Gordon Tingley and Martin McGuirk are living their dream. The self-professed foodies own and operate Sledding Hill, a lavender farm on Riverview Road in Bear River.
From June through July, they will be in the field to harvest the first bloom by hand. There’s no mechanical harvester, rather they will bend down themselves to pluck the bud right as the bottom flowers are beginning to open.
“It is rather hard on the back,” said McGuirk.
This year though, their backs will get a bit of a break between bloom and harvest as Tingley and McGuirk head to Toronto to attend the ACE Bakery Artisan Incubator taking place June 20-22.
“I was surprised,” said Tingley when asked about being chosen for the Incubator.
“Quite surprised,” said McGuirk. “I thought our only chance would be getting chosen regionally.”
In a way, they were. Of the 20 artisans selected nationally, only four hail from the Maritimes. Sledding Hill will join Lunenburg’s Ironworks Distillery in representing Nova Scotia.
The Incubator will give national exposure and an opportunity to host a workshop showcasing their products under the guidance of Nova Scotia’s own Pete Luckett.
As part of the Incubator, Tingley and McGuirk will also be competing for one of two chances for further business development.
“We’re in the Nova Scotia market by choice,” said McGuirk. “But these big shows drive you towards distributors, giving direct exposure to the retailers.”
That’s great news for Sledding Hill, especially considering how far they’ve come in such a short time. Only four years ago, they were working together at the University of British Columbia. McGuirk was in education management while Tingley was a textbook buyer.
While they made a good living, neither could afford the time or the cost of playing with cooking and gardening.
“I remember saying at the time, we’re breaking free of the old nine to five and we’re going to do something,” said Tingley.
Disenchanted with the tiny properties with huge price tags available in the ‘smog belt’ of southern British Columbia, they turned their eyes east to the land of Tingley’s childhood. Having grown up in Saint John, N.B. and attending Acadia University in his youth, the combination of proximity to family and affordable land was irresistible.
“I need to be closer to home, and we were getting sick of it out west,” said Tingley.
Tingley and McGuirk viewed at least 10 properties before they found their home in Bear River. They were looking for clear land that hadn’t been planted and a house that was move-in ready, and they found it in the old Wild Rice Pottery property. With 10 of the 45 acres cleared, it was the perfect fit.
“We had no second thoughts about it,” said Tingley.
They named the farm in honor of the children who regularly use the hill on the property for sledding each winter (weather permitting).
Due to the steep nature of the hill, the left part of it will be kept clear for future sledders. The only stipulation is they must walk the hill themselves, there are no ATVs allowed.
“Sledding Hill is a better name than Donnie Rice’s old place anyway,” said McGuirk.
Tingley and McGuirk didn’t plan on growing lavender originally, although it’s use is common out west, especially on Vancouver Island.
In fact, it was McGuirk’s sister who planted the first lavender seed in their minds. She gave them a bottle of a lavender pepper blend. brought out a spice mix for cooking that had lavender in it.
“We liked it... sort of,” said McGuirk.
There were tastes they liked in it as well as tastes they didn’t. They tried a few different blends, but while they found the taste combinations intriguing they weren’t completely satisfied with the end result.
“We liked the concept, we liked some of the flavour... we can do better than that,” said Tingley.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s fun.”
Tingley and McGuirk can often be found working around the farm doing everything from clearing new beds, rooting lavender cuttings, digging up rocks and even growing things like palm and hazelnut trees in the greenhouse they built.
“Gordon’s more of a horticulturalist where I’m more a landscaper,” said McGuirk.
“He likes to watch things grow where I’m more interested in how they look.”
The farm has seen its fair share of challenges. When the lavender was first planted in August 2010, the plants looked great, McGuirk said. But come fall, they were looking a bit tepid and by spring they were almost dead. The hill was full of water, a death sentence for a plant that loves dry soil as much as lavender does.
“It was a disaster,” said Tingley.
This year, the hill has been drained and sand piles line the road on the farm, ready to add to the soil. Right now, there are three varieties growing in the field and eight in the greenhouse with another one to two dozen additional varieties planned.
That being said, the company can still make products even if the lavender crops fail. That’s because all the components can be bought separately. However, to eliminate issues with consistency and availability, they want to grow it themselves.
“Right now, the business is all one. Eventually it’ll be the farm and the business, then the farm will sell to the business,” said McGuirk.
Looking back to April 2011, Tingley and McGuirk sold their first three bottles of lavender pepper at the Bear River market alongside their vegetable offerings. In two short years, they’ve grown their modest business into a success story driven by good taste and great flavours.
“We’re foodies, we were curious about food,” said Tingley.
This curiosity with food fuels hundreds of hours of research into how to make their products on a larger scale - products like pepper, jelly, syrup and sugar.
Once they find a formula that works and is cost-effective, they then train local employees to make it to their specifications. All packaging is locally sourced.
McGuirk said ideally one day they’ll be making the finished products themselves on-site at the farm, including vinegars, oils and tea.
“We’ve learned a lot by trial and error,” said McGuirk.
Trial and error is how they came up with some of their signature cocktail recipes, such as the Southwest Nova and Scotian Riviera. So far, the drinks have been a delicious hit.
With such popular products, it’s no surprise that people often ask to look at the farm and how things are done. Although they don’t offer tours at this time, opening part of the grounds up to the public is part of their plan.
“People always ask us and we always say, ‘Next year, next year,’” said McGuirk.
“We may have to stop waiting until we get everything done though, there’s such a growing demand.”
So keep your eyes open the next time you’re driving down the River Road. Their signature purple doors may just be open in the future.
For more information on Sledding Hill and where you can buy their products, please visit their webpage at http://sleddinghill.ca.