Many people move to The County from Toronto – but from The Yukon? Not so much. Derek Ryles and Rolande Leblanc traveled from their home in the far north to New Zealand and Europe before choosing Prince Edward County as their new home and the right place to plant their lavender farm. They arrived in 2005 and they and their lavender have thrived – blossoming into a heck of a business that drew 5,000 people to their 2016 Lavender Festival! Derek and Rolande (in her quirky French phrasing) tell us about it.
“All around the world we have seen that where grapes grow, lavender grows. We thought we’d try it, and finding this property on Closson Road was the clincher. At that time it was between two of the main wineries, Closson Chase and The Grange. We had looked at Marmora and Tweed – Derek’s parents had a cottage at Stoney Lake – and they were beautiful, but it was March and there was a lot of snow. One day we crossed the bridge to The County. Here, there was just a little snow on the fences. It was so beautiful, all the big trees and big fields – and the vineyards! We thought ,Oh, this is going to be very cool!
We spoke with Dan Taylor (economic development officer at the time) before we decided, but we had seen the very same set up in New Zealand and up and down the west coast. Wineries and lavender. We knew it was a good fit. Being so close to Lake Ontario, the microclimate here, the soil maps we looked at – they were all good indicators. PLUS there are 10 million people within a three and half hour drive of here! Canadians are not shy about taking long day trips, so if just a small percentage came to see us we would be doing very nicely.
We started slowly and planted a half acre directly behind the house, invisible from the road with about 2,500 plants. It was an extremely dry year, like this year, and we scrambled for water. We lost about half our plants. It was a matter of survival, but we learned a lot. It took us three years to plant our first full acre, experimenting and choosing the cultivars. After six years we had our second acre and now we have 17,000 plants.
At first we went to the Royal Agriculture Fair and other shows but we don’t do that so much now. We are a two-man show. No! One woman and one man! Shows take so much energy we would rather use here. But we do take part in shows and events in The County, we go to the wine shows and the Cheese Festival is a good one. We swapped the Royal Fair for the One of a Kind show in Toronto, the biggest craft show in Canada. That is very good for us right before Christmas, because we have a LOT of products, probably over 100 now.
We make the essential oils here and it is the base of many of our products. We sell it 100% pure and make it into bath oil and massage oils and lotions and soaps. Actually there are three categories: Body Care; Linens and Crafts like eye pillows and sachets, and Culinary that includes lavender chocolate, gelato, jelly, lavender salt and honey. The list goes on! We use every single part of the plant. The oils and hydrosol, the fragrant water that is the byproduct, and the florets, of course.
We make all our products here except for food that needs a commercial kitchen. Donini in Belleville makes our lavender chocolate, gelato and our friend Julian Katz of Stasis Preserves makes the lavender jelly. We have our own bees, and we make Provencal herb mixtures and our own signature mixture we call Hillier Herbs. But sometimes we run out of florets, so we source more from all over Ontario. We have one grower in Chatham who supplies us with his whole crop, and another young lady in Lindsay supplies us. We are delighted because we are using all Ontario-grown lavender
Our retail space gets bigger and bigger! We started with products on two big trays. People would come to the house and we’d say “Just a second,” and run and get the trays full of stuff. In year four we took a small corner of the garage, 16 feet square and set up a shop. After two years we made it bigger, 16 x 32 feet and that lasted four years. Then we took over the whole garage, and now there is room for 50 people together(see photo above!). We even have two cash points to serve the crowds. Well, we get bus tours a lot, and the annual Lavender Festival – well, that is like our personal Christmas.
Many, many Asian people come to the festival. It’s a cultural thing. They love flowers and lavender is an ancient medicinal herb, anyway there is a very strong appeal. One big tour group from Japan has us as a destination along with Halifax and Peggy’s Cove, Montreal and Toronto and Niagara Falls – and us! Right from the start we welcomed many Chinese visitors. In the second year, Toronto newspapers Ming Pao and Singtao, came to interview us and did a nice colour photo spread. The papers came out Saturday morning at 7:00 a.m. and by 11:00 a.m. we had 15 mini van loads of visitors from the GTA. We were shocked until they showed us the paper. Leslie Yip has done several pieces on us on Chinese language radio. We get wonderful reviews and a lot of selfies in the lavender fields posted on WeChat, which is like the Chinese Facebook.
This year, our ad budget for the Lavender Festival was $160! We did a bunch of posters and I posted pictures of the lavender, which is gorgeous this year, on Facebook, and 5,000 people came! We are definitely making better parking arrangements over the winter. It is a big load on this country road, so we will take a field and make it off-road parking. Future plans? To keep doing this.
We have our bed and breakfast here, too, which is popular with French-speaking guests. We are very busy, of course, but we love it. There are quiet days, too. We are always here and people recognize us from pictures. They see us walking around and say “Oh you are the owners!” So we talk a lot to our visitors. That’s a big part of our success, it’s still very personal. It’s our place and we really like people coming to see us.”
THE LAVENDER WILL BE HARVESTED SOON – BE SURE TO CATCH IT IN ALL ITS GLORY THIS WEEK! Check the Lavender Farm website for details.
DEREK AND ROLANDE’s STORY 1 of a 3-part feature of local entrepreneurs based on Closson Road. Please check out Closson Road Cycles and SHED – Chetwyn Farm for additional inspiring stories of creative enterprises on this “long and winding road” in The County, and be sure to visit Closson Road’s own website for more news, history, events and trip planning information.
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.