Jane Stretton - co-leader of the Derbyshire branch of Women in Rural Enterprise
PUBLISHED: 13:08 19 February 2014 | UPDATED: 14:29 19 February 2014
It's a while since farmers' wives ran the house while the husband milked the cows, as Pat Ashworth discovers in the company of Jane Stretton of Dove Farm, Ellastone - co-leader of the Derbyshire branch of WIRE (Women in Rural Enterprise), which is supported by the Prince's Countryside Fund
There has been farming at Ellastone at least since medieval times, when the land was part of the Calwich Abbey estate. When Henry Stretton’s parents bought Dove Farm in the 1960s, they bought a dairy farm with a herd of 40 cows, enough to make a reasonable living and decent upbringing for a family of three children.
‘There’s no way that kind of farming set-up could support a family in any way these days,’ observes Jane Stretton, Henry’s wife. ‘The cost of living, the margins, all the regulations that come in and the cost of dealing with them makes it just not viable any more – the same, I suppose, as many little family businesses that just a generation ago provided for a whole family.’
So when Henry took over the business and the couple married in 1995, the plan was that he would continue dairying and she would continue working at her own job in teaching and business education. But a farming accident within a week of the birth of their first child put paid to that. Although there would be no long-term damage to Henry’s back, he was advised that the repetitive, physical, twice daily action of milking for the next 20 years was something he should not contemplate.
‘We had to think very nimbly on our feet at that point,’ Jane remembers. ‘My background came into play and we just about, by the skin of our teeth, got in on the last tranche of some European funding for rural development. We borrowed way over our heads to get the match funding and didn’t really have a Plan B: it was always, “well, we’ll see what happens.”’ They did what farmers were being urged to do, which was change with the times and diversify, and converted the whole dairy set-up of cowsheds and parlours into three holiday cottages, sleeping 16 in total.
We’re sitting in one of them now, a warm and welcoming room that feels like home from home. But this is still predominantly a working farm, with 90 acres, mainly grazed, a herd of Murray Grey pedigree beef cattle and a flock of pedigree Ryland sheep. Henry is what she describes as ‘the farmer of the piece’, also growing wheat, barley and oats on some arable land and running a machinery trading enterprise.
‘He is the proper farmer. I have my sheep and all kinds of other animals which the holiday people love – two donkeys, some alpacas, two llamas, some goats, poultry... We don’t have them for the guests – we have them because we like them, but obviously the guests enjoy them as well,’ she says with pleasure. ‘And we have just acquired some doves. Dove Farm is named after the River Dove but we’ve always felt it should have doves and they’ve always been on our logo. So Henry and the kids decided they’d give me some for my birthday.’
The balance they have struck, enabling both sides of the business to operate in what is their home as well as their work, is to have mainly weekend business in the cottages, apart from the summer holidays – something facilitated by the exciting way the cottages business developed. Builders shook their heads and sucked their teeth when she suggested using some of the space to create a large extra room with kitchenette. ‘They said, “You could get another cottage in there!”’ Jane remembers.
‘And we weren’t as busy as we’d hoped at first. But one day, a guest said, “Would you mind if we booked all three cottages, because we’d love to have a family get-together, and could we possibly use your room to gather everyone?” Suddenly it just became blindingly obvious. Every business has to find its niche, the thing that is special, and what we had just lent itself to that kind of business. We do hire out the cottages individually around summer and school holidays, when I can be sure I can fill them, but our main business is groups of families and friends using them for birthdays, anniversaries, hen parties and the rest. We’re blessed with being pretty central in the UK, and so we pick up a lot of business as a halfway point for family members at different ends of the country.’
And the room is gorgeous, with a table that can seat 16 for a meal or for a meeting without looking either like a dining-room or a boardroom. Colourful tapestries on the wall hide technology such as the white board. There are champagne flutes, a fridge for the wine, a tea urn. A group of women will be arriving the following day for a sewing workshop in here, and the exquisitely crafted cross-stitch picture on the wall, depicting life on Dove Farm, is the legacy of another group of stitchers, who presented it to Jane on one of their annual visits. ‘Here’s me and Henry and the children, the donkeys, dogs, hens, even the llamas and sheep. They’ll have to update it soon. We’ve got five cats now...,’ she adds with affection.
Some groups of guests don’t leave the farm and its environs at all over a weekend, finding pleasure in following the farm and riverside trail, lunching at the local pub and just chilling out together. Others will split into different parties on one of the days, some to head for Alton Towers, others to meander round the shops and cafes of Ashbourne, and others to walk by Carsington Water, in Dovedale or on the Tissington and Manifold trails. ‘We’re in what I call convenient countryside. Pretty to look at, but easy to reach – the River Dove and the weir at Norbury is just a stone’s throw away and Alton Towers only four miles. We also have Wifi and are close to most of the amenities we need,’ she says.
Her involvement with WIRE (Women in Rural Enterprise) began at its inception in 2002 from the ashes of the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 which brought many farmers to their knees. ‘It became apparent that many would have to diversify, and also that women were very often the drivers behind this change,’ Jane reflects. ‘They were the resource on the farm that – dare I say? – showed more versatility and ability to change, able to take on the new circumstances and make sure they could fit them.’
It was also recognised that many women were working in isolation and often lacked confidence. ‘They had always been there in the background but had not necessarily taken front stage,’ she comments. ‘So WIRE started as farming women around the table, a micro-business really. It’s changed immensely now. The heart and soul of the organisation is still the same but it is wider and broader to embrace women in business full stop.
‘It still has a rural leaning, but just as our landscape is changing and rural and urban are often quite merged, so has the business landscape changed. And how can we forget the internet? You can be doing business with a big metropolis anywhere in the world. In the same way, you can have a business in the heart of the country and do business with people in an urban setting. And depending on your product and service, you can be sitting in an office on the high street with your deliveries going out to customers living in the middle of nowhere. The world is your oyster. So the organisation is still called Women in Rural Enterprise but it’s very flexible and accommodating in its approach.’
She is just about to hand over co-leadership of the Derbyshire branch of WIRE that she has run from Dove Farm for seven years. With the children now 17, 14 and 12, she has what she describes as ‘more head space’ and is in the process of setting up her own business coaching enterprise, beginning with a masterminding group for entrepreneurs which she will launch in the spring. ‘I’ll be bringing together a dozen people following an entrepreneurial path in whatever way they would describe themselves, people at different stages of their journey and with all sorts of different things they want to achieve,’ she says.
‘I’ll be inviting people to contribute and come and work with us, and inputting through my coaching and experience. I’m also a practitioner in this very wonderful and versatile profiling which looks at people’s strengths and those particularly untapped and currently unused – getting people to bring more of that into their daily lives.’
Did she ever have misgivings about marrying a famer, I venture to ask? ‘I’m still a newcomer, having only been married to one for less than 20 years. Maybe I was a bit naive about it all. But I’ve always been a country girl at heart. It’s hugely exciting for me.’
For details of the local Derbyshire network of WIRE or information on a stay at Dove Farm cottages email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01335 324357. Dove Farm, Mill Lane, Ellastone, Ashbourne DE6 2GY.
WIRE member, Jackie Howard
‘From the first time I walked into a WIRE network meeting at Dove Farm I felt welcomed, at home and supported by the friendly members. All the events I have attended have an amazing energy and enthusiasm. I have met many business ladies who all help, support and listen to one another. I now have a wide range of friends and colleagues who have a mutual respect for our businesses, show true empathy and help one another personally and professionally. Springtime 2014 sees the start of a new business for me – “Betty’s Sewing Box” – which will be located in Ashbourne’s old library building. It will have a vintage café, a shop selling handmade gifts and a workshop where we will run classes in sewing, knitting, crochet and embroidery from basic to advanced level.’
Women in Rural Enterprise (WIRE) is a national organisation supporting rural women who own or want to start a business and provides business support and start up advice. The Prince’s Countryside Fund grant will support their Network Leadership programme. This aims to develop 12 new network groups in key rural areas and in particular develop the leadership skills of network leaders who are providing the ‘on the ground’ advice. The end result is that new network groups and well trained leaders will have a positive impact on rural communities, helping grow businesses and support a vibrant rural economy. Visit www.wireuk.org
To donate to The Prince’s Countryside Fund please go to www.virginmoneygiving.com/team/archant