SEAFOAM, NOVA SCOTIA – Dave and Suzy Belt weren’t raised in farming communities but that didn’t stop the enterprising couple from forging ahead to establish a unique agricultural commercial business eight years ago.
“My grandparents owned a beef and dairy operation in the Midwest, so I spent summers helping care for the livestock,” says Dave. “So I had some background in farming but not much.”
Growing up in a military family, he attended college at the University of Colorado in Boulder, had a short recording career with Shining Eagle Records and served 22 years of active military duty. He and Suzy met while working on assignment in Denver, Colorado and were married in 1985.
Suzy comes from the MacAulay Clan on Nova Scotia and graduated from Syracuse University before serving eight years in the military. She graduated to fulltime service as a home schooling mom, rancher, and fibre arts instructor.
They have always been examples of diversity. Dave and Suzy were local radio DJs at KWUF 106.3 FM in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. They were also fulltime alpaca ranchers and operated a local tourist attraction called Echo Mountain Alpacas.
In 1998 after leaving the military, Dave became the Executive Editor of Alpacas Magazine, the largest and most widely-read alpaca magazine in the world, a position held for 13 years.
In 2004, the desire to live closer to family spurred the Belts to move to Nova Scotia. They operated a gourmet food store, yarn shop, and cafe called Sunrise Mercantile in Tatamagouoche for seven years before redirecting their business efforts to growing lavender on the family farm in Seafoam.
Today Seafoam Lavender Farm Ltd. is owned and operated by Dave, Suzy and their children Kiva-Marie and Collin.
“It was in 2004 when hay fever and family commitments resulted in us selling our livestock and looking for a horticultural endeavour,” explains Dave. “Although we had no specific training in horticulture, we had been avid gardeners for years and found the techniques used for hobby gardening coupled with years of owning several businesses, translated well toward starting a commercial lavender operation.
“Neither of us have ever been fans of urban living and we’ve always had a strong desire to live in a rural area. Realizing we would very likely need to do something more than just raise livestock or plants in order to earn a living, we quickly branched out into other related services.”
Suzy and their daughter became fibre artists, opened an on-farm yarn shop and taught fibre arts classes both on the farm and off-site locations throughout Canada and the United States. Meanwhile Dave tended to the chores of running the Alpacas Magazine.
“Today the business consists of a 124-acre farm, half of which is woodlot, wetlands and ponds,” says Dave. “The remainder is farmland. We currently employ only six acres for lavender production, the rest remaining fallow at this time. The soil clay required a significant degree of sand and lime amendment to make it useable for lavender production.
“Full-time, year-round, it’s just Suzy and me. One of us heads out to the Halifax Seaport Market while the other makes product. In the summer we open the farm to the public seven-days-a-week, plus have an on-farm lavender sales store. We add one fulltime employee to help with the manufacturing process, when we are gearing up for busy seasons like Christmas.”
In the summer their son Collin comes home from university to help fulltime while six part-time employees are added to help with weeding, harvest and customer support. Because of the Internet, their website and Facebook pages, they reach out to potential customers all over the world.
Having a brick and mortar store at Pier 20 in Halifax (where the cruise ships dock) has been invaluable for making contacts with international customers. Presently they ship all over Canada and the U.S., in addition to Europe, Australia and the Far East. The Belts want to expand distribution, particularly to wholesale accounts to Canada and abroad.
So what exactly are their products?
“They fall into three broad categories,” Dave explains. “They are culinary, household and skincare products. While I don’t see adding any additional broad categories, I do see huge potential in expanding the number of variety of products within each of the three categories.
“We have at least five or six new product ideas in development all the time. The challenge with adding new products is figuring what the customer really needs or wants, so we rely heavily on verbal feedback from them to steer our efforts. Some of the best ideas we’ve developed have come from customer requests and suggestions.”
They enthusiastically support the Government of Nova Scotia’s THINKFARM project, although Dave says it wasn’t a resource when they launched their business because they were already pretty well established when the program came along.
“It was very expensive when we started,” he continues. “Not only did we have to purchase 4,000 lavender plants to add to the 2,000 we had propagated ourselves, we had to till in multiple truckloads of sand and lime to prepare the soil for planting.
“Then there were capital improvements like building a Visitors’ Centre, parking lot, driveways, signage and more. We funded all of this through existing assets and lines of credit. As for our age, Suzy is in her late 40s and I’m in my early 50s…but you are never too old to start a new agricultural enterprise.
“We have found the physical labour to be less taxing with plants than with animals. However, that’s not to say horticulture is without significant physical demands, especially when you run an organic farm like ours where we do all the weeding and harvesting by hand.”
As for success, Dave says sales have doubled each year from the previous one. But he adds there are other ways to measure it, like enjoying happiness and personal satisfaction for the past eight years.
“We live right on the ocean, own a beautiful lavender business, get to spend all our summers outdoors in the fresh air and winters snuggled inside where it’s warm and we have literally thousands of satisfied customers all over the world,” he says. “What more could a family ask for?”
As for others keen on getting involved in agriculture, he tells them to be “resourceful and focus on what you do have, how you can maximize your assets to generate revenue while minimizing the effects of what you do not have.
“Keep your focus on your customers and develop ways to meet their needs. Sell directly to them to the greatest extent possible, for example farmers’ markets, on-farm sales and other ways. Always keep an eye on finances, being very careful not to spend more money than you have coming in.
“If the farm doesn’t generate enough income initially to pay the bills, find other ways to stay afloat until it does.”