Emma Boyles and her team have earned greater recognition for their quality fine wool business since winning Farmers Weekly Diversification Farmer of the Year 2019.
We find out how they set about starting the business, what they would do differently and their tips for other farmers wanting to diversify their income stream.
Farm facts: The Little Grey Sheep: The Grey Sheep Co, Hook, Hampshire
- 125ha farm (28ha woodland and 16ha pasture)
- 600-head flock of Gotland, Shetland and Merino sheep
- 12ha of wheat and 18ha of legume-rich fallow, contract farmed
- 50% growth in wool sales in 2017-18
- Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship
Why did you decide to launch a diversified business in wool production?
We bought Well Manor Farm in 2004, a 125ha holding with 89ha of Grade 3 arable land, farmed on a wheat-oilseed rape rotation, with the occasional bean crop thrown in.
As new entrants, we maintained the status quo and continued with the incumbent contractors, while we maintained the farming risk.
The returns from the arable after the profit share with the contractor were small and offered no means to invest in the farm, or farm in a more sustainable way.
What were the main hurdles in setting up your new business?
Deciding on entering the fine wool market caused a number of challenges. Firstly, there was no established knitting yarn fine wool progeny for sale. The Gotland breed we had selected was a rare breed in the UK and there was limited supply of quality youngstock.
So, we had to start the process of building our own breeding lines and cross-breed our own unique fine wool sheep, now called Stein Fine Wool (which is trademarked).
What are the pros and cons of producing sheep for their wool?
Our flocks are farmed for fibre production primarily, with meat a byproduct. To maximise the return from the fibre, it is important to see it as a primary product and manage the flock accordingly.
With our rare breed flock not only do we see a premium on the fleece but gain high returns on the skins once tanned.
What attributes do you need to run a successful diversified farm business?
I think that many attributes of farming transfer well into starting a diversification; hard work, long hours and a real belief in the product are essential.
We wanted to diversify within agriculture to enhance our farm and educate others about the origins of their yarn.
What would you do differently if you could start out again?
Sometimes I wish we had been able to heavily invest in the product and flock in the early days.
However, through organic growth we have learned without any major disasters. Our customers have also seen the growth and stayed with us.
What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on the business?
The pandemic has hit our business through the cancellation of festivals which we attend to promote our yarn.
This was to be the first year exhibiting in the USA in March and then Sweden in April.
Yarn is a tactile product and many customers want to actually feel the product before they buy for the first time. We find those customers will then continue to order after the festival.
How do you plan to grow your business in the coming years?
We aim to continue our growth of the business through social media and travelling to international wool festivals. Brexit is a big concern for us as we do not know yet how that will impact on us transiting through Europe and attending festivals there.
What are your top tips for other farmers thinking about starting a diversified business?
It is really important to believe in your product and be passionate about it. There will be many setbacks and little return in the early days, so having the drive to achieve is important.
It is very important to have a story behind your product, especially if that is your farming story, as increasingly consumers buy into the ethos of the product and want to engage with those producers who are more sustainable.
Don’t be afraid just to start. Utilise social media – social being the important word.
What difference has winning the Diversification award made to your business and your team?
Winning the diversification award has brought us a lot of visibility and credibility across the UK, through the BBC programme, from potential customers and our peers.
About Farmers Weekly Awards 2020
The Farmers Weekly 2020 Diversification Farmer of the Year Award is open for entries.
Join Farmers Weekly in celebrating the farming industry and recognising the hard work of UK farmers and enter the awards today.
Alternatively, nominate a deserving individual for an award.
For more information about the Farmers Weekly Awards 2020, pay a visit to the official website.