On the sheep’s back
An innovative Tasmanian not-for-profit organisation is helping farmers – such as Fiona Hume who tends Australia’s largest flock of rare English Leicester sheep – realise their dreams.
Hume wants to set up a niche agricultural business built around her beloved sheep and has turned to ‘Sprout Tasmania’ to help get her idea off the ground.
Sprout, which is run by a dedicated band of volunteers, is a unique concept.
It assists aspiring farmers turn their ideas into thriving, sustainable small businesses by offering free advice on everything from planting crops to business plans. It even advises on mental health issues.
One of Sprout’s key initiatives is its annual scholarships, which give small-scale producers a year of mentoring to assist in their agricultural start-up.
This year five scholarships were handed out under the ‘Sprout Producer Program’. Recipients included market gardeners, mushroom growers, olive oil and beef producers – and Hume.
Hume is well versed in the ways of commodity agriculture. Her family has been farming in Tasmania since 1840, particularly sheep. Home is ‘Arundel Farm’ at Macquarie Plains, on the banks of the River Derwent, north of Hobart.
However, Hume needed help to navigate her way to a niche business involving her Leicester sheep.
She plans to sell hides, which she tans herself, and describes as “works of art, best put on display either draped over a chair or hung on a wall".
Hume also wants to supply meat to locals who are interested in provenance and has already made a start by selling 25 of her sheep to MONA for this year’s Winter Feast.
Eventually she would like a farmgate enterprise.
It’s an epiphany that struck two years ago.
“Lamb prices are just phenomenal at the moment – through the roof,” Fiona explains.
“However, a few years ago prices weren’t so good and my lambs were exported to the Middle East and I thought, eighty dollars, that’s all right, but what a shame because my sheep have a real story and it’s not being told.
“And I’m sure the people overseas would love them but they would have no idea that they are an endangered breed, and that they have a lovely life here. They get very well looked after.
“I want to tell that story about my sheep.”
That story is one of passion.
English Leicester, which are prized for both their meat and beautiful curly wool, are one of the oldest breeds of sheep dating back to the 1760s.
They are also rare, and Hume has a greater number than anyone else in the country: 220 breeding ewes, 20 rams, and currently 200 lambs.
“Dad started breeding them in the 1950s,” Hume says.
“We never made any money but we always loved them. They are very independent and have a real attitude.
“When the dogs go to move the sheep, you can see them thinking, why can’t we go and move the merinos instead, because the Leicesters will stamp their feet and they will charge at the dogs.”
Hume says her Sprout scholarship has been invaluable.
Over the past ten months she has attended regular workshops with other scholarship recipients, made important new contacts, and received on-going mentoring.
“The mentoring I have received has helped me to understand more about niche markets, branding, and it has even helped me to design a logo. I’m getting advice with all that,” Hume says.
As part of her scholarship, Hume has also been encouraged to write business and marketing plans, as well as complete regular assignments.
“We have had seven assignments to do, and they are actually great because they force me to do things I need to do but normally wouldn’t get around to,” Hume adds.
“I have had to do soil testing; I’ve written a weed mapping plan; I’ve looked at animal health; and I’m currently doing quality assurance.“
Sprout was formed seven years ago.
And in that short time, it is proving itself to be a little organisation that is already making a big difference.
“Our scholarship program is really fantastic as it helps small producers get their ideas in the ground and growing,” Sprout General Manager, Jennifer Robinson, says.
“They might have a fantastic idea but don’t know how to start it. We help them by giving them advice on whom to talk to, advice on pathways to their market, and advice on how to get their business ideas out there.
“And everyone is different. Some of our scholarship recipients may need more help with the farming side of things, while for others the need might be with the business side.”
Meantime, it seems the calls for Sprout’s help will only increase as more and more people follow their dream and buy those few acres of land in Tasmania’s countryside.
“There is a definite growth in the number of people who are really passionate about giving up their office jobs, to be on the land, to be outdoors and to connect with a local community,” Robinson explains.
The 8 scholarship recipients of the 2019 'Sprout Producer Program' have just been announced:
- Old Forest Vale Farm (garlic and truffles)
- Broadchurch Eco Farm (market garden)
- Fork it Farm (pork)
- Wilmores Bluff (sheep meat and wool)
- Simple Cider and Welling Orchard (cider)
- Langdale Farm (pork)
- Eska Farm (pork)
- Jordan River Farm (eggs)
Image Courtesy Cumberbatch Photographic
14 October 2018, Edition 199