After a romantic trip to celebrate their second wedding anniversary, Kingston, Ont. native Darcy Shaun and former Chicagoan Keith Alan Gawronski-McNinch were inspired to make a change in their lives. They left their corporate jobs in Toronto—Darcy as an architect and Keith as an event planner—and took up residence in rural Kingston to become farmers.
But not just any farmers. The couple is growing lavender and raising cashmere goats. “It was a combination of things, but mostly the result of soul-searching together,” says Keith. “It came after a visit to the French countryside, in August 2014, to celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary. We stayed in a remote country hamlet in the southwest of France and were amazed when we saw the lifestyle of people who lived there year-round. The attention to aesthetics everywhere, and the calm, country life was enticing to us both.”
The couple met in 2008 while dancing at a party hosted by a mutual friend. During a romantic getaway in Chicago—before visiting Keith’s family for the holidays in December 2010—Keith proposed to Darcy after an elegant dinner. They exchanged vows two years later at the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto in front of 100 guests.
Now happily ensconced in Kingston, they have created their own business, called Secret Field Lavender, which is a fusion of art, architecture and agriculture located on a homestead farm called Bonniespring.
By moving to Kingston, Darcy was literally going back to his old stomping ground. Their farmhouse once belonged to his great-grandparents and then to his grandparents. His dad—along with his eight brothers and sisters—also grew up there. “It has been empty for over 10 years, but was still lovingly maintained by my family,” says Darcy, who has a Masters of Architecture from the University of Waterloo. “When we realized that we could get started on a new life that we make for ourselves, we went for it. The home we are now living in is nestled in the woods two kilometres down a laneway from the country road.”
The name, Secret Field Lavender, is rooted in the history of the residents who once lived there, as well as those who live there today. Says Keith, quoting from the operation’s website: “Inhabitants past and present have inscribed the landscape of Bonniespring with names. Winding forest trails, rocky outcroppings, crossings over water, fields, houses and barns, all have their beloved nicknames and unique monikers.”
The duo has done extensive research and discovered that there are many more uses for lavender than one might think. “When we lived in Toronto, we had satchels in multiple places in our home and also used lavender essential oil,” says Keith. “I am particularly fond of lavender eye pillows. We love the beautiful fragrance in natural household-cleaning products but also the culinary kind in tea and scones. It is wonderful for relaxation, and for city dwellers, you can always use natural ways to help relax. When we thought about starting a farm, this was the first thing that came to mind. When we learned about the Ontario Lavender Association and the growing industry in Ontario for lavender farmers, producers and retailers, we realized that this could be the start of something amazing.”
Darcy picks up the story. “We have been designing prototypes which we hope to turn into products to sell locally and online at our website,” he says. “Most of these ideas combine lavender and cashmere, two things we love.
We want to create unique items that bring these elements together, combining luxurious softness and sweet relaxation.”
By raising cashmere goats, the couple has figured out a way to combine producing cashmere in a sustainable way while maintaining the lives of the animals. “We both love animals, and believe in treating them with kindness and compassion,” says Darcy. “I have been a vegetarian since I was 12 years old for several reasons, but especially because of my belief in animal rights.”
The couple’s diet at home has always been vegetarian, so when the newly minted farmers thought about having livestock, they wanted to choose animals that would not be used for meat and which would yield a product that could be harvested in the most compassionate and natural way possible. And so the choice of cashmere. They started with two does, Sophia and Rose—named after beloved characters from TV’s The Golden Girls. This spring, both Sophia and Rose gave birth. As Darcy marvels, “It has been amazing experiencing the miracle of life.”
A gay couple used to big-city sophistication, Keith and Darcy say they have yet to encounter even mild traces of bias or suspicion related to their sexuality in their adopted rural community. Instead, they have been welcomed by neighbours both straight and gay.
The Kingston area has been “very accepting and supportive,” says Keith. “There is a small but proud LGBT community here. We’ve also been able to meet open-minded, accepting people through the wonderful organizations we’re involved in, including Kingston Unitarian Fellowship. And we’re looking forward to marching in the Kingston Pride Parade this year.”
The self-styled gentlemen farmers say that while profitability is a goal, they have other priorities. “We know we both could make more money right now, working in the city,” says Keith. “Our primary motivation has not been financial, but rather, to plant seeds to grow a new life in the country.”
If the couple exudes plenty of enthusiasm and idealism, they’re hardly viewing their new venture through matching rose-coloured glasses. “We chose this new direction knowing the risks involved and understanding that it will take time for our business to become profitable,” Keith acknowledges. “Most estimates say three years is a good measure, but that seems like a long time. Although we cannot predict the future, we hope that we can have more success more quickly by jumping in and giving it our all.”
(For information about Bonniespring and its products and services, visit www.secretfieldlavender.ca.)