In our latest ‘What’s Cooking’, we hear from Sue Heward, founder and farmer of multi-award winning Singing Magpie Produce. Sue went back to work at her 100 year old family orchard, at 46 years of age, after many years away from the family business including a foray with royalty. Sue says it’s never too late to follow your heart. Read how Sue and her partner are creating new opportunities for their family fig, quince, pecan and wine grape orchard, Singing Magpie.
Your business name: Singing Magpie Produce
How would you describe the business you are in?
We grow figs, quinces, pecans and wine grapes on our 100 year old orchard in the Riverland, South Australia. We aim to grow, produce & source high-quality local produce and sell direct to customers. We want to improve the shopping experience for people and build a community of value and quality-conscious shoppers. We keep it simple, we don’t skimp on quality and we care about our ecological footprint. We sell our fruit wholesale and in 2017, we started our small value added business (Singing Magpie Produce) … think sun dried figs hand dipped in couverture.
What do you love about your work?
I’m reconnected to the land, I work with my family and I get to be creative. I grew up on our orchard, moved away to uni vowing never to return (it’s a similar story for lots of country kids). 28 years later I moved back with my partner, our daughter, dog and two chooks. I have lived all over the world and my last work was with the Cancer Council Victoria, based in Melbourne for 16 years. It was a big transition to come home, but I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else now.
What part of your job would you gladly give away?
Paperwork! I really hate getting behind on paperwork. Singing Magpie is only in its second year but we are growing. Working with small packing spaces is frustrating, but this is about to change with our new larger premises.
If you were starting out in business again today, what piece of advice would you give your younger you?
Don’t feel you need to conform, it’s never too late to change and do anything you put your mind too. Always have people around you that you can trust and bounce ideas from (and keep you in check) but also identify the naysayers – steer clear as they just create self doubt.
To be honest I wouldn’t change much. I have had many different careers and now I am back on the farm. I have worked with young women in clothing factories in Sri Lanka, I’ve attended official functions with Princess Mary of Denmark and the Premier of Victoria. I even picked figs for five months of a year. At 46 years old I started Singing Magpie.
Women start businesses 41% of the time to solve a problem. Sometimes this means we have a great vision but don’t have enough resources to sustain our business for the long term. Tell us what resources you started your business with eg. money saved, business premises, business partner, and how long before you started paying yourself?
We started Singing Magpie with a very small amount of resources. However I have to totally acknowledge our family orchard is almost 100 years old and the wholesale business is almost as old. So infrastructure like our cool rooms already existed.
Early on I worked out what was important to establish first; our trademark, brand, licensing, website etc. We funded our start up through personal savings, so we wanted to keep the costs very low. We didn’t get into massive debt whilst working out the direction of the business. An ongoing process that is still happening now.
Our current focus is very much the customer and what they expect in gourmet produce. Too often I see growers/producers focused on what they are good at (eg growing food) without matching this with customer demand and expectations.
Singing Magpie is now paying for itself. Personally, I’m not getting much financially, yet but this will come. Also, you can’t put a value on personal well being and Singing Magpie is my life, not just a business.
As you know we are passionate about women #backingthemselves. So tell us about a time in the last twelve months that you’re really proud of.
I was also pretty chuffed to see our quince pop up on Masterchef 2018.
In 2017 I entered the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show – Regional Food Competition. It was the first time we had entered any competition. Singing Magpie won the Judge’s Choice Regional Champion (and Gold) Award across all categories 1 – 27 for a product expressing a strong regional link between the ingredients used and the region we live in for our sun dried Smryna quince and silver for our Black Genoa semi sun dried figs. I really didn’t know how big this was, but forever grateful for those that has helped us on this one.
As we are always growing and learning, what is the one thing you would like to take time to learn more about?
How to take the next big step – everything we do is by hand,
Realistically we do need to introduce some automation to meet demand, whilst still having a focus on quality.
The world is changing so fast and technology enables us to do so much more. We’re interested in which app you could not live without and why?
I could not survive with out Plann and VSCO, I use them everyday.
Social media is totally crucial to telling our story and I manage all of it myself. The aim is to connect our family of farmers and other Riverland producers with our customers.
Why did you decide to become a member of the Foodpreneurs Formula®
To be connected, to learn from others and to give back what I can.
We love to celebrate the successes. Can you give us an example of how joining the Foodpreneurs Formula™ has positively impacted your business?
I haven’t made it to a get together given I live about 9 hours from Melbourne and 3 hours from Adelaide but I love being able to go back to the online resources and Chelsea’s interviews with prominent women in food and drink for inspiration.
I also appreciate the interaction on the members only Facebook group – it helps me feel less alone.
Thank you Sue.
Want to read more about another successful member? Check out our ‘What’s Cooking’ interview with food technologist and maker, Minerva Jimenez from Minjums Foods.