In May, the Consumers Energy Foundation donated $1.8 million to community organizations supporting small businesses across Michigan, focusing on helping female- and minority-owned companies.

Our foundation does not use funds generated from customers’ energy bills. Instead, it uses shareholder funds to support nonprofit organizations across Michigan.

Here is a look at a business that received a grant and how the funds are helping handle the operational challenges created by COVID-19.

Family Affair in Frankfort

Raising award-winning alpacas that bring joy to thousands is a labor of love for Chris and David Nelson. But fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has made running their Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm in Frankfort more challenging.

With tourism down and people spending less, the demand for alpaca products has declined, leading to a 50 percent drop in sales in recent months at the farm’s two boutiques. In addition, most breeder shows were canceled. Meanwhile, expenses to maintain the animals and pay employees remain constant.

The Nelsons received a much-needed grant from the Regional Resiliency Fund, administered by Venture North and supported by the Consumers Energy Foundation. A total of 70 small businesses with nine employees or less in Benzie, Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties received grant awards ranging from $1,500 to $5,000.

“We truly appreciate the kindness and generosity,” said Chris Nelson, who started the farm with her husband and three children in 1991. “It means so much to our small farm and business. You give us hope and even more determination to be successful with your grant.

“We know it’s been a struggle for many small and large businesses, and we feel honored to be blessed with your assistance. We promise to continue to work hard and make it.”

The Nelsons have bred, birthed and sold hundreds of alpacas in the last 19 years and are currently home to 65. They also host an animal park where visitors can pet Nigerian dwarf goats and miniature donkeys and pet/feed the alpacas. The family also harvests the fleece for yarn, mittens, socks, hats and sweaters sold in its boutiques.

“The needs of our animals and employees come first — they are intertwined,” said Nelson, who has ongoing expenses for animal food, farm maintenance, veterinary care and energy for barn fans and boutique air conditioning. “Early on in the pandemic, we could not open to the public. In the past, we’ve had visitors from Europe, Japan, Thailand, Canada and Australia. That is not the case this year. Our family is doing with less, so we can have employees.”

Committed to the Mission

While the Nelsons have made difficult decisions during these unique circumstances, the family’s mission remains strong. “Our business is different today. We have masks, sanitizer, plexiglass and do an ozone cleaner every night in both boutiques,” Nelson said. “Still, people come in and thank us because it’s a happy place. Animals ground you. People, the world, climate and medicine change, but alpacas are the same as they were 6,000 years ago.”

While alpacas and llamas are similar, Nelson said there is nothing like the enchanting demeanor and silky smooth fiber of an alpaca.

“Alpacas are smaller, sweeter and softer,” Nelson said. “Incas bred llamas with vicuna to create the alpaca so royalty could have clothing of different colors. We get about 10 pounds of fiber every year from one alpaca, which is enough to make six sweaters.”

Nelson said alpacas have been in the U.S. a little under 40 years while llamas have been here much longer. She still gets phone calls asking, ‘What kind of bird is an alpaca?’

“If you get close up and look into their eyes you fall in love,” Nelson said. “They are genuinely sweet. They are not aggressive. They don’t bite or spit. They are a herd animal. I compare their personality to that of a cat. It’s kind of on their terms.

“Alpacas are therapeutic and calm people. People like to just watch them. They also are called the green animal because of the way they treat Mother Earth. They have padded feet like a dog, so no hooves. They have communal potties. They mow the pasture as they eat.”

A few of the more well-known alpacas at the Crystal Lake farm are Royal Gold, Sparty, Jacob, Stella, Serenity (born 9-11) and Eclipse. They were joined this spring by 11 babies, which are called “cria.” A pair of Great Pyrenees guard dogs – Shandy and Murphy – protect the herd from predators such as coyotes, dogs, wolves, cougars and bobcats.

Meanwhile, the Nelsons are hopeful for the future and remain committed to doing business in Northern Michigan.

“As alpaca farmers, it is our goal is to raise healthy happy alpacas with the most elite, fine and dense fleece possible,” Nelson said. “We also pride ourselves in providing our clients with excellent personal care, mentoring, veterinary support and services such as sales and breeding. “We welcome visitors and the opportunity to make new alpaca friends and spread the word about this incredible creature.”

Delivering Support for Small Businesses During the Coronavirus Crisis: Consumers Energy is committed to helping Michigan small businesses succeed. Find resources at our Business Solutions website or call 800-805-0490 to arrange a customized payment plan for your business energy bill.

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