My business is based at my family’s farm in Staffordshire and I now divide my time between there and my own home in Cheshire. All of the design work for my business, A Farmer’s Daughter, is done on the farm, where I have a studio and I use various UK based companies to produce the finished products.
Having moved back home after graduating from Chelsea College of Art in London in 2005 with a First Class degree in Fine Art, I began working on the farm more and thinking about combining my artistic interests with my situation at the time. I remember feeling how lucky I was to be part of the farm and working alongside my family. My business name was really a result of thinking about my upbringing on the farm and the influence this has had on my creativity identity. Being part of a farming family is something I feel very proud of and so it seemed like a perfect name for me to use.
My work at Art college was very different to the way I’m working now but nature and growing things definitely played a part in my artwork as a student. I started trading as ‘A Farmer’s Daughter’ at the beginning of 2010. I’ve always been influenced by my surroundings so the work I produced at college was very much to do with being in London and an urban environment but still informed by my rural background. When I came back to the farm it was natural for me to take inspiration from everything that was around me.
The business started simply, with a few cards and I went along to some sessions about starting up in business run by an organisation called WiRE (Women in Rural Enterprise). It wasn’t long before I was building a website and starting to begin trading. I used a local printer to produce small runs of cards and gradually started approaching more shops, finding out what worked and what didn’t.
The manufacturers of the different products I now produce are either local firms or recommendations from people I’ve met with similar businesses. Everything is produced in the UK so I have control over the production process and a good relationship with all of my suppliers.
I was still employed by the family farm at this time so used money I earned from that to start the business in my spare time. I used an old workshop as a place to work, but the majority of my time is spent on the computer and I can often still be found working at the kitchen table like many other small businesses.
When you start a rural business nobody knows who you are, so it is often easier to approach people as you’ve nothing to lose but it was apparent from the beginning that I was competing in a very big market place where greetings cards are concerned. Having a memorable name and branding has really helped, as well as unusual products. I was very lucky to get so many positive responses early on and this kept me motivated and confident in my product. I established good links with local shops from the beginning too and they continue to sell a lot of my products to this day.
The majority of the retailers I work with now are small independent, often family run businesses. I supply to lots of farm shops and garden gift stores as well as galleries and lifestyle shops. I am always keen to work with more food retailers as my designs are so closely connected to food and farming and fit well alongside artisan produce which is very fashionable at the moment. I’m also currently looking at international trade, which would be a new and exciting direction for the business to take. There is a big market for British design led products overseas so I’d love be a part of that.
My website is obviously essential for displaying my work and charting developments to my range. I use Twitter to engage with a wider community, which I enjoy doing, and keep my customers and retailers up to date with newsletters and updates throughout the year. Trade show websites often have good marketing tools for exhibitors to use in the run up to exhibitions, so keeping a good online profile helps people to find your product and visit your stand.
I would like to grow my business to a wider market, without compromising on my ideas and interests. Meeting new retail customers at trade shows will always be essential and I am also keen to sell more directly to the public through online sales and consumer fairs. I think by only selling directly into shops a business like mine misses out on valuable contact with the public, who are interested in the story and face behind the product. I’d like to think that however my business grows in the future I will keep the contact I’ve developed with my local customers and the public.
The increased interest in food and farming has helped me gain a following. Retailers and the public want to know where things are produced and the story behind what they’re buying, whether it’s an edible product or not. I’ve been in a good position to have designs that are unusual and contemporary but also rooted in an idea of the British Countryside, which has a very strong appeal. The increasing number of farmers’ markets has been a great way for me to meet customers too. As my products fit in so well with food stalls this has given me an outlet to sell direct to local people throughout the year and established a following for me alongside other local farm producers.
If I had to give advice to anyone thinking of starting their own rural business, I would say that if you have a strong identity you have every chance of succeeding. My guidance would be never to imitate someone else’s product or idea, as only from being individual can you stand out and capture customers. When you start a business it can feel like you aren’t quite ready to start approaching people with your product. I often felt like this at the beginning but until you start talking to people and getting their feedback you can’t change and grow so I think you have to be willing to get on with it and learn by doing.
Helen Thompstone’s website: www.afarmersdaughter.co.uk
Follow Helen on Twitter: @ruralraconteur