By Amanda Ryder
June 15, 2008 – In Almonte, Ont., a community just
15 minutes from Ottawa, Herbfest is an independent festival that’s
celebrating its 13th year. The festival, organized by volunteer members
of the Ottawa Valley Herb Association, brings together those who enjoy
herbs, gardening, cooking and living a healthy lifestyle.
In Almonte, Ont., a community just 15 minutes from Ottawa, Herbfest is an independent festival that’s celebrating its 13th year. The festival, organized by volunteer members of the Ottawa Valley Herb Association, brings together those who enjoy herbs, gardening, cooking and living a healthy lifestyle.
Gerry and George Bedard are the couple who host the event at their nursery, the Herb Garden. The festival has worked to promote the products they sell and helped bring together vendors connected to the herb industry. When the Bedards purchased the Herb Garden from its original owners in 2003, Gerry said the owners told them Herbfest was “a key event to make the business successful.” And the couple has worked hard to make sure it does just that.
|George and Gerry Bedard own the Herb Garden and host Herbfest at their nursery.|
When Herbfest first began, there were around 30 vendors and the event attracted 1,500 visitors – three times as many people as originally anticipated. Last year, 6,000 people visited the one-day festival to see products offered by 90 vendors, taste culinary dishes made with the finest herbs (of course!), sample herbal teas and fair trade coffee, discover herbs from around the world, learn about gardening, herb tips, total body wellness and herbal healthcare, take part in herb garden walks and enjoy the local culture and music.
This year’s Herbfest takes place on Sunday, July 27 at the Herb Garden. Themed ‘Spice Up Your Life’, both Gerry and George are hoping this year’s festival will continue to attract herb-enthusiasts to their nursery grounds, which is where they first became involved with herbs.
Hooked on herbs
When you take in account the important role that the Bedards have played in Herbfest, it’s hard to believe the couple only joined the festival, and the spice industry, after carrying out careers in completely different fields. Gerry and George got into the herb business five years ago when they spotted an ad in the Ottawa Citizen about a nursery for sale. Although the nursery industry wasn’t one they’d had experience in – Gerry had a long career as an executive recruiter in Toronto while George had a background as a nurse – after seeing the Herb Garden, Gerry says “we went home smitten.”
In 2003, Gerry and George officially took over the nursery. In order to come up to speed on the industry, they kept in close contact with the previous owners in the first year. “We would e-mail them with any questions and that really got us through the first year,” says Gerry. They’ve since become herb experts and the nursery now has over 200 varieties of herbs on display and offers almost 125 varieties for sale. The herbs are grown naturally and organically and the area has been pesticide free for 13 years.
Located just 15 minutes away from Ottawa and nestled next to Almonte, an artsy, destination town, Gerry says the Herb Garden can draw from just the right demographic. “A lot of gardeners are retired people and it’s very popular to grow your own veggies and herbs,” he says. “We have the highest paid retirees in Ottawa.” The nursery caters well to this market and has been able to capitalize on the continuing go local and healthy living trends.
In addition to expanding the herb business, the Bedards have been very busy over the last few years working to convert the Herb Garden’s 15-acre lot into an agri-tourism destination for visitors. The stables on the lot have been renovated into a gift shop and the garden is rented out for weddings or special events. A log-cedar barn was renovated to host indoor events and also serves as a gallery for local artists. Another barn on the property – over 178 years old and built by Irish settlers – has become a part of the Doors Open Ottawa tour. Throughout the summer, the Herb Garden also hosts Sunday brunches, Mother’s and Father’s day brunches as well as special dinners.
These side projects have allowed the couple to get involved with a few unusual ventures as well. When they first started hosting weddings, the need for fixed outdoor washrooms arose. The following winter, Gerry says they installed environmentally-friendly composting toilets and have since become distributors for Sun-mar, the company that produces them.
And the new business ventures haven’t stopped there. This year marks the first year that the couple will host ‘Yogafest, a Festival for Healthy Living’, a brand new festival that the Bedards have helped to plan. Over the past few years, Herbfest had been attracting a number of lifestyle vendors, so to keep the focus of Herbfest on herbs, they decided to kick off a festival geared just to the lifestyle segment. Gerry says they hope to document the creation of this festival (which, like Herbfest, will be independent from government funding and subsidaries) so they can share this experience with other groups and communities look to start their own independent festivals.
After discussing all that the Herb Garden and Herbfest has to offer, Gerry laughs and says “we will almost do anything to get people to come here." He describes both himself and George as “more marketers, than gardeners,” an outlook that has helped to grow not only their own nursery business but also the community’s small businesses and culture.