An Accidental Farmer
A Conversation with Nancy Durham
Farmers Welsh Lavender create skincare creams and balms made with fresh ingredients high in the hills of Wales, just 10 miles north of the Brecon Beacons. I spoke to founder Nancy Durham about becoming an accidental farmer with help from her local community.
Nancy Durham joins our call fresh-faced and perky. It's not just the mountain air that's given her a glow. She's just been swimming in the farm's hillside pond, a practice that she undertakes every morning even though the water temperature today was only 15 degrees.
Nancy didn't set out to become a lavender farmer. She was an international journalist, so it is quite an unexpected career change. Whilst living in Hollywell historic house in Oxford with her husband Bill, a professor of philosophy, she fell in love with a 20ft long lavender hedge planted by the property's gardener.
"I thought what a beautiful thing it was, and that was the end of it."
But it was far from the end. In 2003 Nancy and her husband Bill bought some land around the farm in Wales and were looking for a way to make the most of it.
"I mentioned to a farmer neighbour that I wanted to plant a lavender hedge, and he took on to the idea like a terrier and encouraged me to apply for government funding."
They were awarded a grant and felt a real obligation to take their venture seriously. They planted 1200 lavenders, working diligently to make it a success.
"Each row had a letter, and every one had a number and a health report. I still have the bits of paper. They grew, and they were beautiful. I thought that was mission accomplished then. I'd proved that they could grow in Wales, but I was nudged first by a farmer and then by a new friend to take it even further."
Nancy took the bull by the horns and ran with it.
"Accidents, good luck, bad luck, accidents along the way - I feel very, very lucky. The people that have come along and thrown in their two cents worth have helped me to develop something very exciting."
Inspired by local friends and farmers, Farmers have become an integral part of the community. They have been supported and encouraged every step of the way.
"The locals have been amazing. Helpful. They've helped us with machinery, with ideas. Their kids now work on the farm. Over the summer, the young people who work here are all people who grew up on farms in the area. We fit in well, and we're really grateful for their support."
It may sound romantic, but hill sheep farming is hard work—long days in the wind and rain day in day out. Their endeavours have made such an impression on Nancy, that their brand pays homage to their resilience and grit.
"From the first thing in the morning when it's still getting light to the last thing in the evening when it's getting dark, they're ferrying up and down the single track on their quad bikes with a sheep on their back or hunting for a lost animal. They work really hard in all weather. They're really tough, really hard-working, dedicated people. That is my inspiration every day here. "
Lavender oil is the key ingredient in all Farmers bath and body products, and not only do they grow the plants, they extract the oil via steam distillation on the farm too. Like any other crop, lavender has its specific cycle and challenges. If it's wet, you can't extract the oil, which can be challenging in rainswept Wales.
"Ideally, you cut lavender on a hot, dry, sunny morning. We don't have many sunny days here, so we cut on a dry day, whatever the temperature. We cut with sickles and fill wheelbarrows until we have 15kilos, enough to run the still."
By late September, the harvest is cut back to an inch of growth and left to lay dormant for the winter. When spring arrives, it's time to tackle the weeds. Farmers don't use any herbicides or pesticides, so keeping the weeds at bay can be challenging. The other challenge apart from weeds and rain is the quality of the soil which is too rich, so gravel and grit are added to make the soil more porous.
I took a virtual tour of the office, which is light and airy, full of natural wood, a heavenly view and lots of smiling faces. For Nancy, a happy working environment is a top priority.
"It's everything. My first rule is if we're not having fun, it's not working. You have to have a sense of humour to work here, and it's everything to me that people who work here are happy."
Nancy exudes curiosity and a lust for life, and it is perhaps these qualities that have led her to be open to change, to be able to diversify. Not only do Farmers produce a crop, but they also operate tours of the farm and offer a unique glamping experience where guests can enjoy a stay in their renovated trailer and take a dip in their hillside pond. Nancy welcomes ideas from the team and encourages them to use their talents in a myriad of ways. Using their skills in design and craft, Farmers Ops and Props manager Kat and Haptic carpenter Ed, were responsible for renovating the truck, Helen designs the creams and balms, and Emily designs and makes the lavender inspired Farmers Jacket. Nancy sees her staff as "Stars", and she allows them the space to shine.
It was great fun chatting to Nancy. Since our conversation, I've been fantasising about the rugged hills of Wales and taking a dip in the hillside pond, but I've been left with no illusion that it takes arduous work and determination. From a happy workplace to sustainable farming methods, Farmers do everything well, and when you sample their products, their labours certainly bear incredible fruit.