People often say that it is not where you start your journey but where you finish it that counts. When we spoke with Ashley Armsworthy, founder, and owner of Wild Orchid Farm, and learned of her entrepreneurial and personal journey, that statement could not be more relevant. Armsworthy explains how if you follow your passion and have a solid plan your path will take you where you should be, doing what you love to do.
For Wild Orchid Farm owner Ashley Armsworthy, running the Antigonish, N.S. family business was less a career than a calling.
But to get where she is now, she had to find out what she didn’t want first. Coming out of high school, she took what she calls the “expected path” and went to St. Martha Nursing School.
This will come as a surprise given the demand for nurses now but when Ashley graduated there were no nursing jobs. So, what does she do, well she starts working as a lighthouse keeper of course. However, once nursing positions began to open up, she was able to transition back into the healthcare industry as a nurse.
However, though she fought so hard to get into the field, she wasn’t fulfilled. What she did notice, though, was that she was drawn to working on the land and working with her hands.
“I grew up in a coastal town, where fishing was the predominant industry, but I always loved the idea of growing things. I loved animals. I was always interested in livestock. So as time went on, I continued nursing, but I always wanted a shift. Then an opportunity presented itself,” she said.
While living in Trenton, Ont. with her husband, a Canadian Armed Forces member, and infant daughter her father-in-law was becoming increasingly ill. She and her husband decided that he should apply for a compassionate posting to Halifax to be closer to his father and it was granted. So, the family of three packed up and headed east to Halifax. Her husband a few years after, would retire from the service, and they relocated the family back to the homestead in Antigonish to look after the family farm and care for his ailing dad.
The family farm was in rough shape since his father was older, and not up to the task of what is needed on a farm once he became ill. We knew that it was going to be a lot of work and a big change for the family, buts as Ashley says, “It just all felt right. It felt like where we were supposed to be there.”
“When his father passed away in 2010, we began to do some major work on the farm. We had talked long and hard about the direction we wanted to go. We repaired the barn, and then at the same time, my oldest daughter was struggling with a lactose allergy. We had tried everything, so we ended up buying a goat named Emma. My daughter could drink the goat milk without any issue.”
However, for all you non-farmers out there, goats have a drying-off period when they’re expecting more young, so they don’t produce milk. So, Ashley began buying it at the store and quickly learned her daughter couldn’t drink processed goat milk. So, it did not take her very long to realize that the family farm needed more goats. So, they purchased more goats and begin milking fresh goat milk for themselves. However, they soon realized that they were producing more goat milk than the family could use for their own needs.
“I think because of our children, and my daughter’s sensitivities, we became more aware of what and how things are grown and produced,” said Ashley.
Given that she had an excess supply of goat milk, she began experimenting and started developing her own line of products with goat’s milk. “I was making laundry powder, goat’s milk soap, and more. As time progressed, I was gifting the soap to friends and family, and everyone loved it,” said Ashley.
Seeing that others felt the same way as she did and were looking to purchase products that were made with locally sourced ingredients. The entrepreneur inside of Ashley kicked in. She knew from the feedback that she had received from her goat’s milk products that there was a potential market for her product line, and this was an excellent opportunity to utilize the excess supply of goat’s milk. Ashley began going to the farmers market in 2011 as a vendor and selling her products and absolutely loved the atmosphere it presented. She loved engaging with customers and her story about her products and listening to customer feedback which gave her ideas about new products.
This really started to take off for the brand and its customer base both locally and beyond. “I really felt a connection to that part of things. I loved producing my products, knowing where they came from, and having my family involved. It just became a time issue, as I was still working full-time as a nurse. But I started realizing I needed to build my business,” she said.
“I just needed to scale up the transition,” said Ashley. So, she started to participate in a program with Farmers Markets of Nova Scotia. Together they created a plan and put together a roadmap of what she needed to accomplish over five years, and Ashley just kept pushing toward that goal, while also setting new ones.
In 2017, Ashley and her husband, literally rebuilt the family’s mid 1800’s farmhouse from the basement up, creating a dedicated soap shop and gift shop on the main floor. “I’d work at the space – I’d paint and stain floors, come home and go to bed, then go to work the next day. And I did it over and over knowing there was an end in sight,” said Ashley.
But Ashley wasn’t done with the farmhouse yet and in 2019, they completely renovated the upstairs as a beautiful open-concept loft that she would use to host visitors to my farm through Airbnb.
Ashley was looking to take the Wild Orchid Farm brand experience to the next level and expand into the agritourism industry and allow her vendor-base customers the unique opportunity to have a full farm stay experience.
However, shortly after making this huge step forward with her business, the outbreak of the pandemic would set her back all over again.
“It was just a huge stumbling block. At the end of the build, we had hit the plateau where we could take a deep breath.
But with the pandemic what did this mean for their businesses? Ashley responds, “We complied with provincial guidelines. When the supply chain became an issue for our soap, I had lots of milk, but the issue was the oils and other ingredients. However, I stayed conscious of my footprint and tried to source the bulk of ingredients locally, but it couldn’t be done for everything.”
Unfortunately, Ashley did have to shut down her shop due to government restrictions that were brought on by the pandemic. But the silver lining to this was that she could now use her store space to warehouse supplies. That meant that she could search for supplies and have them ready for when restrictions were lifted. She was able to locate and buy a three-year supply of sodium hydroxide, which is the catalyst to make salt for soap. When the restrictions lifted, and the farmer’s markets opened, she attended them. She was able to re-open her store, on a limited scale and even re-opened the AirBnB to offer the farm stay experience again.
The pandemic has people changing the way that they shop. More and more shoppers are making the shift to spots like farmer’s markets over grocery stores to support local farmers and get a better quality of product and the peace of mind that come with knowing who and where it came from and in most cases at lower price which helps families get the most out of their food budget which continues be stained with increasing food costs.
People want “fresh stuff” that has not been trucked in. COVID changed the way people think and shop, and people want to secure their food. They want to know they won’t be dependent on going to the store for it. This summer – or the coming fall – Ashley and her family are at it again as they are building a brand new barn. Why, well currently they have a dual-purpose, milk/beef breed called Dexters, an Irish heritage breed, on the farm along with the goats.
“We needed a barn for them just to go, and it’s going to be just for goats and agri-tourism. Customers can come in and access the animals. We have the barn, my retail space, and accommodations for tours. We are growing things and I love the direction,” said Ashley.
The farm is going to be a safe haven for folks. It represents a place people can come, stay, relax, and learn skills.
“It will be whatever they need it to be. People can always do things with their hands – Even if they have a container garden in their apartment. We need to learn to be accountable to ourselves – We can take steps to be healthier, eat better food, learn to cook, and buy fresh food,” she said.
“People have become accustomed to things being very easy, but since the pandemic, we realized things can become scarce. We need to realize that we need to make products we need, and not rely on food being shipped from elsewhere.”
Ashley says, “it’s been a pleasure to have the opportunity to teach a younger generation about food and sustainability on her farm and through the market as well.
“Antigonish is a university in town, and I made a lot of connections that way. A lot of students will message me when they leave and continue to buy my product. Kids will come to the farm, and see the animals, and some have never seen a farm. Some don’t know where food and products come from,” she said. “It’s a great learning experience and one that I am proud to be part of.”
“The agri-tourism, the soap, the goats, and everything else has become part of a bigger piece. I’m getting to teach people and help them explore. I set my own boundaries here, and I hold myself accountable each day,” she said.
Though making the leap from nursing to Wild Orchid Farm was a scary one, Ashley has no regrets about following her passion.
“To go from the unknown and give up a paycheck for this was scary, but I had a safety net. I didn’t do it cold turkey. I built up the relationships over a period of time and did it methodically. I didn’t burn any bridges,” she said.
“If you’re not happy doing what you love, then you can’t make people around you happy. You need to have passion for what you do, and that’s why I love the farm, and can’t imagine ever doing anything else now, there are so many opportunities to make a difference.”
by Jordan Parker and Ryan Myson