourism for everyone.

"It's so we can give back to the community and reach people of all ages and all economic backgrounds," she said. "There are price points for everybody, all the way down to a $2 puppet.

"Tours are $5 per person with kids age 5 and under free."

Like Kristin Nelson, Rebecca Gill said alpacas are very photogenic.

"You can go back and visit with the alpacas," Gill said. "You can feed them, take pictures with them and get kisses from them if you want."

Cotton Creek had an online store for alpaca fiber products and offered free tours in 2020.

The demand for both led to the store and paid tours in 2021.

"People kept asking us for tours," she said. "We couldn't keep up with the requests for it.

"There's definitely a demand for interactive tours, especially with kids."

The Gills know all about the draw of the alpaca. Jason Gill left a job as a quality executive in the auto industry while Rebecca Gill still works in digital marketing, but in a whole new locale.

"We went from zero to 60 alpacas in about two years," said Rebecca Gill, who noted eight of the alpacas are pregnant, promising "more will be coming this spring and fall."

Rebecca Gill said the alpaca farm owners in the state are extremely supportive, especially when it comes to newborn crias.

"The alpaca industry in Michigan is very close," she said. "Everybody helps everybody out."

Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm and Boutique is responsible for the beginning of Cotton Creek Farms.

"We sold them their first group of alpacas several years ago," Kristin Nelson said.

"They were our first five," Rebecca Gill said.