We are launching Season 2 of Here’s How It’s Done with special guest Anna Hunter, the mastermind behind Long Way Homestead. Anna lives and works on 140 acres along with her husband Luke, their two sons, 20 laying hens, a flock of Shetland and merino-cross sheep, and two llamas. And by the way, those llamas keep the coyotes away.
Six years ago Anna sold her East Vancouver yarn store, Baaad Anna’s, to start a family fibre farm and wool mill east of Winnipeg. Anna and Luke had zero experience farming. “We named our business Long Way Homestead because we seem to always choose the long way around, we go for the biggest challenge, the toughest hill to climb rather than the easy way.”
Anna did have experience in business so she drew up a five-year plan. They would start by raising chickens and then work their way to sheep in the fifth year. But Anna admits she is inherently impatient. “I couldn't imagine waiting five years to start sheep. So I started trying to understand how I could make a business out of sheep.”
Find out how Anna moved from crowdfunding to business loans, the ingredients for successful diversification, and why their mill is integral to a vibrant fibreshed in Manitoba. And, above all, how spinning a good yarn in every sense of the word is the secret to making a ‘business out of sheep.’
“The fact that we were city kids, and we moved to the farm, and now we're just doing it and we're sharing our success. We're sharing the total failures and everything in between. And so connecting people, specifically knitters and crocheters, and fiber artists, with the source of their wool, is what I'm doing. Yes, I'm selling woolen yarn, but I'm actually selling this story.”
Here’s How It’s Done – Ep 1 Season 2
Spinning a good yarn in more ways than one: Long Way Homestead’s road to success
ANNA HUNTER: We were at a significant turning point in our business. We had just gone through the two and a half years of trying to figure out how to make our manufacturing business work. We had thousands of dollars worth of stock that we were packing up and sending to Montreal for one of our biggest trade shows of the year. And then COVID hit, and we literally just kind of laughed, we were like, well, I guess that's the end of the business.
80% of our sales in the first three years were trade shows. And now they were not going to happen - actually almost kind of felt relieving. It was like, well, at least we can blame this on COVID. And then you know, and then we got over the initial shock, and we're like let's see what we can do.
CATE FRIESEN: Welcome to season 2 of Here’s How It’s Done, brought to you by the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba, the go-to place for women looking to start or expand their businesses. I’m your host, Cate Friesen.
This show is for you if you have EVER dreamt of owning your own business.. It’s for you if you have already taken a great idea and launched…and now you are figuring out what’s next.
I’m an entrepreneur too – I know there is no one answer to “what’s next”, no one sure-fire recipe for success, or one ultimate map for survival in business. But if it sometimes feels like uncharted territory, the good news is there are others finding their way, defining their own success, making their own map.
And this season of Here’s how it’s done is all about those map makers…we’ll bring you first-hand stories told by enterprising women In Manitoba.
1:55 - Choosing the Long Way Home: From ski racing to skeins
CATE: Women like Anna Hunter, the mastermind behind her family’s fibre farm and wool mill. Anna lives and works on 140 acres east of Winnipeg along with her husband Luke, their two sons, laying hens, a flock of Shetland and merino-cross sheep, and two llamas. And by the way, those Llamas keep the coyotes away.
ANNA: We named our business Long Way Homestead because we seem to always choose the long way around, we go for the biggest challenge, the toughest hill to climb rather than the easy way.
CATE: This time last year, Anna Hunter was facing one of those tough hills…a mountain of a challenge and a race against time to save Long Way Homestead. Good thing she’s faced mountains and races before.
ANNA: I grew up as the daughter of an Olympian, my dad won a bronze medal in the 72 Olympics in downhill ski racing. And so my entire life up until 18 years old, I also thought I would be an Olympian, I was training to be a downhill ski racer, I spent most of my teens lifting weights, running to school when I actually went to school, And, you know, on the mountain, 200 days out of the year training for the Olympics. Both my parents didn't see any boundaries in what we were able to do. We were always instilled with this idea that if we had a dream, we could pursue it. My dad was a farm boy from Saskatchewan, who made it as an Olympian, downhill ski racer, we could do anything and no challenge was too big to overcome. And I've changed careers and passion and projects that I've been involved in numerous times since then. And I've never really let anything stand in my way or tell me I couldn't. And, and that combined with hard work, I, you know, dedicated my teenage years to training for intense competition. And I think that commitment to hard work has seen itself throughout all my other projects and all my other work.
CATE: Take me back to when you discovered knitting because there's a thread.
ANNA: Yeah, there is. So I retired, quote, unquote, from ski racing when I was 18. In 1998, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life because I'd been preparing for the Olympics. And an opportunity came for me to be a live-in nanny for a family in Switzerland. So I basically got a passport and left all within two weeks. And I lived in Switzerland with an American family for a year. And at Christmas time, we went to France with the extended family. And there was an aunt there who had on this beautiful Austrian sweater and I just... I admired that sweater and I asked her where she bought it. I was gonna spend all my money on that sweater. And she said she'd knit it. And I grew up with a grandmother who knit and crocheted and sewed everything for us. So I wasn't unfamiliar with that craft. But like so many folks, I perceive that as something that, you know, was a quote unquote, gramma craft. I didn't see it's relevance. So when this woman told me that she had knit this Austrian sweater, it was the first time I thought “oh my gosh, like you can knit beautiful relevant pieces of clothing”.
CATE: Anna bought yarn that same day, and finished up her own Austrian sweater before she headed back to Canada – I’m a knitter myself, I know that’s no easy feat if you’ve never picked up knitting needles before. … No starting with knitting a washcloth or a little scarf?
ANNA: Yeah, well, when I eventually had my own yarn store, and I was doing, you know, beginner knitting lessons. And you know, every once in a while someone would come in and say, Oh, I don't want to knit a hat, or I don't want to start with that. I want to do a sweater and I'd be like, go for it. You can totally do it. I did it.
CATE: Anna heads back to Vancouver after that adventure. She spends most of her 20s working as a legal advocate in the anti-poverty movement. She took that laser focus she learned from training as a downhill skier and turned it to frontline activism.
6:01 - Baaad Anna’s: The first business step
ANNA: So fast forward to 2009. I was a little burnt out and tired. And I just needed a break. And the only other thing that I did other than all this activism work was knit and I you know, I needed meetings and I knit in protests on the street, like it was just a constant. And so my husband said, Well, why don't you do something with your knitting? I thought, “well, that's a really interesting idea”. I'm an anti capitalist. So I can't start a business. But I really dug into that I leaned into that discomfort. And I thought you know what? Craft is so important, and there really isn't a safe space for people that don't sort of fit into the so-called “crafter appearance”, that maybe what I need to do is open up a craft store for the rest of us. So I did a bunch of research. I got into a business program. I launched Baaad Anna’s Yarn Store, basically a knitting and crochet and fiber store for people that felt uncomfortable going into sort of more traditional knitting stores.
CATE: You had a mentor during that time, who gave you a pretty significant piece of advice.
ANNA: So when I got into this business program, and I got some funding through a Youth Foundation, I was given a mentor for a year. And his name is Darren. He owned a bicycle shop in Vancouver. He at one point shared the advice that my customers don't choose me, that I choose my customers. And that was a really formative opinion, for me in terms of how I pursued my business, the values of my business and who walks in the door and who we worked to keep walking in the door. And for me, that was maybe less about the financial goals of the business and more about the community and social goals of the business that I wanted to build a space that retained customers that cared about community, cared about social justice. It was a really important path that put me on.
CATE: And that path took you from East Vancouver. That's where your store Baaad Anna’s was. How do you pronounce BAAAD Anna’s?
ANNA: Three A's like a bleeding sheep - Baaad Anna's. Yeah, it got a lot of jokes. It was a great name. But sometimes in phone calls, it was a little challenging. So when I opened up Baaad Anna’s, one of my initial plans was to have it be a 100-mile yarn store. So I only wanted to sell yarn and wool that had been grown and processed within 100 miles of the Fraser Valley of Vancouver. And it took me about three weeks to realize that my shelves would be completely empty, because despite the numerous sheep farms, throughout the Fraser Valley, and throughout British Columbia, there was actually no accessible processed yarn and fiber.
You know, I was a force to be reckoned with. So I kind of put that desire on hold and you know, instead focused on bringing in independent dyers or independent Vancouver based designers or whatever. But I always had it in the back of my mind that there was something missing. How can we have so many sheep farms, and we don't have any accessible wool? But I started a new business, I had two babies, it was not the time to dive into that. So fast forward five and a half years after starting Baaad Anna’s, and our kids were getting older, and my husband and I knew that we wanted more. We sort of started looking at what the next step, and for me that meant actually being closer connected to the source of our food and to the source of our fiber. And so we sold Baaad Anna’s and we packed up our kids and our life. And we moved to Manitoba in the spring of 2015.
9:45 - Trading coffee shops for chickens
CATE: Did either of you have any experience homesteading or farming or working the land?
ANNA: Nope, Luke and I both grew up as city kids. So we were really just figuring it out as we went along. It's funny, we there was a little concern in the beginning in the first year that you know, maybe I wouldn't actually like this, or maybe it wouldn't be a good fit. But turns out that, you know, we really love it. So we moved to Manitoba in May of 2015. And we moved to our current farm property in the middle of June 2015. And three days after we moved here, we went and picked up our first box of baby chicks. We picked up six laying hens and like they were little chicks at that point. We didn't have a chicken coop, so they lived in our house with us. And that really started it off. And I feel like that was our approach to everything where, you know, I got every single book out of the library that I could find on raising chickens, and then I just bought chickens, and then we figured it out from there. And you know, that's sort of how it's been the entire, you know, past six years.
CATE: Think back to that 2015 when you got here, bought those first chicks. What was a big bump that you hit that maybe you weren't expecting?
ANNA: There were a few; I would say the first one was moving rurally, was actually just really lonely. We moved from East Vancouver where I could walk to a coffee shop, a library, my own business and all of my friends -- to moving to rural Manitoba where I didn't know anyone and you know, the closest coffee shop was 45 minutes away. You know, it's funny, I didn't think I cared so much about that sort of consumption, but it was a really hard transition - yeah that was probably the biggest challenge, in the beginning, was just living rurally and isolated, and trying to find community.
CATE: Where did you find it?
ANNA: Funny thing is I saw a sign for someone selling straw and I needed straw because I had just bought three pigs. And I called him up and I went over to his house to pick it up. And he had mentioned that his wife had just had a baby. And I thought, Oh, well, she's probably really lonely too. And I said, well tell her to call me and we'll hang out and turns out, she's my best friend now. And she lives across the street from us. And so I just pursued it. And, you know, I found her and I found a handful of other people that are sort of in the area. And built it from there.
12:09 - Behind every good business plan there’s a story
CATE: You did mention earlier that your advice to someone starting out would be to have a business plan. Yeah. So let's dig into the business. Sure. When did you put a business plan together for this place?
ANNA: I actually had a five-year plan. I was like “we're gonna move to Manitoba we're gonna figure out how to grow big amount of vegetables and, you know, raise chickens and pigs, and then in five years, I will get some sheep.” And I'll figure out this whole wool growing thing. I'm an inherently impatient person. And when I have a goal in mind, I cannot be stopped.
So that first year, I just couldn't, I couldn't imagine waiting five years to start sheep. So I started trying to understand how I could make a business out of sheep. And I looked around, and I really couldn't find many examples of other people that were growing wool or raising sheep for business and making it work without it being really large scale, and I wasn't ready to go really large scale.
So I spent a lot of time in that first year just sort of like really rumbling with it. And then I discovered with the help of a very good friend, that my biggest asset going into this is that people found my story, extremely captivating. The fact that we were city kids, and we moved to the farm, and now we're just doing it and we're sharing our success. We're sharing the total failures and everything in between. And people are really enjoying that.
And so connecting people, specifically knitters and crocheters, and fiber artists, with the source of their wool, is what I'm doing. That's what I'm selling.Yes, I'm selling wool and yarn, but I'm actually selling this story. And I'm selling this connection. When I kind of triggered on that and realized that's what I'm all about, everything just fell into place.
Because I'd already operated a business and written a business plan, I realized the importance of actually planning, that I didn't want to just throw things together and hope it all worked out, that I actually wanted to be really strategic in how I set up a business and sold my products and told that story and created that connection. So I right away wrote a business plan for the farm, and then rewrote it when we discovered that we wanted to start the wool mill.
14:23 Business diversification from the ground up
CATE: So one of the things that I noticed immediately when I went on your website was diversification, and the diversity of what you offer. And I wondered, when you were writing that business plan was that really intentional? Did that come out of that idea that if it's all around the story, then I need to tell that story in so many ways?
ANNA: So when we moved here, and I knew that I wanted to farm in a way that worked with our land base, rather than against our land base, that ignited a year of reading and research on different ways to farm. And I think the biggest lesson that came out of that year of reading for me was that diversity and diversification is crucial for successful farming and for farming in a way that builds soil health and contributes to fighting climate change rather than the opposite.
And so I feel like that is a core tenant of our business in the way that we tell our story in the animals that we choose to raise in the aspects that we bring to our business. That it isn't just one specific path that we're on, it is about all the connections of all these different things and everything that comes together, you know, to create this whole.
CATE: That's a great answer. So it's diversification of the land of the way that you work with, with raising livestock and food. And then there's this diversification of how you connect with other people.
ANNA: Yeah. I mean, that is really life, right? When we look at what makes vibrant, healthy communities, it is diversity. And it is diversification. And that's certainly what I want for my own life. And so I think that is reflected in the business.
CATE: Which of those initiatives has really shown a connection between you and your community, which one stands out right now.
ANNA: The sponsor-a-sheep was what I launched initially, and so folks can sponsor a sheep for one full year, they get to name it, they get monthly emails, and then at the end of the year, they get a certain amount of fiber based on the level of sponsorship. This has been amazing. I started out and the people that sponsored in the first year, 90% of them are still sponsoring their sheep four years later, they love it. They love those sheep. They love understanding what is happening on the farm and they've really connected to the process. And it's a really fun project and I'm so glad that it has been so popular.
And then my subscription is a breed specific subscription. And you know, when I started out in my yarn store, I knew there was merino wool, but I didn't really know there were sheep breeds beyond Merino because that is what is sort of the most common wool that we have access to. So as I became a farmer, and then as I started my mill, I really got to dive into the fact that there are you know, over 200 breeds of domesticated sheep out there, that their wool all has such huge, different characteristics that contribute to how they work, what they work best for, how they're raised, what the best conditions for those sheep are. And I really discovered that this is something that sort of mainstream knitters and crocheters don't understand. So I have developed, you know, courses and teaching around that.
And then I started this breed study, and turns out that other interested knitters and crocheters really want to learn about that, too. So it's been quite a successful program. I've gotten a lot of feedback that people are just so in awe that there's this many breeds, especially in Canada, because I source all the wool from Canadian sheep farms. So those two have sort of been my favorite projects.
18:14 - The yarn story on the move: Pembina Fibreshed
CATE: Can you explain what a fibershed is? Because it's not a place where you park your yarn?
ANNA: Yeah. So the concept of fibershed is basically viewing the textiles that we consume and use like a watershed. So what does it take to create the textiles and the fibers that we use in our everyday life? And where are they coming from? And how are they processed? How are they dyed? Who’s doing that labor? And then, how are they disposed of?
The project was started in California in 2010, by a woman named Rebecca Burgess, who tried to wear clothing for one full year that was all within 200 miles of her home in Northern California. And just discovering how hard that is, since then, this movement has grown and you know, myself and colleagues started the Pembina Fibreshed. So that is a local organization that works to promote sustainable regenerative textile systems within Manitoba. You know, we have a significant amount of sheep farmers and alpaca farmers in Manitoba, but there was nowhere for that wool to be processed. So farmers had to either hand process it themselves, which is laborious and time consuming, or they had to ship it to other mills. And that was really a big gap in our community. And that was sort of what initiated our starting up the wool mill -- was to actually bring that service locally.
And it contributes to the fiber shed that now farmers don't have to ship their wool, they can have it processed here and then sell it to their own customers or use it themselves. And we've just really tried to build a community in Manitoba looking at our textiles and even moving beyond protein based fibers like sheep's wool or alpaca fiber. And this year, we're going to be growing flax, for processing linen. We grow natural dyes, you know, we just look at how our textiles are manufactured, and how we can improve that in our community.
CATE: You wrote a business plan, you've rewritten the business plan at this point. Where did the mill fit in in the business plan? And has it paid off? And I'm going to use air quotes so that people know -
20:29 - Scaling up Long Way Home style
ANNA: - How honest do you want me to be? So yeah, so we got our first sheep in 2016. And that first year, we realized there was nowhere to process the wool and I found a mill in North Dakota, the closest one, and very quickly realized that it was not a sustainable business to grow a small amount of sheep, pay the pricing for manufacturing in American dollars, and then sell it. It was working, but it wasn't a project I could scale up.
So then I started looking into the viability of actually operating a wool mill. I rewrote the business plan, both for our production but then also for custom processing for other farmers throughout the region, recognizing that there was a need for that. So in 2018, we purchased a mini mill, we're considered a mini mill. The word ”mini” kind of gets under my skin because nothing about it feels mini but it isn't large scale industrial and we bought the equipment from a family owned business in Prince Edward Island. And they delivered it and set it up and trained us for two weeks and then we were off and running. It's taken about 18 months for us to actually get to a point where we are running the equipment and producing a consistent quality product and that learning curve was expected but it was a hard 18 months in the beginning.
So now we are almost three years in with having the wool mill. About 40% of our work is custom processing for other farmers. And 60% of the work is our own yarn and then we produce various lines of yarn with wool that we buy from other farmers. So we've significantly shifted the ability of farmers to make a living off their wool in Manitoba because we process their wool so they can sell it but also we purchase a lot of wool from farmers throughout the prairies.
In all honesty, it's been a real challenge. It was a huge investment, you know, equipment is a huge investment. And manufacturing is a hard business, agriculture and manufacturing are both really hard businesses to break into, especially without much experience. So, you know, we're thankful for the support and the encouragement that we've had from so many people just in identifying that the mill is a crucial part of our community. Financially, it was a huge risk and continues to be a huge risk, one that I hope will pay off, sometimes my passion is bigger than my pocketbook.
CATE: Where have you gotten support for expanding? And I'm talking either financial support business advice, like where have you gone? And where do you turn to now when you get stuck.
So when we started the farm, we actually went to our community for support. So we launched a Kickstarter to finance the initial investment in starting our farm. So we did a Kickstarter, we raised enough money to build our shelter and fencing and buy our initial flock. And then when we decided to expand and start the mill, I went to the Women's Enterprise Center, I was intending to get a loan, but I also got quite a bit of business and support from that community.
So we were supported financially through the Women's Enterprise Center, and also through the Development Bank of Canada and through Futurpreneur. And so those three organizations did an incredible job of helping us build the capital to start, I'm so thankful for those organizations, because unlike traditional banks, they support business ideas, not only based on a financial history, which is difficult when you're breaking into a business that doesn't exist or into an industry that that isn't already developed.
24:14 - Spinning challenges into growth: When COVID hits
CATE: Last year, five years after Long Way Homestead began, Anna had a flock of sheep. Her two sons were helping her run farm tours, her customers were investing in the story of her business and the whole family was part of a vibrant community working towards a healthy Manitoba fibre shed. And they are selling yarn! Anna is beginning to see how the investment in the mill could begin to pay off. And then..
ANNA: In March 2020, we were at a significant turning point in our business, we had just gone through the two and a half years of trying to figure out how to make our manufacturing business work. And you know, we had thousands of dollars worth of stock that we were packing up and sending to Montreal for one of our biggest trade shows of the year. And then COVID hit and the trade show was canceled. And and we literally just kind of laughed, we were like, well, I guess that's the end of the business. 80% of our sales in the first three years was trade shows. And now they were not going to happen, actually almost kind of felt relieving. It was like well, at least we can blame this on COVID. And then you know, we got over the initial shock, and we're like, let's see what we can do.
So a few things happened. The first one was that thankfully, the organizations that had loaned us the money to start up our business, put a hold on payments. So it gave us a bit of breathing room to figure it out. The second thing that happened, my husband's other work was completely finished. So he was able to access some of those other resources and support and he was then able to shift his energy into the mill, which made us much more efficient, having his full time energy. And the third thing that happened was that people began supporting small local businesses and purchasing more online. And I feel like our sales finally started catching up with how hard we'd worked. I think perhaps that could have happened without COVID. But COVID certainly was an impetus for us in having that, that those sales catch up to how hard we'd worked in the previous two years.
But I'm now at a point where I'm already imagining how to scale up the business because we have, at this point, a six to 12 month waitlist for people, we just can't get through enough fiber processing for the demand that's out there.
CATE: And here’s what scaling up is looking like for Anna and Long Way Homestead
26:47 - The ‘huge power’ for small business to bring big change
ANNA: I mentioned that I struggled with opening my first business because I was an anti-capitalist and I had this messed up view of what being an entrepreneur or business owner could actually mean. And I think that there's huge power in being a business owner to affect social change and environmental change. And I've seen that in both my businesses. So my passion for resilient textile systems is at the core of my business. And when I look at how much we've been able to affect our Manitoba community around wool processing and textile production. It's highlighted the need for more. You know, we're just one small operation, but there's still hundreds of pounds of wool that is either being composted or thrown out or shipped overseas, which, you know, has a huge environmental impact.
So when I think about scaling up, I really think about how we can grow this business to have a larger impact on our textile system. You know, if we were able to add a weaving mill to our operation, we would actually be able to produce textile that then designers could use for manufacturing clothing. So we could have an absolutely closed circle of production in Manitoba using raw commodities that we’re growing here and that we're selling here, and then shift that whole textile system. That's really my vision to see that happen. And then the other part of scaling up is also to train and educate the next generation of folks that want to take on either fiber farming or manufacturing or production, which is why this summer we're launching our field school. So we will be taking on interns, apprenticeships, and then also individual courses and classes around sustainable textile manufacturing, and regenerative fiber farming. And that's really where I see us going is increasing the number of people that are producing textiles in Western Canada.
CATE: There’s a question I love to ask everyone I interview for this podcast. What’s a moment that you are completely lost in the work, so much so that you forget about time, or what’s for dinner, or even what the bank account is looking like. I thought Anna would talk about a moment where she was surrounded by the wooly affectionate sheep, or running the mill and seeing all that fibre spinning into a gorgeous 3-ply yarn, or maybe in the midst of a farm tour. I was wrong!
ANNA: I feel like there are seldom moments where I have enough distraction, less time to get lost in the work. But that being said the other day, colleagues sent along RFP for a loan or a grant for Western Canadian businesses in the manufacturing industry to scale up and the terms of it were huge. And I found myself immediately writing a mental business plan on how practically we could triple or quadruple the production of our mill. And we were at the dinner table and I just I stopped talking and everyone wondered what was on but I was figuring out in my mind how we could scale up within two years to shift the amount of output that we're doing. And I think that is for me, where when I do get lost in the work, is I'm a big thinker, I'm a big dreamer. I'm thankful that my husband, who is my unofficial business partner, is a realist, because I am often thinking huge big picture all the time and he really brings me back down to earth. But that is when I get lost in thinking okay, what's next and how can we get there?
CATE: That’s Anna Hunter, of Long Way Homestead. Map-maker. Big-picture-thinker. And I am really starting to see how funneling all of that passion into business planning is just one of the secrets of Anna’s success.
31:03 - Field school, yarn store, and more
If you want to check out the Field School, buy some yarn, sponsor a sheep, or learn more about the Pembina Fibre Shed, head over to LongWayHomestead.com.
You are listening to Here’s How It’s Done, brought to you by the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba. And if you are wondering how to get as excited about a business plan as Anna does, head over to wecm.ca to find out more about the Enterprise Centre’s business plan course, and a whole lot of other ways that the staff at the centre can help you succeed in business.
You can also find more information about this podcast there, including more resources, show notes, transcripts and pictures of Anna on the farm!
That’s all for this edition of Here’s How It’s Done! You can subscribe to this podcast through your favorite podcast app. And check out our other episodes - If you are interested in more stories about making your way in agriculture and manufacturing, I recommend “Dishing on Food and Family” from Season One. And we would be so grateful if you left us a review or recommended this podcast to a friend.
Theme music by Peter McIsaac. Additional music written and recorded by Charlotte Friesen. This episode was mastered by Madeleine Roger, and produced by me. Until next time, I’m Cate Friesen – thanks so much for listening.