Norfolk is not a place where you’d necessarily expect to find a hotbed of innovative entrepreneurship. Not only did a single crop dominate the area but growers, save those on the marketing board, had no hand in selling it. As long as it worked, it was a great system, as a floor price pretty much guaranteed a profit for every pound farmers grew, along with a Dutch auction that generated premiums for above-average crops. But it provided no interaction between buyers and sellers. When growers brought their 50-pound bales of cured leaves to the auction warehouse, they weren’t even allowed into the area where the tobacco buyers were.
“I was growing 150,000 pounds a year but I knew nothing about marketing,” says Robert Koprich. “Basically, you just took your bales to the auction warehouse and a few days later, you got a cheque. That’s all I knew of marketing.”
Koprich pauses, looks around the room, and spreads his hands out wide.
“This is a big change,” he says with a wry smile as he surveys the scene.
That’s a considerable understatement. The room, retail headquarters for Purple Daze Lavender Farm (purpledazelavender.com), is housed in a walled-off corner of an equipment shed and is as far removed from the grit and grime of farming as could be imagined. Lacey lavender-coloured netting is strung along the ceiling, delicately drawn lavender flowers adorn the walls, and knickknacks and little jars – many bearing lavender bows – are everywhere. As he takes in his sweetly scented, lavender-hued surroundings, Koprich has the look of a man who still can’t quite believe where life’s journey has taken him.
It’s not because he now sells things such as potpourri sachets and ‘dream pillows.’ It’s the fact that he’s in retail sales.
Where Koprich once grew one thing, he now has a multitude of products (30 and counting). Where he once had a single method of selling to a handful of largely anonymous buyers, he now has a host of sales channels and thousands of customers, many keen to ask questions about not just the products on these shelves, but about his farm and himself. It is still a source of wonder that after 30 years of largely farming on his lonesome, a steady stream of people now make their way down Highway 3, turn south onto County Road 16 (at the telephone poll wrapped in lavender-coloured netting), and then pull into his yard.
“I can’t say for sure how many people have come here since we started,” he says. “We’ve had people from all over the world, including places like Japan and Australia. But I can tell you, I sure didn’t expect that. It’s amazing.”
A former Mountie, Koprich returned to the family farm near Delhi in the mid ‘70s, finally deciding in 2005 that he’d had enough of tobacco. But when he began growing lavender, he came at it with the mindset of a producer. He focused on finding a hardy variety (most of his 7.5 acres, soon to be 10, are a variety called English Munstead) and he built his own system for distilling the oil, planning to sell it to those making lavender products.
“I was just going to sell wholesale because as a tobacco grower, I knew nothing about retail,” he says.
But he always liked the flower, and remembered how they used to sell little rattan baskets filled with flowers at the Norfolk Fair when he was a kid. So he and wife Carolyn made a few simple products, and did a bit of retailing out of the back door. Things quickly took off. Just ask his neighbours, particularly on the first weekend after Canada Day, when the Kopriches hold their annual open house. It started out as a farm tour and the couple was pleasantly surprised when, despite minimal advertising, 150 people showed up. When 200 showed up the second year, they decided they were onto something.
“In the third year, we put up tents and had about 20 vendors, all of them selling totally local products, and we had 500 to 600 people show up,” says Koprich. “The next year, a TV station did a story on us and I was on CBC radio, and we had 1,500 people come here. You wouldn’t have believed it.”
The recession knocked those numbers down a bit but the ‘festival’ regularly attracts 1,000 people, who fill the couple’s yard for a chance to see the lavender fields in full bloom, buy his products or local crafts and foods, listen to a Celtic harpist, or catch the belly-dancing demonstration.
It’s the farm’s busiest time of the year but only barely, says Koprich.
“I had thought it would be something that would let me ease off,” he says. “But I’m busier than ever. This is 12 months a year and you’re always scrambling to keep up.”
The funny thing is Koprich doesn’t have to do this. The market for lavender oil is strong and he could easily wholesale all of his production. In fact, he has to hold back half of his oil for his own products.
“It’s a lot of work, but we’re seeing the results,” he says. “I can see making a living off of this.”