After meeting Kristina at a wool event in the Summer, I was massively interested in the origins of the business, Romney Marsh Wools, and how they focused on utilising a product already found on-farm and diversifying it into a successful business. I saw the vast majority of the range they have on offer that day, and the quality, visual aesthetic and price of their products cannot be argued with. The business uses the wool and lanolin within to create an amazing range of products including; slippers, scarves, blankets, toiletries and, of course, wool!
· Who’s involved in the business and the farm?
We currently have 3 family members and 2 general farm workers involved in the business.
· What is the history of the farm? Has it been in the family for generations or recently acquired etc.?
Ours is a sixth generation family farm so we have been farming in our local area for over 130 years. Of course over that time the farm has evolved to fit the farming markets and trends of the day, and according to the ideas of each family member who has been in charge.
· Are there any other enterprises on the farm?
We have a company called Romney Marsh Wools, which sells products made from the fleeces from our own sheep. We founded the company in 2008 in order to advertise the quality of British fleece and the huge diversity of products which can be made from it. Eight years on and the business is now going from strength to strength, selling a wide range of products to customers and stockists across the country as well as shipping to private customers from many countries including Australia, New Zealand and the USA.
· How many sheep do you currently run, and what breeds?
We keep over 1,000 breeding Romney ewes which we mostly cross to a Suf-Tex ram for our commercial flock. We keep some pure for the fleece and also have a small flock of around 80 Saxoni Merinos which are rare in the UK and provide a wonderful fleece for wearable products as well as luxury throws.
· How do you market the lambs you breed on the farm?
The lambs from our farm are all sold live through market. We also from time to time sell breeding ewes and rams to private individuals.
· When did you start the Romney Marsh Wool business?
In 2008 we identified an opportunity to diversify by adding value to the wool crop. The flock is sheared on the farm and hand-processed by traditional weavers in the UK and sold as high quality life-style products.
· What prompted you to start the business?
The business was started largely to make use of our wool. As you can image 1,000+ sheep produce between 5 to 6 tonnes of wool a year, and the Romney fleece is one of the finer British Fleeces so we felt we could make some really nice products from it and increase the value of the fleece. It was also important to us that we use the company to promote the benefits of wool and encourage people to turn back to traditional materials.
· Is the ‘100% British’ side of the brand an important selling point?
Yes, for us it is very important to keep our products 100% British, not just in the origin of the raw materials but also in production. We believe that our customers like the traceability of the products and that the heritage is important, not just as a selling point but also as a matter of preserving the history of British fleece and the crafts built from it.
· Do you think that the public are currently more appreciative of British products than they have been in the past?
Yes, we have seen from our own customers that they are beginning to think more about the origins of the products they buy and are looking for more environmentally friendly options than man-made fibres being shipped across the world. Organisations such as the British Wool Marketing Board and Campaign For Wool have been instrumental in the increase of awareness around British wool. There is definitely a current trend towards buying local, whether that is the food we eat, the gifts we buy or products for our homes. There is also more appreciation for the quality of British made products.
· Obviously there is next-to-no profit in wool production for farmers, with many changing to ‘shedding’ breeds, do you think the industry is improving? Is there going to be a more profitable market for British wool in the future?
Whilst there is still very little profit in fleece, we have already seen an upward trend in the prices of fleece, thanks largely to the British Wool Marketing Board and the work that they do for British sheep farmers. We fully believe that this upward trend will continue due to the current focus on eco-friendly, natural materials. With technology leading to inventions such as wool insulation for homes and solid wool furnishings, we feel that we as a nation are only just beginning to explore the full range of products which can be made from wool. Hopefully as these products become more common and more people turn to the benefits of an entirely natural and renewable material, the prices of wool will continue to increase.
· What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve experienced whilst trying to merge the farm and the business?
One of the biggest challenges is balancing a large and very busy farm with a growing business, both of which are very time consuming. As the company was formed to take advantage of the fleeces being produced on the farm, there has been little challenge in getting the raw material, although the need for high quality fleece has made some small changes to the way we farm. For example, we avoid using coloured sprays to mark our sheep, preferring to mark their foreheads with sheep crayon instead and we are careful to reduce the amount of chemicals used on the fleeces to the absolute minimum. We also now shear our lambs in their first season as well as our older sheep as the fleece is much finer and softer from the lambs. As mentioned earlier, we started our Merino flock purely for the quality of the wool. However most of these have been very minor challenges and have developed naturally along the way as we came up with ideas to improve our end products (and also make life easier for our lovely weaver who cleans our wool by hand!).
· Would you have any advice for farmers thinking of diversifying into a business directly derived from something they already produce?
Our advice would be to go for it! But spend time researching and testing the market before you dive in. If you can add an additional income from something already being produced on the farm, it can be a great thing and can be truly beneficial to the farm. However, it will not come easy. It requires hard work and there will be times where it feels like it is just not going to happen. But if you are prepared for this and can keep working through it, it will definitely be worth it! Try to talk to other farmers who have diversified, especially any who have done something similar to what you are planning. Check out any potential competition in your area and have a clear plan of how you will make your ideas work, how you’ll sell your products, what market you’re targeting etc.
· Do you think it’s important for farmers that are able to, to try and diversify where they can?
Definitely! It gives additional security to the farm, and at a time when market prices are low and costs are high it can be very beneficial. It is also a great way to promote British farming and encourage support from your local community.
If you’re interested in the Romney Marsh Wools story, and their products, head over to their website at http://romneymarshwools.co.uk/index.php, I can personally recommend their slippers as the comfiest and cosiest I’ve ever worn!