Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Farmer’s new venture is no candle in the wind

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When the opportunity came knocking at the right time, a Wairarapa dairy farmer didn’t hesitate to open the door.
Although it is an online business, Donna travels to a select group of markets to promote and sell Bays & Leo.
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Growing up as a townie, a Wairarapa farmer had plenty of friends who lived on farms, so she knew full well that life on the farm could get busy. But at the time she never dreamed she’d end up on a farm, with her own business, creating the life and lifestyle she has today.

Donna Herrick and her husband Mike milk 270 cows on the 100ha family farm at Carterton on once-a-day year round. Last year she bought an online business selling candles.

“I look at the life my husband Mike and I have created here with our blended family on his family farm, and I sometimes have to pinch myself,” Donna says.

“It’s a far cry from my career in hospitality, but it’s the best life. Every week we’re working towards being more self-sustainable on the farm, growing more of our own food and just enjoying this time in our lives with our young family.”

Donna grew up in the township of Carterton and was no stranger to farming with plenty of friends who grew up on farms and school trips out to farms, but she never caught the farming bug. Instead, she got into the hospitality industry, where the bulk of her professional career remained until she had her daughters a few years ago.

She trained and worked her way up to become a chef, working at several cafes and restaurants in the Wairarapa area over the years. Her hard work paid off, and she invested in buying her first house at just 21 years old. She describes herself as always being “Miss Independent” and has always worked hard to be able to support herself and do whatever she sets her mind to.

“As many young people do, I wanted to travel the world, so I worked my butt off to save up, rented out my house and headed overseas. I worked and lived mostly in London and Somerset but would make trips out all over the place.

“It was an amazing time. I came home for a bit with the intention of going back out travelling, but then I met Mike and life had other ideas.”

At the time, he was co-owner/operator on a farm in Eketahuna. She moved in with him and started a new life in the country. Going from the bustling city of London to the small town of Eketahuna was a big change, but she embraced the slower pace of life and quickly got herself a job at a local vineyard restaurant, Paper Road.

After a few years in Eketahuna, an opportunity for Mike popped up that he wasn’t expecting – taking over the original family farm in Carterton. As one of three brothers, who were all into farming, he had thought the opportunity would likely never come his way. 

“One brother was working the original family farm, and he decided to get out of farming and pursue another career, so the opportunity came to Mike to take over,” Donna says.

“We love being back here and living and working in the place he grew up. He made a real success of the farm in Eketahuna under some tough conditions, so the chance to put his farming skills to work on a more established farm and move back home was an amazing chance for him.”

The couple now co-own the property with Mike’s parents, who act as silent partners in the business. They focus on animal health and breeding and continue to make small changes to ensure they future-proof their herd and farm.

“We’ve been here seven years now, and we are now at the point where many of our breeding and management decisions around the herd and farm are starting to show, which is exciting.”

After returning from her OE, Donna met husband Mike who was milking in Wairarapa. They are now co-owners in the Herrick family farm at Carterton. Mike and Donna with their family, Cheyden, Zac, Ava-Rose and Stevie.

Mike runs the farm himself with one full-time employee, while Donna uses her many transferable skills from her hospitality career to manage the administration side of the business.

“Eventually, we will take over full ownership. Mike’s parents are amazingly supportive of everything we do and are always there to bounce ideas off and talk things through.”

Donna says there is some stunning scenery on the farm, some great secret fishing and swimming spots, and lovely river walks. – the perfect place for their young family. Mike has two children from a previous relationship, Cheyden and Zac. The couple also have two daughters together, Ava-Rose and Stevie. Needless to say, family life as a unit of six is pretty busy, and Donna decided after having Ava-Rose that it was time to leave the hospitality industry.

“It’s not a very family-friendly career, and I like to be a really hands-on mum for all the kids. With the boys being that bit older and with us 50% of the time, it was easier to make my hospitality work around them, but with a baby, not so much!”

Still wanting to keep her independence and have a life outside of the farm, she dipped her toe into retail work and worked at some high-end retail shops in Greytown. After the pandemic, the birth of her youngest and everything else that 2020 threw at them, she again had to sit back and think about what was next for her career.

“The retail shop I worked at decided to focus more online and set everything up from a showroom at their beautiful house. It got me thinking about online businesses, and I thought with my skills in hospitality and retail, it was definitely something I could do and would be the perfect fit for the farm and my family. The biggest thing I’ve always wanted is to have my job be flexible around our lifestyle.”

As fate would have it, a small but fairly new online business selling soy candles, called Bays & Leo, was put up for sale. The business’ original owner was moving on to new opportunities, allowing Donna to start her own business journey. She purchased the business in October 2021, and for the past 10 months has been hard at work adding her own flair into the business and working to grow it.

Donna has taken the soy candle concept a step further and now sells crystal-embellished soy candles in beautifully handmade ceramic vessels instead of traditional glass. Her aim was to create a unique gift for people with a multipurpose aspect.

“I purchase the ceramic pieces from a wonderful business in the Hawke’s Bay called Sia Pottery. Each piece is unique and one of a kind,” says Donna.

A cornerstone of the business is sustainability and being eco-friendly. Everything used from product to packaging is recyclable and plastic-free. This can sometimes add to the cost, but Donna feels it is important from an ethical and a business perspective.

“I’ve always been a bit creative, which I guess is why being a chef was something that came fairly naturally. When this business came on the market, it ticked many of the boxes I was looking for. I wish I had come up with the idea myself,” she says.

The shift towards pottery and ceramics was a way of putting her stamp on the business and also making it more than selling just a candle. It’s creating a keepsake item that customers can either send back to be refilled or keep and reuse in other ways.

The first few months of business ownership were spent perfecting the candle-making craft and getting the scents just right. She used old baby-food jars she had been collecting for her wedding as test pots and spent a lot of time making and burning candles to get the formula just right. 

Once she had her product development down to a fine art, she turned her attention to the marketing side. Because the business is still in its infancy, there’s been a lot of groundwork to get the Bays & Leo brand out there. To help with this, she met up with previous employers, who have been very supportive and helpful in helping guide her along the way. She also joined a local content club run by Digital Cactus, a digital marketing business based in the Wairarapa.

“The content club has been an excellent way to develop content ideas for my social media platforms, it’s helped me figure out what I should focus on, and just how to market my brand.”

Bays & Leo is an online business selling crystal-embellished soy candles in handmade ceramic vessels instead of traditional glass.

She wanted to inject more of a personal element into her content and branding, sharing the ups and downs of small business life and life on the farm.

“The biggest learning I’ve taken from the content club, along with creating a good network of fellow small business owners, is that with things like social media, you just have to give it a go and realise that it takes time. You don’t have to rush everything. The whole reason behind buying this business was to have something that I could fit around the rest of my life, so why rush it?”

Being based in the Wairarapa, Donna has plenty of opportunities to get the Bays & Leo brand out and about at local markets in fact. She attended her first one earlier this year at the Greytown Winter Festival.

“With markets, I have to be a bit picky about which ones I go to. Because of the type of product I have, it’s not really going to suit a farmer’s market. I’ve booked a few more markets into the calendar this year, including the popular Martinborough Fair, which I’m really excited about,” she says.

As she approaches the end of her first year of business ownership, she is already thinking about future plans, including expanding her online shop offerings to include other small business brands from around New Zealand and one day hopes to have a little gift shop on the farm.

“Bays & Leo is something that gets me really excited. I love working on the books for the farm and doing my part, but I also love having this little business opportunity. The main thing is it has to fit our lifestyle, which can be busy sometimes. My main priority right now is getting the brand name out there and increasing sales.”

With a busy family life, a farm to help run and a small business, the juggle struggle can be intense sometimes. She says she thrives on a busy life that revolves around her family but remains conscious of the need to take time for herself and of making the most of the life she’s worked so hard to achieve.

“If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s the value of slowing down a bit sometimes.” 

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