Former fashion model Vanessa Bell is riding a new wave of potential for on-farm businesses in Australia taking value-added products direct to the world online.
She has started a company from a farm at Goulburn in New South Wales, producing hand-knitted baby blankets from super fine merino wool.
“Being online is really good, it gives us an opportunity obviously to be on a world-wide platform, so we have blankets now in London and Switzerland,” she said.
“It gives us opportunity to be able to sell beyond Australia.”
Ms Bell started marketing her range this year under the brand Sara Jane Bond, named after her late great grandmother who produced a hand knitted blanket in 1940, which had become a family heirloom.
She said the birth of her son Charlie in early 2014 to her farmer husband Philip Bell was the genesis of the business idea.
“Being a newborn baby in this climate I kept struggling to find something warm for him,” Ms Bell said.
“My mother suggested I try my great grandmother’s blanket and then also standing on the deck and looking out, Philip was driving 1,000 head of sheep up the paddock and I thought I really need to do something with sheep, it makes sense to do something in the wool business.”
A near decade-long career as a fashion model on the catwalks of London, Tokyo and Sydney helped her focus on the luxury market, she said.
“I was incredibly fortunate to work with clients such as Giorgio Armani and Comme des Garcon and Christian Dior,” she said.
“For me, it helped me actually define the gap in the market to look for something that was about quality, so being surrounded by wonderful fabrics and construction and how those fabrics came together on the runway, that absolutely gave me an insight into what I wanted to be able to create.”
Crucial to the business model has been a team of dedicated local knitters who have helped design and produce the blankets.
“It’s beyond creating a beautiful product, it’s about really talented women coming together who have a vested interest in the wool business,” Ms Bell said.
“All of us are either married to farmers or have been farmers, it’s looking at creating something and bringing women together in the bush, which is a really important thing.”
Gostwyck also joins the online marketplace
One of the oldest wool growing enterprises in Australia has also been quick to embrace the new world of online opportunities
Gostwyck farm at Uralla in NSW was established in 1832, and sells its wool to high fashion knitwear brands such as Esprit and the suppliers of top end men’s suiting labels such as Saville Row.
Now the family-run enterprise is also selling a range of baby wear online.
“It’s been great, the stuff we’ve sold in Australia and also in Europe, the reactions have been very good,” said Philip Attard, who runs the farm that has been owned by his wife Alison’s family for five generations.
The baby wear is trading on the Dangar family history and is named after the first owners of the property, Henry and Grace.
Mr Attard said it was important to have a story in the online market, but face to face contact was still required.
“You have to be prepared to jump on a plane and go to the places where you need to show your product and explain what it is you’re doing,” Mr Attard said.
“People don’t know and unless you tell them they’ll remain ignorant about the improvements we’ve made here with the Australian merino.”
‘We want to bring jobs into the region’
Mr Attard is running the business from the 2,600 hectare farm, but patchy internet connectivity was a challenge, he said.
“It’s improved a little bit since the Sky Muster, but the speed and the amount of data that you need needs to improve,” he said.
“We’re hoping the amount of data will improve again but we need to able to get through into 100mb lines here in order to do those things comfortably and efficiently, otherwise you have to have an office in town and I want to avoid that.
“The other thing is we want to stay regional, we want to bring the jobs into the region not go down to the cities because that’s where the skills are.
“Those skills are really important for any business but we need to develop them here and keep them here and show them there is a better way of life in regional Australia.”
The head of the business school at the University of New England, Alison Sheridan, said Australian farmers were uniquely placed to capitalise on a global reputation for quality and sustainability.
Food and fibre producers could target niche markets with value added products and UNE was focused on producing graduates with the skills to help develop these online opportunities.
“As the agricultural producer you don’t have to have all that knowledge you bring that specialist expertise in and I think that’s what’s exciting for the employment opportunities of our graduates too is the increasing openness by our agricultural producers to draw in the expertise when they need it,” Ms Sheridan said.
“What I value about this is it’s opening up new opportunities for our regional economy so we tap into an international market and then along the value chain we connect with so many different dimensions of the economy.”
See the story on Landline, this Sunday at noon.