Business owners get a helping hand post-pandemic through Experimental Acres

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‘Trying to balance COVID-19, being a new mom, and working full-time…it was just too challenging. It was basically just keeping the plants alive’

WELLINGTON COUNTY‒ Some small businesses across Wellington County are feeling the brunt of mental health pivoting back into post-pandemic life.

One of these businesses is Tullamore Lavender Co. (TLC), an 80-acre farm home to 2000 lavender plants in Arthur owned and operated by Stephanie Craig and her husband, Steven Larmer. While Craig didn’t always want to farm, escaping to the city from his family’s dairy farm as a young adult, he “felt called back to nature,” after working in communications at the University of Guelph.

“I was surrounded by all these interesting advances around how we use farming as a tool to feed people but also make the environment healthier and I was called back,” said Craig. “I was attracted to trying to do farming differently and creatively, but also selfishly, (Arthur) is a beautiful place to live. Maybe not when you’re 16, but certainly when you’re 36.”

Craig realized if she “wanted to make a go of it,” she needed to “take a bet” on herself and try her “other dream full-time.” Starting with a test plot in 2019, Craig began selling products at markets before their first big planting in 2020, when “things just stalled.”

“(Lavender farming) is great because I get to do the creative side as well as get my dirty hands growing a cool plant but it also makes it hard to do as a side job,” said Craig. “We started thinking (growing lavender) was an easy way to do (small-scale) farming and then you get in the effort of it and realize it may be a little more complicated than the internet says.”

Since lavender isn’t an essential crop, Craig has had to create his own market; inventing products and making connections with local businesses to slowly grow their customer base.

“Trying to balance COVID-19, being a new mom, and working full-time…it was just too challenging. It was basically just keeping the plants alive,” said Craig. “But while our business has grown very slowly, it’s also one of those things where we see more potential each time we harvest or have a new collaboration.”

According to Kristel Manes, the executive director of Business Center Guelph-Wellington, a non-profit that advises new entrepreneurs, many of their conversations with business owners have focused on mental health since 2020.

“A lot of clients were just struggling with and just needed some time to talk to somebody, to be able to share. We’ve had a lot of crying, sadness, sorrow,” said Manes, during her presentation at the Center Wellington council. “(But) there’s also been a lot of businesses who started, and navigated COVID-19 and are now finding ways to successfully pivot out.”

One way TLC pivoted was by joining the Wellington County Experimental Acres pilot in 2023, which provides small agricultural businesses with support for the first year of trying new farming practices on a small scale.

“Every time you till you lose a little bit of (natural soil) and it’s very hard to replenish,” said Craig. “Our theory is that we can plant directly into the plastic without doing any tilling, preserving the soil structure and helping with drainage.”

Whereas conventional lavender farming calls for tilling, Craig’s method uses sheets of black plastic to insulate the soil as well as form a weed barrier. The challenge is that the couple must wait an entire year before planting their next crop.

“You’re basically using the plants that were there before as compost to help feed the soil,” said Craig. “But we really feel like this could be a big game changer… for people who don’t have access to tractors or large equipment so they don’t have to worry about plowing, they just need time.”

Currently, the general public cannot visit the TLC farm but the hope is that the doors will be fully open for visitation next year when the first round of planting is completed. The farm does offer private tours and can host local community groups.

“People are so experience-oriented now, which makes sense. We’re trying to catch up on two lost years,” said Craig. “But I want to challenge the idea that… I have to open the farm up and compete to bring hundreds of thousands of people here. (I want to) get to know my customers so they can drop their shoulders and relax when they arrive.”

Isabel Buckmaster is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for GuelphToday. LJI is a federally funded program.

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