BRONWEN Redgate and her husband Michael had already "accidentally" started an alpaca farm on the outskirts of Dungog when they decided to roll another dice.
"Tourism has come back to Dungog in the last six months, and the interest in mountain biking, but when we opened Hive & Gobbler it was the opposite: more businesses were leaving town than arriving and there was a high vacancy of shopfronts," Bronwen says.
"The pandemic motivated me to open the shop. As much as people might have been in a doom and gloom phase, we needed to chart our way out of it. And that was about opening a business and creating jobs, hoping other businesses would take the same leap of faith."
The seed for Hive & Gobbler - a creative, slow-living destination store housed in what was once the old Dungog Inn, in the town's main strip of Dowling Street - was planted in 2012. The Redgates, who had lived in and around the Hunter for 15 years, were due to return home after two years in the US.
"All roads were pointed to Newcastle and the Hunter in terms of jobs, we just wanted to work out if it was city or country," Bronwen recalls. "We came for a weekend getaway and, as you do, fall in love with country towns, pick up a real estate brochure and before you know it you are buying 100 acres."
After the "homogenous, concrete jungle" of Texas, bucolic Dungog felt positively life-giving: "There was connection with nature and anonymity, too. In Newcastle, you bump into people. Here you go through the gate and check out," Bronwen says.
The Redgates bought 104 acres on rolling hills in Brookfield, just south of Dungog, living without hot water for months as they built their home.
"There's a large degree of satisfaction in testing your ability to make things work and going without was not different once you go without out. We were prepared for it and we were doing it without kids then!" says Bronwen, who now has three young ones.
Raised in suburban Melbourne, Bronwen was nonetheless the daughter of parents who grew their own vegies, recycled and repurposed items and were nature lovers.
"Dad was a vet so we had a zoo upbringing with rescue animals at home," she says.
In 2015, the couple founded Banjo Ridge Suri Alpaca Farm, initially with a small herd of four Suri alpacas. [The two fleece types of alpacas are Suri, which appears dreadlocked, and the soft, fuzzy Huacaya].
"We never had the conversation [about starting an alpaca farm]," Bronwen says.
"It was very accidental. We had started with cattle because it's a good place to start and people said it wasn't difficult. We still have cattle but they are huge animals."
They chose to breed alpacas - a member of the Camelid family - to "do something different".
"We did a course for new alpaca breeders run by another alpaca business and the lady doing it was great, asking us things like 'Why have you got them? What's the purpose?' It got us thinking, are they there because they look cute or do some other job?"
The Redgates learnt fast, the hard way.
"The main thing I failed to understand is, there wasn't a suitable market for alpaca fibre, so we got very excited the first time we had our fleece shorn and we were thinking we have fibre to sell, then we found out there is a lot to know about owning them and producing," she admits.
"I didn't realise we had a rainbow coloured herd, everything from black and white and brown wool... so you can't bag it together, and then there are different fibre qualities. So we sheared 10 animals at first but had 50 different types of fibre that had to be treated separately - it was a nightmare!"
The next problem was how sell the fibre, with individual crafty types not buying enough of it to make it viable and the financial and environmental cost of selling it abroad not sustainable (The low return didn't cover shearing costs let alone on-farm costs, while the export 'product miles' were a turn-off).
"The numbers weren't stacking up so we set a challenge to create a market for ourselves as a small producer. We just found if you're trying to get into someone else's production line, you're not being paid enough to make it worthwhile," Bronwen says.
With 120 alpacas, the Redgates now sell sought-afterfibres to crafters across the globe - from Russia to China and the US - via their website and Etsy. "We sell at a price that gives us something back," she says.
Some customers specifically seek the more costly, lustrous Suri fibre.
"It sounds silly but it gets used for dolls' hair and craft people are looking for natural things that aren't synthetic," Bronwen says.
Despite an already hectic schedule twixt alpacas and three young humans, the Redgates launched Hive & Gobbler as a means to sell their fibre locally, alongside that of small primary producers.
"We also wanted to create a slow-living, mindful, creative hub in the Hunter and then drag tourists to Dungog," she recalls.
"I was working with the local art foundation and had a keen interest in trying to come up with ways to get more things happening in town. We happened to be in a lucky position - we'd sold a house in Newcastle so we had a bit of money in the bank account, which is dangerous.
"We had the farm, a lot of connections in the craft and fibre industry and something unique; it felt like we could be an authentic business owner."
Originally renting, they now own the Inn and, as they prepare to mark their first year of trade, remain committed to their vision.
"We wanted to close this gap for other makers and producers, offering our customers traceability to paddock or producer, and confidence that they are supporting small and local businesses," Bronwen says.
Hive & Gobbler eschews the use of plastic in store and strives to involve the community and its wider customers.
The store's "fibre room" allows people to touch a range of animal (alpaca, sheep) and vegan (linen, flax, hemp) fibres,all compostable and/or biodegradable.
"People need to have an understanding of where things come from because we value more and respect things we understand," Bronwen says, adding that while the fibre room is good for trade, it also helps producers to navigate where their market lies. "If you have someone growing a special sheep's wool, it might be hard to know what to do with it."
There is a tale behind every fibre for customers who increasingly seek to know the origins of their purchase.
"For some hand-spinners, the story of where their wool came from is important: if they are knitting a jumper if they know it's from this farm, that region. They might like the name of the animal it came from, it makes their wall art or jumper more interesting, it has a story to it."
Hive & Gobbler also runs workshops - including learning to knit, spin and make chocolate - that are fun while encouraging people to have a lighter footprint.
"It's entry-level," Bronwen emphasises. "A lot of people come and say "Oh, I'm not creative', and we want to change that conversation to 'Everyone can be creative if they have the opportunity'. We just want our shop to be something where people can come in and take something away."
Hive & Gobbler, which also leases a separate space to fashion and vintage store Chic & Antique, is for now focused on retailing fibres: "We are growing our herd at the moment ... in the future we'll look at the emerging meat industry, but that is still some time away," Bronwen says.
Alpacas are, she admits, fiddly to raise. Anyone interested in following suit must be prepared for extensive animal husbandry.
Luckily, she quips, they are cute.
'What I liked about them is that they are different and sometimes it's nice to have something different but they are a lot of management work," she says.
"Every year we have babies born and every one I'm super excited about. They are like a lot of animals in giving joy but you need to be a cautious animal owner. The cute side sells just like puppies do and sometimes that's not the best outcome."
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