The inspiration of a Great-Great Grandmother who had a clear passion for livestock farming has seen Paula Steer and her son Lewis build on this heritage to create their own successful rural business ‘from the land.’
Having come to a cross road in her life, Paula wanted to pursue something she loved, and what better way than to retrace the steps of past family members. “Our family has been rooted in Dartmoor for hundreds of years.
“My Great-Great Grandmother, Lily Warne farmed sheep at the turn of the 20th century and not only bred Greyface Dartmoor sheep but also turned their fleeces into wonderful garments,” says Paula.
“Our family has remained in Dartmoor and after my son was given three Dartmoor sheep for doing so well in his GCSE’s we started to explore how we could make more of this declining breed and their lustrous fleeces, just as Lily Warne did.
She explains that a clip of 7 to 9 kilograms can be expected from an average sized Greyface, with a staple length of between 10 to 15cms and a Bradford count of 36 to 40 making it a great wool for carpets, blankets and clothing.
“We sent our first fleeces to The Natural Fibre Company based in Launceston and Lily Warne Wool, as we are now called, transpired from here,” she adds.
“We didn’t intentionally go about starting the business but we did our research and looked at the markets and identified a gap for British wool garments and accessories.”
The farm system
Having started out with three sheep, Paula’s son Lewis now has a closed flock of 500 breeding ewes which is thought to be the only farm in the country to keep all three of the traditional breeds of Longwool sheep native to Devon; the Greyface Dartmoor, Whiteface Dartmoor and the Devon and Cornwall Longwool.
The system in place sees them lamb in March with decent ewe lambs kept as replacements and the remaining lambs sold as fat lambs from five months of age.
This side of the business is very much managed by Lewis who has started his own business, separate to Lily Warne Wool, The Dartmoor Shepherd.
The flock are shorn in April and the fleeces are sent to The Natural Fibre Company in batches throughout the year. “It can take six to eight months for the mill to process the wool due to the sheer volume they are dealing with as one of the remaining mills in the country and so we have to make sure we plan ahead and manage our stocks effectively.
“All our fleeces are spun into Aran wool and organically dyed into 14 different colours unique to Lily Warne Wool which are turned into a range of garments and accessories.
“A typical day means I am out on the farm in the morning sorting the stock, we then all have breakfast together and ‘check-in’ with what each other has planned for the day, and then I am usually in the studio from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm.
“The first part of my day is spent answering e-mails and then I may be designing the next product, packing up orders, answering phone calls and generally keeping the business running. We do everything ourselves but I do have three ladies in a five mile radius of the farm that help me with the knitting, and my sister helps out when she can.”
Running an ecommerce site
When the business first started, Paula initially sold some of the wool via wholesalers but quickly realised the return she was getting did not cover the costs, and now focuses her attention on ecommerce.
“When selling a product online you must have quality images that ‘show-off’ your products. If you have a website that has the functionality to operate ecommerce that’s a bonus, but if not, you can explore the likes of Etsy, an online marketplace specifically for handmade products, if you want to test the water first.
“Neither photography or website management are my strengths and so I have a web developer who helps keep the website in shape, and I have a photographer who comes out three times a year to capture as much footage as possible meaning I can focus my time elsewhere.”
She explains that you have to be responsive when running an online business, but it’s also about being open and honest about your products.
“We have a great story to tell about our heritage, and the fact that we are a British handmade business that is keeping things local is a real business strength of ours.
“We are also very efficient with the process of receiving, processing and posting orders which to date means we have had no returns. If you can set expectations and deliver on these you should have happy customers,” says Paula.
Making the most of available marketing tools
Paula explains that the business is swayed to an extent by the four seasons and therefore it’s important the products are scalable and adaptable to make the most of the market at certain times.
“The summer is generally our quiet time, but this suits us as we show the sheep during the summer. This helps us manage the seasonality of the business but is also a great way for us to market ourselves and the sheep breeds helping to build brand recognition.
“Social media has been great for us in telling our business journey and building a community of engaged followers. In addition, Lewis and I have also featured on Countryfile, Kate Humble’s Back to the Land, been on the radio and have also been winners of the first Rural Business Awards Champion of Champion category which was a great accolade.
“With the rural community a close-knit one it’s surprising how the more you make yourself known and get yourself out there the more opportunities come your way. There are so many talented people within the UK and England that we should be supporting and I would love to play my part in continuing to inspire women in business.
“We didn’t start out to be where we are today, but the motto of Great Granny Lily Warne ‘there’s no such thing as can’t’ has stuck with us and got us to where we are today,” says Paula.
Paula’s son Lewis has also set-up a business, The Dartmoor Shepherd, selling sheepskins and lamb from the traditional breeds. Find out more here.
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