Setting up a business in Limousin

When Sally Street and her family moved to rural Limousin in 2009, she had no idea that two years later she would be producing an organic skincare range using the plants and flowers that grow there, as Stephanie Sheldrake discovers

For Sally Street and her family, a need to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of life was the main reason for moving from Provence to a two-hectare smallholding in rural Haute-Vienne in 2009.

“One of the things we wanted to do when we moved to Limousin was to be as self-sufficient as possible,” says Sally. “Limousin is like a Garden of Eden compared with Provence because it’s lush, green and fertile, so things grow really easily,” she adds. “The other important thing is that you get quite a lot for your money here, so we were able to find a large family house with plenty of land and good outbuildings.”

Sally, her husband Nigel and their four children had already lived in Provence for 14 years before making the move; the first seven years in Antibes, before moving inland to the Gorges du Verdon. Nigel was a yacht painter and Sally had been running a small school, as she had previously been a teacher in Staffordshire where she lived before moving to France to be with her first teenage love.

In 2008, the couple sold their house in Provence with the intention of moving to another property in the area. Their house sold within a month, but the economic crash forced them to reassess their plans. Nigel’s yachting business was severely impacted and the couple were no longer in a position to move to the new property.

It was at this point that the family decided to pursue a new way of life in Limousin. “When we moved here from Provence, we were both a bit burnt out. I had been running a small school and I’d come to the end of my energies, so I had to stop work. Nigel’s business had just ground to a halt,” says Sally. “The idea was to move away from where we were and spend a few years trying not to do too much.”

The pursuit of a new, simpler way of life attracted them to this rural heartland of France, where their aim was to grow and rear as much food as possible. Crucially, the couple found that in comparison with Provence, it’s not too hot to work outdoors in the warmer summer months. “It’s much less punishing if it’s not 38°C; it’s a very practical place to live,” says Sally.

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Situated close to the small town of St-Sulpice-les-Feuilles in Haute-Vienne, the large farmhouse and its smallholding of nearly two hectares of land and mature orchard was the ideal property to meet the family’s dreams of living ‘the good life’ and making the shift from consumer to producer. The traditional stone farmhouse had been badly damaged by fire and needed complete renovation. “When we saw the house from the outside, it still had a lot of character and charm despite the fire damage. We were cursed with the ability to see potential,” jokes Sally.

The couple were used to restoration projects, having completely renovated their previous house. “It was great because there was no demolition this time round. Our previous home was a traditional stone house which had been hidden – plasterboard concealed the stone walls. It took about six months to take everything out.”

In contrast, the farmhouse had all of its framework intact. “Nigel really liked the fact that there was nothing to knock down and it had a brand new roof,” Sally says. There was just the ceiling of the top floor to replace, and then work could be started on the kitchen and the installation of a central heating system.

“The key for us when renovating is that it’s pretty straightforward if you don’t try to change the character of the house. It’s best to respect and work with what you’ve bought,” says Sally. “We tend to try to match the soul of the property. One of the most important things for anybody buying older properties is to try not to use modern methods and techniques. Traditional techniques are cheaper although they’re quite labour-intensive, but that’s my husband’s job!” she laughs. The house is now almost fully restored with just small finishing touches to complete, and Sally is pleased with the result.

As well as working on the house, Sally and Nigel cleared and fenced the land so that they could rear pigs, Saanan goats for milk and cheese, chickens, geese and rabbits. There was also work to be done on the fruit and vegetable gardens.

As Sally says, the idea was for them to spend a few years trying not to do too much, which makes her decision to launch an organic skincare range even more surprising. “When we got here, I was determined not to start a business!” she laughs. The idea of producing a body balm was sparked by a visiting friend who knew about the medicinal properties of the plants and flowers that grow in abundance on the family’s smallholding and in the surrounding area. “She picked a few plants out and explained how they could be used and it just sparked my interest,” reveals Sally.

Sally started to research plants with medicinal qualities such as comfrey, calendula and St John’s wort, and decided to make a simple balm for the family to use to soothe scratches and bumps. “The first balm I made was for the family. I didn’t intend for it to be any more than that really,” she says. “And then I gave it to people as gifts because it was a nice thing to do the first Christmas we were here – a product of our new lives – and they loved it,” she says, adding: “It’s the balm itself that has created the business in a way. It’s because it’s simple, natural and it just works. It’s amazing!”

Getting the balm approved for sale has also been a straightforward process. Sally sent her formula, which remains unchanged from the very first batch, to a consultant chemist for assessment. “It’s a simple traditional recipe. I haven’t invented anything,” she says. “I looked at the plants that have been traditionally used for the skin and then I looked at what we had here and put it together to make the balm,” she reveals.

For Sally, marketing her balm has been the biggest problem. “The most challenging thing has been learning how to market it and find its niche – that’s where I am now,” she says. Sally explains that she started out taking the balm to local markets but she soon found that it wasn’t the right fit. “It’s a high-quality product and markets weren’t the best place for it,” she says.

Sally currently sells her skincare range on her website. “I was lucky to meet a few people who have helped me to reshape the website and design the packaging for me. The past year has gone into rethinking how it’s going to be sold because the product is fine, it’s just the marketing that needs some consideration.”

Despite the fact that the business is growing, Sally has no plans to increase her scale of production. “The essence of it is that the balm is a small-scale handmade product so that in itself dictates how much you can produce every month. If you increase it, you could jeopardise what you are doing,” she says. “At the moment I just want to get my client base sorted out.”

For Sally, the skincare business is just one part of their smallholding lives. “We are trying to make a living and that’s all we want. We don’t want to pursue lots of money,” she reveals. “We’ve both been in worlds, in the south of France in particular, where it’s obvious that having lots of money isn’t the answer. It’s not what we’re looking for.”

It seems that the Streets have made a success of their lives in France, but Sally reveals that learning the language has been an essential part of it. “The most important thing that you have to remain determined about is learning French. It’s a really worthwhile challenge. It can be difficult and disheartening, but it was something I was really adamant about when I moved here 16 years ago,” she reveals. While Nigel already spoke good French, learning the language has certainly been a labour of love for Sally. “I’m really glad I stuck to it,” she says. “My advice to anybody thinking of coming to live in France is to learn to speak the language because it opens up so much to you.”

An ability to speak French has undoubtedly helped the family to integrate into the local community, as Sally explains: “We’re in a little hamlet where we are very well integrated. We use the local shops, chat with the local shop workers, and so on.”

There’s no doubt that the family’s initial intention of living a simpler, more self-sufficient and sustainable life has been a success. “The best bits about living here are the space and the freedom for the kids. It’s a really laid-back part of France. Compared with the south, the people here are very ‘live and let live’,” says Sally. “It’s very relaxed and I think that’s partly because there’s so much space.

“I’m very happy that my kids have grown up here. They’re balanced, happy young people. There’s still a lot of emphasis in rural France on simple family life and things aren’t complicated or too materialistic. They’ve had great childhoods.”

It’s easy to see why Sally has no regrets and wouldn’t change a thing, and what more in life could anyone hope for? LF