Note: This story won a Northern Lights Award presented by the Canadian Tourism Commission.
— by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor —
Route 247 South is a driver’s dream. It winds through gentle green hills, into the little 19th century village Fitch Bay on Lake Memphémagog, and over a classic covered bridge.
If you turn at Applegate Hill, you’ll come to one of the most beautiful sights in the verdant triangle that makes up the Eastern Townships of Quebec—Bleu Lavande, the largest lavender farm in Canada and the second largest in North America. Bleu Lavande isn’t just 50 fertile acres growing beautiful, aromatic plants—it’s a place that heals bodies and spawns dreams. And it’s become one of the most successful small businesses in Canada.
The story of Bleu Lavande starts with a mysterious illness. Hard-driving businessman and electrical engineer Pierre Pellerin’s career was, by conventional standards, a resounding success. He’d built his high-tech company through sweat and hard work. The job required long hours and traveling nine months of the year. Then suddenly, at age 42, Pellerin began experiencing strange neurological symptoms like uncontrolled shaking. His doctor told him to take a vacation. He didn’t listen.
Several months later, in September 1998, Pellerin was poised to take his company to the next level. He had a meeting planned with investors who were ready to invest $15 million in the company. But he wanted to take an evening to think about the deal.
Then Pellerin’s body simply stopped working.
When he woke the following morning, he couldn’t move. His body had simply stopped. “It was terrifying,” says Pellerin.
He missed his meeting.
At 11 o’clock, the owner of the condo were he was staying noticed Pellerin’s absence and became concerned. He knocked on the door, but Pellerin couldn’t answer. The landlord called for an ambulance.
“My doctor told me to change my life or life would change me forever,” he says quietly, recalling the doctor’s somber advice. Pellerin knew without a doubt that his lifestyle was killing him.
He called his attorney, within four hours, had sold the business he’d lovingly built. It took attorneys four months to sort out the paperwork and close the deal. Pellerin, his body still wracked with strange neurological symptoms, wondered what to do with his life. Could he ever work again? He was too young to retire. What would he do with his drive and his creative energy? He had no idea.
On December 18, 1998, Pellerin drove along route 247 S. He noticed a for sale sign posted on a graceful hill. On impulse, he turned and drove up the gravel road. The property was 260 acres of fields and forest. There were no buildings or improvements, just trees and rolling hills of grasses. He called the realtor and made an offer. “Somehow I knew this is where I’d restore my health,” he says.
When Pellerin traveled in France, he’d seen acres and acres of lavender. He’d heard that lavender was good for health, especially as a stress reliever. Despite the fact that he had no experience farming, Pellerin decided he’d grow lavender.
In the spring, he contacted Minister of Agriculture and told him of his plan. “He said I was crazy,” Pellerin says smiling. “He told me you can’t grow lavender in Quebec.”
Undaunted by the skepticism, Pellerin began the long process of getting the proper permits, finding the right vendors, and the back breaking task of transforming acres of grassland into farm fields. He started with 400 lavender plants. He knew the process would be a long one.
Two years later, Pellerin decided that he knew enough to expand his farming operation. He ordered 70,000 plants and planted them in his fields. “That was the year of no rain,” he says ruefully. “No rain and no snow. It was just bone-chilling cold.”
When the snow melted in the spring, his beloved plants lay dead. “I cried when I saw my lavender,” he says.
The one saving grace of the icy winter of 2001 was that he’d met Christine Deschesnes, the love of his life. “She encouraged me to replant, to not give up,” Pellerin says. He slogged out to the ruined fields. Not everything was lost.
“We retrieved and replanted 10,000 plants from the fields that were still alive,” he says. “We re-planted them by hand.”
He learned from his mistakes. He planted earlier. He ordered 15,000 starts of a heartier variety from Australia. And he searched for a way to protect his tender plants from another episode of devastating cold.
Then he saw a neighboring strawberry farmer removing giant rolls of straw from his fields, he was intrigued. “The farmer told me the straw, which he baled with wire into long rolls, keep his plants warm when there’s no snow to insulate them.”
That fall, Pellerin and his workers spread baled straw over the fields. He following spring, the plants were perfect. He was on his way to becoming a real lavender farmer.
His health was returning too. The physical work, the fresh air, and being around lavender all the time had a healing effect. Though he still had moments of weakness, he felt stronger, healthier and happier than he’d been in years.
“My dream was to be a gentleman farmer,” he says. “I wanted to farm for six months of the year and head to the South of France for six months.”
Now married, his wife Christine had always wanted to open a small boutique. Selling products made from Pellerin’s lavender was perfect combination. Pellerin had a small space built for Christine’s store. They stocked it with some lavender plants and a few lavender scented soaps and lotions. In 2004, Canada TV got wind of the lavender farm and came to film a story.
“The next morning 100 people were waiting outside the gate,” Pellerin recalls, chucking. “We sold every plant and ran out of boutique items.”
Today, they keep coming. More than 200,000 visitors per year (6-7,000/day) stream through the gate to stroll through two types of 300,000 ISO certified organic lavender plants, eat soup, sandwiches, and lavender fudge at the café, enjoy an outdoor leg and foot massage, and learn about the process of distilling lavender (it takes a half ton of lavender flowers to make 1-2 liters of essential oils and 40 liters of lavender water). They also come to browse through Christine’s elegant white and lavender themed boutique. Unlike the early days when they sold just a few items, Bleu Lavande’s Boutique boasts hundreds of products from soaps, cosmetics, and lotions to lavender honey and edible lavender for cooking.
In fact, the boutique business has become one of the most successful aspects of Bleu Lavande. Two hundred retailers all over Canada carry Bleu Lavande’s lavender products. They operate eight stand-alone Bleu Lavande Boutiques and re opening mini-boutiques in several hotels. They’re also brokering a deal for Bleu Lavande Boutiques to operate in select Hudson’s Bay stores.
Isn’t this the kind of success that drove Pellerin into ill health in the first place? “I do business completely differently now,” says a decidedly relaxed CEO. “I used to try to do everything myself. Now, I have other people to do a lot of the work and, you know, they do a good job.”
And in mid-August, Pellerin and Christine head to France for a month’s vacation.