Not every farmer takes to the field to plant after reading an article about disease in their prospective crop, but Andrea McFadden is not every farmer.
She and her husband, David, were looking for opportunities in agriculture when she spotted a magazine clipping on fungus attacking French lavender at an alarming rate.
“Because I had grown up in a family that grew grapes, I knew about phyllox (phylloxera) in the grape industry and wondered if this too might not be as much of a problem in North America.”
As a member of the Stewart family, owners of Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, she also knew farming is a risk that takes finesse to turn a profit. The couple launched into lavender believing the farm could help North American chefs discover an ingredient capable of transforming the simplest dishes—roasted potatoes or a glass of lemonade—into gourmet creations.
“Grant de Montreuil had his restaurant downtown and he was really interested in the jelly we made and there were some chefs in Vancouver using it too; I guess they were the first people really interested in what we were doing,” she said. “I think we thought we would soon see others join them in using lavender in culinary applications but, probably, over the years, we discovered how challenging it was to convince people to try it. It’s not part of our vernacular here.”
The McFaddens really found their market when consumers started questioning the chemicals in cosmetics. Estheticians were asking them to create natural solutions to body care, and soon distilled oils and hydrosols formed the bulk of the business.
This year, Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm invested in new distillation equipment that cuts their time from six days to one for many of their body care products.
“Roses have ended up being a really complimentary product for us, which again, I didn’t know in the beginning,” McFadden said.
They make a rosehip oil that’s very popular as a moisturizer. They’ve sourced and planted Apothecary’s Roses; imbued with healing properties, the rose dates back to the 1600s and is used in skin toners. And they’ve also found Damask roses, generally distilled in Turkey and Bulgaria, which they are also growing for their skin toner and culinary purposes.
Raudz serves their rose water in a drink and the skin care is bringing a younger crowd through the door, where one of the university students serves each guest a taste of one of their many teas on arrival.
Seeing the farm-to-table movement they’ve participated in, really since they started in 1999, grow by leaps and bounds over the past few years is thrilling from the McFadden’s vantage.
“We’ve come through a time when there was so much processed food and, to be at this stage where farm-to-table offerings are gaining momentum like they are, with the public realizing the flavour you get with simple fresh ingredients, that’s pretty incredible,” she said.
Next Sunday, Aug. 17, Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm will see 800 people fill its gardens as the McFaddens host the sixth annual Feast of Fields, a key fundraising for FarmFolk CityFolk. It changes location each year.
FarmFolk CityFolk promotes sustainability, eating in your own community and supporting local farmers. It assists seed farmers, like Sunshine Farms, and offers young farmers on Vancouver Island micro loans to get into the industry. It brings together small-scale food producers and tries match them with small-scale buyers, like restaurants or Choices Market or Nature’s Fare.
Feast of Fields is a sampling extravaganza that unites 30 restaurants and wineries to offer guests a taste of the Okanagan, from one end of the valley to the other. Working together in pairs, the wineries and chefs donate their food and drink.
“It is a big commitment for them so, they really do have to believe in FarmFolk CityFolk and what they do to be there because you could do a lot of things with that marketing dollar,” said Alison Love, event organizer.
This year, Harvest Golf Club will do a Duck Confit to pair with Tantalus Vineyard’s Rielsing. Grapevine Restaurant at Grey Monk is doing a duck sausage slider with current and apple chutney with apple slaw to pair with a Greymonk Estate Rotberger, a light summer red.
Sandrine French Pastry and Chocolate already makes lavender gelato for Okanagan Lavender Farm so the pair will work together at this event. Traditional French Nougat has lavender in the recipe, so nougat will be served with maringues and Italian soda made from the herbal syrups produced on the farm.
For the lavender farm, hosting Feast of Fields marks a full circle moment.
“When my dad asked my oldest brother, Ben, if he would come home and work on the farm, he said he would as long as the ultimate goal was to have a winery so they weren’t going through a middle man anymore. Anybody who is in farming knows this. If you have to go through a packing house or a middle man, it’s hardly worth while,” said McFadden.
Bringing the consumer directly to the farm to see what a grower’s labours can produce is the ultimate dream. Three of these fundraisers are held annually—one in the Lower Mainland, one on the Island and this one in the Okanagan.
Tickets are $95 a person and the event has sold out every year. It runs from 1 to 4 p.m. on Aug. 17 at Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm, 4380 Takla Rd.
There are still tickets available at Choices Markets in Kelowna, the Penticton and Wine Country Tourism Centre or online at FarmFolk CityFolk.
Photos: Andrea McFadden sits in the fields where tents will be set up to shade guests as they meander from station to station sampling food and drink on Aug. 17; (b) a peak of the drying room where racks of herbs are hung to dry; (c) an employee prepares a facial mist with their oils; (d) McFadden in her garden.