Lovely Lavender

Sometimes, it seems like you were meant to be somewhere.

Martin McGurk and Gordon Tingley were meant to live in Nova Scotia. After having lived in Vancouver, the couple moved to Bear River, Nova Scotia and started Sledding Hill Farms. The duo have become known for growing and selling lavender, especially lavender products, such as lavender sugar and jellies. Passable sat down with Martin a little while back.

Image courtesy of Sledding Hill Farms

First, tell me how you ended up living in Bear River?

We both enjoy gardening and being close to nature. We wanted a sizeable portion of land that we could farm. We found the lifestyle we wanted was financially out of reach in BC’s lower mainland. We started looking in the Maritimes because Gord has roots in Saint John, NB and is an Acadia University alumnus. He was familiar with the favourable growing conditions for a wide variety of crops here in NS. We started with a wide property search, but in the end, the property we found in Bear River ticked all the boxes.

What was it about the place that made you want to be there?

We looked at a number of places that were for sale up and down the Annapolis Valley. In the end, the property we bought in Bear River met all our requirements and had that extra something… the village just felt right. It struck us right away like a lively and welcoming community that didn’t take itself too seriously. Our first impression has proven to be true.

Where does the name of the farm come from?

The previous owner, who just moved across the street, told us that the sharply sloping field behind the house used to be a popular sledding spot with neighbourhood children. We’ve since tried it ourselves. If the snow conditions are right, you can get going DANGEROUSLY fast. We don’t allow motorized vehicles on the slope though, so getting up to the top is cardiac power only.

How many lavender products do you produce?

We have four that are available in stores right now. They are Lavender Simple Syrup (a drink sweetener), Lavender Jelly (companion to meats and cheeses), Lavender Pepper (an herb/spice blend that we use instead of black pepper on everything), and a Lavender Sugar for baking lavender cookies, making lavender ice cream, or lavender caramels. We are working on recipes for chilli-based products. Once we have several ready, we will launch those for third-party retail as well. Right now, we are test-marketing a Chilli-Lemon Sugar that has been very well received at farmers’ markets.

What has the reaction to lavender as a culinary product been?

Very positive! Lavender in cooking is a growing trend in North America. It is common on the West Coast but is still a fairly new flavour concept to people here. For some, lavender is too strongly associated with perfume or cleaning products for them to accept it as a flavour. But, we find most people who try our products are pleasantly surprised and really intrigued. We have lots of repeat sales now to people who had never tried lavender in cooking before they had our products. What has been especially exciting for us is the positive feedback we’ve received from chefs. We’ve worked hard on getting our products just right and receiving praise from professionals is very gratifying.

How much trial and error went into that process? any interesting mistakes?

A LOT. Months of work. One of the biggest challenges was trying to figure out how to preserve the color of the jelly and syrup in large batches. There are so many variables that determine the color, type of lavender, amount of lavender, amount of acid, cooking time, and temperature. In addition, even after the color has been achieved, it can change depending on how long the product remains hot… or even after it is bottled if it is exposed to sunlight for a period of time. Then, there is the taste. Optimum taste and optimum color are very difficult to achieve together because the factors that improve color, increase bitterness in the flavour. It is a detailed process and very challenging to repeat in large batches. People have suggested we just add artificial color to simplify the process. We just wouldn’t feel good about that.

What else do you produce on the farm?

We grow basil, tomatoes, chillies, and eggplant in our greenhouse. We have also planted an experimental orchard of approximately 40 different trees to see which ones thrive under our conditions. There isn’t a recent history of agriculture on our property, so there isn’t a lot of previous experience to learn from. We also have a few bee hives.

What kind of trees are they?
We have assorted varieties of hazelnuts, chestnuts, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, cherries, persimmons, and pawpaw. We also have mulberry, blueberries, red and black currents, gooseberries, raspberries, and hascap (honeyberries) sprinkled around the landscape. The idea is to see what thrives, look for ways to market it and if we find one, grow more.

Where does your interest in farming and horticulture come from?

Martin comes from a farming family in California. Many of his family are still involved in farming there. Gordon studied landscape architecture at UBC and has had a lifelong passion for growing things. As a small child he used to plant any seeds he could find and then dig them up to see if they were germinating. Fortunately, he’s developed more patience over the years.

How much experience in farming did you have before you moved to NS?

Neither of us had ever farmed for a living before. Martin had some experience from his youth on a farm, but walnut farming in California is different than the type of multi-crop homesteading we’re trying here. We knew that with our relatively small acreage (approximately 10 cleared acres and 35 of woodlot), it would be challenging to pay the bills with traditional commodity agriculture or market gardening alone. Right from the start we wanted to come up with a business model that leveraged the farm as a resource but wasn’t limited to what the land could produce on its own.

Any interesting surprises?

It’s a little surprising that we don’t miss one thing about Vancouver. We expected there would be more of an adjustment… that we would need a city “fix” every now and then, but that hasn’t been the case. It speaks volumes about how ill-suited we were for our old lives. It makes us more determined than ever to make this work.

Any agricultural surprises?

The main surprise was that our hill, despite its considerable slope, is full of water. If you dig a hole more than a couple feet deep anywhere on the hill, it will start filling with water. This means we may need to add drainage, especially to the orchard areas over time.

Have you found other farmers who are willing to pass down wisdom?

Certainly. There aren’t that many of us farming here right now, but those who are, are passionate about it and like to share what they know . Much of what was formerly cultivated land has been allowed to return to woodlot or turned into pasture. A lot of today’s farmers in Bear River have had to start their farms from scratch: clearing, preparing the soil, adding drainage and so on. So, there is lots of good advice about tackling those sorts of issues. When it comes to what to grow, there are fewer confident answers. Because Bear River is a series of microclimates, what grows in one field may not do well in an adjacent field. Plus, climate change is redefining what grows where. So everyone we’ve talked to has said that same thing…. plant a bunch of stuff and see what works. There may not be a lot of clear paths to follow in agriculture here, but the community support and enthusiasm for giving it a try is huge.

You can find Sledding Hill farms on Facebook as well as on their website.