As part of our series on farm diversification, we are chatting to producers across Australia and bringing to you a number of case studies that explore the plethora of opportunities for agricultural and non-agricultural diversification.
Our article series leading up to these case studies can be accessed here:
- Part 1: 7 ways to diversify your farm
- Part 2: Advantages, Disadvantages and Major Pitfalls of Farm Diversification
- Part 3: 5 steps to consider before diversifying on farm
We are thrilled today to bring you the story of Cathie Bowen and BABY BALES™. We loved chatting to Cathie, who is innovative, driven and has created an absolutely amazing product and brand that adds significant value to their hay enterprise in Western Australia.
Cathie, tell us about you and where you are based?
My name is Cathie Bowen and I wear many hats! As well as farming with my husband in the Wheatbelt of WA – grains and sheep, for wool and prime lambs – I have worked in succession for over 25 years, have a PhD in Family Business Succession and Dispute and I am a professional mediator, which means I can work with families who are struggling with issues, especially re succession. I try to emphasise the need to minimise damage to family relationships and the resulting damage to the family business. I’m on several agricultural based Boards, Lecture for Curtin university in WA and I have also developed and manage my BABY BALES™ project, which I will speak about further below.
Our property is located N / NE of Perth in the Avon Valley hinterland of WA. We have four young adult children who would be 6th generation if they choose to farm.
What is the nature of your diversified business?
The BABY BALES™ business is an innovative project intended to add value to our hay enterprise. The product targets the owners of small pets and small gardens, who need only small quantities of hay or straw, who have minimal storage, but want a quality product for their pets or pots and planters.
The BABY BALES ™ come in four fibre types and are easy to handle, tidy, neat, well labelled, trade-marked and bar-coded. The bales mimic a standard sized square bale in every respect … they are a ‘baby’ sized version of a bale of hay. The BABY BALES™ are a fresh, farmer grown product which is 100% biodegradable / recyclable.
We are still in early days with our product, but we do have one Pet supplies distributor who buys BABY BALES™ by the Pallet. We have a regular weekly order from another independent Pet store and we sell steadily via door sales to consumers who have found us on Facebook or such.
My main goal is to make this an export product. Japan has more pets than children and the growing rates of pet ownership in China is following a similar pattern. I am travelling to China this week on a business study-tour to see just what I might be able to find re their pet supplies trends.
Cathie, why did you start the BABY BALES™ business?
The BABY BALES™ project stemmed from the desire to find a regular source of income that would not be subject to the vagaries of commodity prices and seasonal fluctuations. The pet food industry tends to remain aloof to most global economic financial fluctuations – including the Global Financial Crisis. The product demands marketing skills, networking with growers, attending to orders, sales, shipping and of course managing employees. Ideally, the project would allow for another four or five production facilities across WA, ensuring sustainability of supply and security re seasonal fluctuations. I would love to see other women buy into this, building a production facility on their properties. Even if it just paid the boarding school fees, it would be worth their while. But I need to get the export market up and running first.
This innovative enterprise was also driven by my frustrations with the value of hay which I believed was undervalued by the customer. A ‘standard’ square’ bale may be handled (through the entire chain of production through to hand-over to the customer), as many as 15 times, by man and increasingly expensive machinery. It might be carted long distances, or stored on farm. All of this adds cost to the product – which then might realise $7 or $8 per bale. This was simply just not good enough for me!!
The BABY BALE™ increases the value of the standard square bale of hay by a minimum of 200% after all costs. This varies a little with the product type.
My research discovered a considerable gap in the pet supplies market for people wanting hay for small pets. There is a whole sector of the consumer market who want hay products – but don’t want a ‘large’ amount (i.e. a standard square). If the kids have one Guinea pig or two rabbits, the purchaser (usually Mum) wants something neat and tidy and that won’t be wasted if the kids leave it out in the rain. They want a quality, fresh product – not dry re-bagged hay that has lost its colour with long stalks that are awkward to manage in small spaces.
In addition, retail stores are in a similar position – many are small stores, located in larger shopping complexes, where there is no space for large quantities of hay. Also, most shopping complexes won’t allow ‘open’ Hay in the premises because of the fire hazard and associated insurance regulations. Many stores open up standard bales of hay at the back of their premises and re-bag into large plastic bags that are heat sealed and have no label. The bags don’t ‘stack’ and are awkward to keep tidy in the store. The ‘hay work’ in the back of the store is messy, takes time and attracts rodents and insects. Many store owners hate having to do it, but other than buying the same from a pet-supplies distributor (which adds to the cost), it is their only option.
Our BABY BALES™ are presented in plastic and labelled clearly with ‘how to use’ instructions and a nutrient breakdown. The product stacks on shelves, has a barcode (retailers love this!) and doesn’t leave a mess of straw and debris when handled. It enters the urban market as a product that is practical and portable, whilst reminding them it is all ‘fresh from the farm’. At this point we don’t have an alternative to the plastic bag as people need to see the product and it needs to be moisture and insect proof.
What have been the major successes with the diversified business?
I was the applicant of a small Commerce and Trade funding scheme designed to assist with the development of an innovative, value-adding farm product. This enabled me to get my project off the ground and really explore the potential of this market opportunity.
Through the scheme I was able to take further steps and have the confidence to know that my thinking was right, that I had a product that others would consider investing in. It (the Scheme) was a wonderful morale boost for me, particularly in a world plagued by doubters and nay-sayers.
I had to match the grant $ for $, so I invested my own savings to build a shed, imported a specialised machine and purchased vermin proof storage. I also organising packaging, labelling, a trade mark and bar codes. All of this took immense amounts of time and research, building new skills and capabilities along the way.
Two further scholarships enabled me to attend a week long entrepreneurial/innovation course, which worked to further encourage me to keep trying to make my project work. More recently, I was awarded a Chinese study tour scholarship. I look forward to meeting people who could become potential links to the market over there.
What have been the major challenges in setting up and running the business?
The main challenges was to keep moving forward when really, I had almost no support from anyone.
It is very, very hard to believe in something when those around you are constantly doubting the investment. At times, everything seems to come to a halt – but then something will happen, or someone will say something encouraging, and you get up and go again.
For example, the bagging of the bales is slow at this point, so I decided to have the bags printed to eliminate one job. Anyone who has gone down that path knows you have to order a minimum amount of print product – about 5,000 bags I think.
It went smoothly enough until a pet-supplies distributor I was trying to develop a market with declared the Bales too small. It was scary. I had the machine dismantled and the engineers cut and welded and played with it… I didn’t know if it would even work again, and it cost another heap of money. Then once done, while the machine did work beautifully, the printed bags were then too small – so they all went to waste.
Cathie, do you have any advice for others looking into diversifying their farm business?
Being passionate about something is one thing, being realistic is very different. Do your homework, research till your eyes go square, talk to people and always ask for thoughts and opinions. People can be kind and encouraging … but that’s not always good advice.
One thing of great value I realised in retrospect was that I was unintentionally targeting the wrong person in the retail side of things. I was trying to interest retailers/owners who were predominately male. They were curious but not excited by the product. One day I spoke to two women who were managing the store while the boss was away. They were immediately excited by what they saw, and I suddenly realised I had been trying to sell to men – when it should have been women. I knew my customer market were primarily women, as they are the ones who usually purchase pet food for the children’s pets. But I hadn’t made the link re. pet store owners.
Women see the BABY BALES™ and are instantly attracted to the quality and convenience: neat, tidy, affordable, minimum waste, fresh, recyclable, easy to store, easy to carry, doesn’t mess up the car and so many more attributes. They love the colour and design of the label and they love the name!
If I can make the BABY BALES™ an export product, I will need to set up contracts with local growers. It will provide a valuable extra market for them. I will also need to employ people – at least another four or five who would need to be trained in the process and also in how to manage and maintain the Baling machine. I already source packaging from Perth and buy other necessary material locally – such as string for the bales. Ideally, as mentioned, I would like another four or five production centres around the wheatbelt of WA, and each would become another source of employment and grower contracts, as well as an invaluable extra income for the individual farm.
Thank you so much Cathie and congratulations on such an innovative business. Where can people find you?
BABY BALES™ on Facebook and firstname.lastname@example.org
We are currently updating our website so it is down temporarily, but people can find us at www.agritradeAusNz.com.au or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/babybales1.
Wow, how fascinating! Good luck Cathie and stay tuned for the next case study in the series.
Check up on our past posts here: