WHO: Anita & Steve Buehner
Steve and Anita Buehner are farmers – “re-purposed”. Both grew up on tobacco farms, eventually becoming tobacco farmers themselves. Since transitioning out of tobacco they have devoted themselves and their farm to a brand new purpose – growing lavender and wine grapes – and they are pursuing this new direction heart and soul.
Bonnieheath was the name of the house next door where Colonel William Heath was born and raised. When he purchased the adjoining property at the turn of the twentieth century, he called it Bonnieheath Fruit Farm, according to documents found in the attic of the Buehners’ house . After emigrating from Holland in the 1950’s, Anita’s parents bought the hundred and eighty acre property which Anita and Steve, in turn, purchased from them in 1990. Steve, whose background is Belgian and German, was a fourth generation tobacco farmer.
When they married twenty-five years ago, Steve continued to work with his parents. Until she and Steve bought it Anita was employed on her parents’ farm. Her parents moved to a house they built across the road, and Steve’s parents still live down the way. Strong family people, Anita and Steve rejoice in the fact of having many of their extended family members living close to them. There is much inter-generational help and support among this close-knit group.
At the present time, the Buehners have three acres of their property in lavender, eight in wine grapes, and thirty-two acres in apples. They also have about two dozen sweet cherry trees. Thanks to the ALUS program (ALUS stands for Alternative Land Use Services, a privately-funded organization to help restore natural eco-systems), the Buehners also have an extensive Priairie Grass planting and are developing a wetland area on their property. The remainder of their acreage is planted in corn, soybeans and wheat. While the farm was in tobacco production, a local grower rented the Buehners’ apple orchard from them. In 2010, they took it over again and now grow eight different varieties which they market and ship through the Norfolk Fruit Growers Association.
Seeing a bleak future for tobacco Anita and Steve began to experiment with lavender in 2003. In 2006, they grew more tobacco than they knew they could market simply because it was the only efficient way to do it. They grew no tobacco in 2007, and by 2008 only ten acres were in tobacco production. In 2009, they were bought out. Anita worked in a factory in Simcoe from 2007 to 2009, because the off-farm income was necessary. Steve, meanwhile, continued experimenting with lavender, testing varieties for winter-hardiness, etc. They took an intensive computer course together during the last three months of 2009, in preparation for their dramatic change of focus.
In their existing greenhouse, which used to be used to grow tobacco seedlings, Steve propagates his lavender from cuttings. Last year, he started five thousand plants. Using cuttings allows him to grow only the most desirable varieties, selecting for properties of winter hardiness, fragrance, colour, and so on. Playing with geometry, Anita began to envision lavender beds laid out in a sunburst pattern with a gazebo at its centre. Their son Trevor, home from college, simplified the job for his parents by introducing them to the computerized wonder of the ‘Auto Cad’ design program. “Summer is the season!”, Anita enthuses, to view the lavender planting, when it blooms in every shade of purple, through pink, to purest white. The new gazebo is so beautiful that early this fall a local couple asked if they could use it as the setting for their wedding photographs after seeing a picture on Face Book. In mid-July this year Anita and Steve held their first annual Lavender Festival, and it was a great success. Steve took enchanted visitors around the magnificent property on their recently purchased touring wagon, explaining all the things this creative couple are doing.
From the beginning, the Buehners had no intention of just growing lavender. As part of their new enterprise, Anita saw the potential of value-added products and envisioned a lavender boutique. Now, in their fragrant Gift Shop, located in the former strip room in the barn where tobacco was once graded, they have a myriad of lavender products for sale. There are wonderful-smelling dried lavender bundles, buds and oil (two varieties: French, Lavendula Intermedia and English, Lavendula Angustifolia). In addition there are sachets, eye pillows and neck rolls, bath salts, four kinds of soap, body and face scrubs and soy candles. For the kitchen they sell culinary lavender and herbes de Provence, along with lavender sugar. To round out their stock there are hand made quilts, jewellery, lavender-patterned pottery and other lovely things on offer. In the winter months, Anita moves the shop into the house.
Along with Steve’s sister, who is also a local lavender grower, they helped found the Ontario Lavender Association after attending the North American Lavender Conference at Sequim, Washington in the fall of 2008. In addition to that organization, the couple are members of the Norfolk Land Stewardship Council, the South Coast Wineries and Growers Association and members of the Norfolk Fruit Growers Association. Anita is also a member of the Norfolk Agricultural Advisory Board and chairs her local School Council.
Since 2010 the Buehners have been growing grapes, with the intention of eventually opening a winery on the property. When they met Margaret Marshall from Florence Estate Winery on a tour a couple of years ago, she invited them to a meeting of the South Coast Wineries and Growers. Her enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge inspired Steve and Anita to add wine-making to their transition plan. Anita has been interested in growing grapes since graduating from college; now both have become fascinated with the process of turning grapes into good wine. They belong to an association of amateur winemakers, but plan to hire a professional winemaker to oversee their future wine program. Bonnieheath Farm is certainly ideally situated to add another picturesque winery to Norfolk’s growing number.
The Buehners would not be able to manage all this non-stop activity without help. Their four children, 22-year-old Trevor, who attended Fanshawe College in London, Stefanie, 20, and Nigel, 18, at The University of Guelph, and 17-year-old Emily, a student at Holy Trinity in Simcoe, have all worked on the farm since they were “knee-high”, their mother says. Anita’s dad, who’s retired from farming, still enjoys helping out. And there are eight Jamaican workers employed on the farm as well. One comes up in May to help with the lavender, grapes and apples. The arrival of the other seven is staggered over the summer months until now, during apple harvest, when all hands are needed. They are comfortably accommodated in a bunkhouse on the property and enjoy relaxing in the gazebo at the end of a hard day’s work.
The Buehners’ four children are a great source of pride to their parents, and justly so. This past summer all were employed off the farm. Trevor works for a construction company out of Belmont. Stefanie spent most of her school holiday doing volunteer work in Peru and Equador. Steve and Anita were happy to have Nigel working for OMAFRA, “just down the road” at the University of Guelph’s Simcoe Research Station. In addition to helping at home on the farm, Emily works part-time at the Heritage Retirement Home in Simcoe, where the residents no doubt appreciate her kindness and lovely smile.
Anita and Steve believe it’s still too early in their new endeavours to talk about success, although the fact of mere survival during the difficult transition from tobacco to something entirely new could well be defined as such. To an outsider, their lovely home in its idyllic setting, their four beautiful children and their own devoted and mutually-supportive relationship looks like the very model of success.
The challenges faced to reach this point have been many. Anita is candid about the stresses they’ve had to withstand during this transition period. “How do you cope when your livelihood is taken away ” she asks. Surviving without a regular, dependable income is stressful, not to mention the strain on a relationship when roles and responsibilities change. She and Steve talk about the division of tasks that had evolved and become second nature over their years of farming tobacco in tandem, and how they’ve had to learn a whole different system for working together in this new life. Fortunately, it seems to have made their relationship even stronger.
After years of not having to concern themselves with marketing their crops, Steve and Anita have been thrust into a whole new world of promotion and marketing which has made for a very steep learning curve. There was a need to develop a sound business plan, and there remains an ongoing need to continue to make a realistic evaluation of that plan, all exciting – if a little scary – new territory for these two.
Steve Buehner sees a future for eco-tourism here in Norfolk County. So many farms like his are hidden gems of natural beauty and complex, functioning ecosystems that the public can appreciate, and do, if given the chance. Anita adds that “Norfolk has always been a diverse agricultural area”, so there’s lots of potential for brand new crops to thrive. She’s excited about the prospects offered by the increasing interest in agri-tourism and confident of the ability of Norfolk farmers to participate. Her enthusiasm for farms and farming, however, is tempered by worry about the overall economic “balance”. Without significant industry in the area, she’s concerned that there is little to attract the young families needed to sustain a vibrant, vital, well-rounded community.
The Buehners wish that government policy-makers could grasp that the change from growing tobacco has been, and continues to be, difficult. Successful transition is a process that takes from three to five years, and is not an easy adjustment to make. Meantime, families who were dependent upon tobacco for their livelihood must survive. She also wishes that the mountains of paperwork she is responsible for could be simplified. She understands the necessity for it, but says if all the required forms could be made more straightforward and duplication avoided, it would be far less onerous than it is.
In spite of any difficulties they may encounter from day to day, it’s clear the Buehners are dedicated farmers, who love Bonnieheath and the life they’ve made there. When asked what gets her up and going every morning, Anita says how much she enjoys just watching the seasons pass and dealing with the challenges each one brings. “I’m always looking forward to next year, it seems”, she laughs, “thinking about what we can do differently or better”. Commitment to their family is another important motivator for her and Steve. “Farming is a great way to raise kids”, Anita says, her eyes sparkling.
Steve and Anita have two immediate goals for their business. The first is to be able to streamline the workload somewhat, enough, at least, so that they could keep more regular hours and have more family time. The other is to get their winery, about which they are very excited, operational. They are justifiably proud that they have been able “to repurpose their farm, and bring value to it again”. The Buehners have imagination and vision, but they’re not mere dreamers. They bring a great deal of intelligence, energy, humour, charm and determination to this new enterprise, and they deserve to be successful.
More Information: Bonnieheath Estate Lavender & Winery