PORTRAIT; MEET CHRISTEL, THE ALPACA WHISPERER
I would have loved to go and meet Christel like I did with Axelle, on her farm, bathed in the warm June sunshine. But with a different schedule and different organization, it was on the other end of a telephone line that I had the opportunity to get to know Christel, the breeder and owner of the Alpacas at KerLA which provides some of the wools used by La Maison de la Maille. After a shy beginning (apparently something common among camelid breeders) the conversation quickly became as flowing as it was cordial.
And she has an interesting story to tell.
From her very infancy, Christel was passionate about horses and grew up with this long-lasting love. While many people fantasize about living in big cities, she threw herself into country life, surrounded by her horses and with the burning desire to create her own owners’ stable. A dream that, like many, would first be shelved, because of lack of means and insufficient family support to embark on this life project off the beaten track. In a more ordinary but nevertheless exciting vein, this young Breton woman decided to study history, before graduating and then becoming a teacher for 25 years. “I liked my job very much, and I did a lot of things, but I also ended up feeling out of place there. And when you've always had a dream, it's impossible to forget it”.
At the age of 45, and with an almost fundamental need to change her lifestyle, or to live the life she had always wanted to live, Christel finally resigned from her job as a teacher, and took a leap into the unknown with no safety net but still with the idea in mind of having a farm and horses. Determined not to give up on her dreams, Christel embarked on a search (which turned out to be much more complex than expected) and ended up settling in Maine-et-Loire in a rented farmhouse while waiting to find the ideal estate to buy.
Llamas? Christel was never really interested in them until she met them during a brief visit to some friends. There, it was love at first sight, so much so that they even succeeded in bringing about a change of heart in this gentle breeder; “something special happened, I immediately felt at ease with them. So I started breeding with my horses and a few llamas. Later I decided to incorporate alpacas. I like spinning wool so it was an obvious choice for me”.
Where? Brittany was the primary objective, but after a failed attempt to buy a property, it fell through. “I am Breton by birth, and I dreamed of a farm in Brittany in the Finisterre. I found it but I didn’t have the planning permission. So I found myself in Mayenne by the greatest of coincidences”.
Although uprooted and alone in her breeding project, Christel did not give up and launched herself into three intense years of work, managing to transform her farm into a proper operation. Only now, looking back, does she realize what a substantial and grueling project it was. Ten years later, she is the very epitome of personal satisfaction.
“I am extremely handy and resourceful, so I wasn't afraid to be on my own. I took over an abandoned farm, I had to manage most of it myself, I had to start from scratch. When you're faced with that, you don't really realize it, you just attack it and go at it in small steps. It's a good thing I didn't realize how much work it was going to entail or I don't think I would have done it. In ten years I have managed to create something really different and I have the satisfaction of telling myself that I have succeeding in doing it with my own hands.”
I have met the alpacas myself. Not Christel's, but Axelle's. And yes, they are absolutely irresistible and I have no problem understanding why they can provoke such an attachment. Yes, this reconversion in the countryside, surrounded by animals and nature, sounds like a good idea. But that’s without knowing the constraints associated with managing an animal farm. Having a breeding farm means kissing Cali's neck (I haven't cured my obsession) and scratching his back, but it also means loneliness, non-stop work, responsibilities and physically exhausting tasks. And I am left with nothing but relentless admiration, which will stay with me until my last breath (isn’t that lovely?), for the self-sacrifice of our two breeders.
“I am alone on the farm and I have to admit that it is not always easy. I'm permanently stuck on the farm, I haven't had a vacation in ten years and it's impossible for me to be away from the farm even for a day if I don't have anyone to help me. Socially it's complicated, it isolates me.” However, despite the difficulties, Christel doesn't miss her previous life and can't see herself doing anything else. "I love living with my animals; it's the choice I made and I was aware of what I was committing myself to. I have a life that suits me perfectly and even if some people consider it slavery, I am proud to have given it a meaning.”
And what a success she’s made of it!
Ten years of breeding, hard work, courage and passion have made the farm a going concern. But because she is not the kind of person to rest on her laurels, Christel continues to do her utmost to develop the farm and propose new things to familiarize people with alpacas, about which she believes we still have a lot to learn. Proud of her quality herd and of the skills she has acquired over the years, this breeder seems happy to talk forever (although I'll have to hang up at some point) and explains that her goal today is to work on the fineness of the alpaca's fiber and its durability. This is undoubtedly an essential reason for her close collaboration with La Maison de la Maille.
For those who are curious, the indefatigable Christel also offers training courses on the farm to teach more about the world of alpacas and spinning. “Since 2015 I have been offering workshops; I have a wool workshop in which I was already spinning my wool before settling here, and I give two-day courses on wool knowledge and spinning. I also provide courses for people to find out more about alpacas. My training as a teacher and historian helped me because I am very curious, so I learned a lot about the alpaca. Today, it is part of my activity to train myself as much as possible. My next training course? In 10 days' time, run in conjunction with my veterinarian, on how to care for alpacas”.
Time is ticking away and Christel seems so keen on sharing her passion that I have no desire to stop her. We exchange a few words of goodbye, still as cordial as ever, and then I hang up. Christel’s fervor for what she does is patently obvious, and I have nothing but admiration for her.
Is there anything more noble than succeeding in following the path that suits us best, with no doubts ever crossing our mind, regardless of the obstacles that we face? It’s worth thinking about.
And here I am, a person capable of cancelling a work appointment just because it’s raining too hard outside or I haven’t washed my hair.
Article written by Laura Isaaz
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