On Aug. 21, Joanne Labadie and her husband Doug Briden officially announced that after nearly 15 years of growing and selling wine and lavender products to people from all over the world, their family business – Lavender Ridge Farm - will be closing for good.
Over its decade-plus of operations, the farm specialized in selling high-quality wine and lavender based products using the crops grown on their property.
Through the years, the farm has hosted countless weddings, catered luncheons for various organizations and attracted people from far and near.
Most significantly, it served as a catalyst for what is now an up-and-coming wine industry in the Pontiac.
Growing up in Quyon, Labadie’s dream was to marry a farmer and to live the farming life. She wasted no time trying to make it happen.
“It was a childhood dream for me,” she said. “In fact, in grade one I picked out the farmer I was going to marry.”
She didn’t manage to land that particular farmer, however, she jumped at the opportunity of realizing it by converting her beloved computer geek husband into one.
Before moving to their 100-acre farm in Luskville in 2005, Labadie and Briden lived together on a property located on the side of the Gatineau Hills in rural Aylmer.
Having three kids in the span of 27 months, Labadie was convinced that her calling was to be a stay-at-home mom. Despite the freedom it gave her, it didn’t provide her the kind of action she wanted in her life.
Seeking a more fulfilling endeavour, she gave her dream of farming a shot.
“If I was going to be a stay-at-home mom and he went to work all day, lets buy a farm,” she said.
With a background in the travelling and tourism industry, a cabinet-maker by trade and now a certified sommelier, Labadie has always had a rather multi-faceted repertoire.
Launching herself into the wine industry, she felt it gave her the opportunity to make the best use of her diverse skillset.
“My mother always told me that I was a jack-of-all- trades and a master of none,” she said. “But here I was, 40 years old, with a project where I could put all those talents together.”
Before coming to the farm, the land had not been worked on in years, so long before dropping their first seeds into the soil in 2006, there was a lot of work to be done.
“We tore down so many buildings on this farm,” she said. “There was no garden anywhere and the lawn was hay, all the way up to [waist height].”
Interestingly, entering the wine and lavender business was not a calculated decision, Labadie explained. It was about following her heart and doing something that was not being done at the time.
“At the very beginning, we came in with this passion,” she said. “We wanted an alternative thing. We were both passionate about wine and the possibility of doing it. We didn’t even know if you could grow grapes in this area at the time.”
Years ago, Labadie always felt frustrated with the lack of wineries in the Pontiac and surrounding areas.
Several vineyards and breweries were scattered on the other side of the Ottawa River, but were often too far apart from each other to make an enjoyable excursion out of visiting them.
In the Outaouais, however, there was only one winery: The Vignoble du Clos Baillie in Aylmer.
“We sort of considered them the grandfather of the local wine industry,” she said.
It was all the information she needed to know: that her childhood dream was possible.
Going into a business, largely unfamiliar with what they were getting into, turned out to be a great factor to their success, Labadie explained. Without it, they might have gone in a completely different direction.
“You go into a project like this green and that’s a good thing,” she said. “Had I known everything I know; we both would’ve run the opposite way. It was really good that we were as naïve as we were.”
While her childhood dream was to own her very own farm, she wasn’t satisfied with just that.
In 2011, the family officially erected the Lavender Ridge winery and boutique at the farm, where they stocked and sold their bottles of reds and whites, as well as various lavender-based soaps, creams and remedies.
Home to over 10,000 cold-weather adapted vines and 3,000 lavender crops used to make different kinds of foods, hygienic and health care products, their boutique attracted customers from all parts of the planet to buy products they couldn’t find anywhere else.
Bottled in 2012, their first vintage of red, Lavigne, won the bronze medal in the “other reds” category at the 2014 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, an annual wine showcase featuring products from 20 countries, with over 3,700 entries in multiple categories.
Although Labadie has never been a fan of wine competitions, it was still an achievement to be very proud of. More than brand exposure, the accomplishment was a way of proving to people that great wines do not only come from France, Portugal or California; that in fact, they can be cultivated in the Pontiac.
“It was really to show everybody else who was interested in a wine project in the Pontiac that this is the place,” she said. “We have the terroir. You can do it. It’s important to let other people know that you can make award-winning wine in the Pontiac,”
Raising her three kids, it was important for Labadie to provide them a lifestyle that would instill important life principles, like hard work and discipline.
“It was a quality of life and it was something that I felt I could be home with the kids, share those values with them and introduce them to a work ethic that could get them started in life.”
Along with a staff of around six students returning every summer, their kids, Liam, Jamie and Morgan have worked on the farm for as long as they have lived there; so far, it is a lifestyle that they have cherished, Labadie said.
But in the last couple of years, changes in career trajectories and natural circumstances have made the demands of operating the farm much more challenging.
As the sole full-time farmer, with Briden already working in his respective career as an IT specialist in Ottawa, the family no longer had the time or energy to provide the 24 hour/seven day per week attention that the farm requires.
Plus, after record breaking floods sent the municipality into a state of emergency last spring, in addition to the tornados of 2018 that took a devastating toll on the farm at the beginning of their harvesting season, it has become even more challenging to make time for the business.
Last year, operations continued on a part-time basis, which was still difficult, as they were unable to find enough hands to do the work consistently.
“It was a real struggle,” she said.
Going into this year, Labadie and Briden knew it was likely going to be the last one for Lavender Ridge as well - a decision made before Labadie was elected mayor the the municipality.
“If I was successful in the election, we would close down the farm,” she said.
Originally envisioning a 15-year plan, one of Labadie’s main goals was to make the Pontiac a destination for wine enthusiasts.
Now with multiple vinicultural enterprises scattered throughout in the region, from the Little Red Wagon Winery in Clarendon to the Domaine de Pontiac Village in Quyon, it seems like the operation has grown to fruition.
“Our goal wasn’t just to build a winery,” she said. “We really wanted to build a wine industry.”
“I’m proud to say that there’s actually a budding wine industry in the Pontiac,” she added.
While the closure of the business provides a bittersweet feeling for the family - marking the end of a piece of their history – it’s a transition they need to make and ultimately, it’s the right thing to do.
“This year was pretty clear that we weren’t even going to open part-time,” she said. “It was time for us to do what we said we were going to do, which was to move on.”
Even though operations are officially shutting down, Briden plans to keep experimenting with wine and craft beer on a personal basis. But, after a successful run at what has an unforgettable ride, the family is planning on selling the farm at some point in the near future, Labadie said.
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