Absolute despair was what Di McQueen-Richardson and her husband Scott felt when the bushfires hit their farm twice in northern NSW, decimating their beekeeping business.
They evacuated twice – once in August 2019 for almost a week and again in November for 10 days.
“It was pretty scary stuff. We thought we had lost everything not being here and we were relying on reports we were getting every day – two or three times a day we thought, ‘This is it,’ and the fires have hit. We just had no idea of what was ahead of us – we were distraught,” she told news.com.au.
“Thank goodness for the fire brigade, they did an amazing job of saving our house and our bees. We lost pretty much all of our foraging area in every direction and bees can forage for up to 5km so that was all gone. We also had four months of continuous smoke, which severely impacted the bees as well so we had to feed the bees to keep them alive and we had to replace all queens in most of the hives.”
But after the bushfires, with the bees’ food source wiped out, they didn’t know how they were going to survive.
It was a thrifty Christmas gift idea that would save their finances and their property.
The present also made good use of an excess product that came from the bees.
“We created beeswax-based balms initially for Christmas presents as we didn’t have spare money and we made balms for family and friends and they loved it and it kicked off into a fully fledged business in its own right,” Ms McQueen-Richardson said.
She drew on her natural therapies background to create a range of 25 balms for therapeutic and cosmetic uses, which are infused with oils, herbs and flowers, and are sold under the brand HoneyBee Hives.
Most popular are the lip balms and an aches and pain balm. But the product uses are broad with ones for baby bums, pregnant bellies and beard and hair. The balms come in three sizes – 15g, 40g and 100g – and range in price from $6 to $30.
“The newest one that we are about to launch is a calming lip balm, so it’s for situations where people don’t want to make it obvious that they are feeling anxious and it’s infused with rose petals and other calming herbs and essential oils,” she said.
But the 53-year-old realises her balms wouldn’t have been a success without Spend With Us, an online marketplace set up to showcase and sell products from bush businesses.
Born from the ashes of the devastating 2019 bushfires, the Spend With Us website was developed by three women who joined forces to help support business owners in rural communities who had suffered through both fire, flood and drought.
In the first year, a quarter of a million in sales income has been generated through the marketplace, which features more than 800 regional and rural businesses. Since August 2020, the Spend With Us website has had 1.8 million page views, while its Facebook group is rapidly growing with more than 300,000 members.
The women behind the website are Sarah Britz, a web designer from the NSW Central Coast, Lauren Hateley, a clinical psychologist from rural Victoria and Jenn Donovan, a Riverina-based marketer. They all volunteer their time to work on the site.
Ms Britz said many other platforms charge a high amount of commission for businesses to list their products and she is proud all the money made through the site is being injected back into rural and regional Australia.
“We have had a number of people send letters of support saying how they wouldn’t have been able to survive without the platform and people created business after finding the platform to help bring money into their family and community,” Ms Britz said.
“It’s been a really good response from the small business owners as many didn’t know how to promote, set up shops and write listings and descriptions and make their products look good, so we are trying to train them and give them support for their own social media ads and creating their own websites.”
Ms McQueen-Richardson said Spend With Us had been a lifesaver giving them a huge injection of cash – with $3500 worth of products sold since they launched on the site.
After being featured on the Today show in March last year, they had their biggest day of orders with $1300 in products snapped up. They can even count the Department of Foreign Affairs as a customer, having stocked up on HoneyBee Hive balms for diplomatic gifts across the globe.
“DFAT had already purchased all their gifts until they saw our listing and decided they couldn’t go past ours,” she said. “We had a two hour phone call and they put in a $2000 order on the proviso that we could have it shipped out 36 hours later and now our products are in embassies all over the world – that is just huge.”
Another Spend With Us businesswoman is Amee Dennis. If it wasn’t for the spin off business she created and listed on the site, the blunt reality is that her family would have been booted off their NSW farm.
Unusually her craft involves making things like jewellery, scarfs and flowers from alpaca wool.
Their farm in Tomlingley in central west NSW had experienced three years of drought from 2016, which had left them in a financially dire state.
“We lost more than $300,000 per year – in income that we didn’t have – and even now with a good year under our belt we are still going to be about $160,000 down this year because we can’t yet afford to restock animals, which means we are missing the income from wool and lamb sales this year,” she said.
“We were expecting that it would take us another three good years before we will have recovered financially, and five years to make up for the lost time in repairs and maintenance and our livestock and infrastructure programs that we weren’t able to complete during those years.”
Ms Dennis is a papermaker by trade, but with no grass to work with, she turned to alpaca wool. She converted the old farmhouse into a studio, including renovating the toilet that had been there for 100 years.
When she debuted her products under her brand AM Paperarts late one night on Spend With Us, she had 100 orders by the next morning and 500 alpaca flowers to make.
“The only reason we ate and our animals had feed for most of last year was from what I was making and what I was able to sell online through those platforms,” she said.
“Then it kept growing. So over the last year I have used more than 80 fleeces in the products I’ve made and sold online. We started off with nine alpacas and we now have … grown to 110.”
The flowers, which start from $8, are one of the bestsellers along with the flower pots for $36, while her $33 dryer balls – a suggestion from a mum looking for a natural product – have also flown out of the online store.
She also makes alpaca fibre earrings for $25 and alpaca wool felted soaps for $9.95.
Its been a bumper year for Am Paperarts with 898 orders on Spend With Us and 19,200 unique page visits.
But Ms Dennis has branched out even further with the business by offering an alpaca experience on the farm. People can drop into the farm for an alpaca experience starting from $25 and you can also grab a scarf. The scarfs range in price from $95 to $125, and if you purchase one you can meet the alpaca whose wool was used.
“We have been incredibly fortunate to have found a completely alternative and creative way to diversify our business,” she said.
“From this diversification and the growth in the agritourism side of our business with the alpacas, as well as the alpaca fibre products themselves, the time frame for recovery for us is rapidly shrinking.”