EDITOR’S NOTE: Manitoulin is being transformed with the influx of new residents and business owners who bring with them fresh ideas, experiences and perspectives that are enriching the area. Some individuals and families are still unpacking boxes, having only moved in the past month or two, while others made the move over the last few years and are now comfortably established in their new communities. Here are some of their stories.
by Heather Marshall
Farming, gardening and hard work are part of Tanya Lyons’ DNA, having grown up on the family farm in Millgrove, Ontario, a 20-minute drive north of Hamilton. She spent her childhood and youth loving living on the land and helping with farming chores, whether gathering eggs or weeding the garden.
Even after taking on a nearby industrial job as an adult, assembling robotic plasma cutters to make structural steel, Tanya and her husband, Gerard, eventually took over the livestock and vegetable farm, raising their four children on the homestead they shared with her retired parents. While both worked full-time at the same automation firm, their Pure and Simple Farm was a full-time operation selling organic beef, pork and chicken, vegetables, eggs, honey, and maple syrup to rural and urban clients.
After nearly 30 years with the automation company, Gerard was ready for retirement so he could focus solely on farming. Tanya was ready for a change, too, as she grew increasingly concerned about the encroaching development surrounding their farm. Sprawling suburbs were expanding too close for comfort, immediately across the road from their farm. Their children ranged in age from seven to 27, so three of their children were out of the house and living on their own. However, Tanya worried that their youngest son, Hunter, wouldn’t be able to experience country life long at the rapid rate the local economy was growing.
The couple decided to sell the farm to capitalize on soaring real estate prices and search for greener pastures where they could continue to farm in earnest. They initially considered properties in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, with blueberry farming in mind, but the chance discovery online of a gardening centre for sale on Manitoulin piqued their interest. Gerard had been to Manitoulin many times over the years, riding motorcycles and kayaking with friends, and was keen to check it out. In February 2020, they made their first trek to the region to explore their options.
They connected with Jerry and Sharon McMullin through their daughter Karen, a real estate agent selling properties in southern Ontario and on Manitoulin. After visiting JD’s Garden Centre, the couples reached a handshake agreement to have Tanya and Gerard buy the centre as soon as they could sell their farm.
Before they could do so, to their disappointment, the business was instead bought by a Chinese corporation, leaving the Lyons, now back in Millgrove, on the hunt for another property.
During their time on the Island, they became aware that Garden’s Gate also was up for sale and could see its great potential as a vegetable gardening centre, given its access to Blue Jay Creek and all the land included, with the added benefit of a popular restaurant. With the help of local real estate agent, Barry Barnes, they put together a quote and were ready to buy. Their plan was to build greenhouses and to use the produce they grew for both retail sale and in an organic food restaurant. All that changed within the span of a few hours.
“We were about to put in an offer to buy Garden’s Gate first thing Monday morning,” explains Gerard, “when we got a call from Jerry McMullin late the Sunday night before, asking if we might still be interested in buying the gardening centre as their earlier purchase agreement did not work out.”
By 11 pm that same evening, the paperwork was being signed by both parties, making the Lyons the proud new owners of JD’s Manitoulin Garden Centre. The family moved up and assumed ownership in October 2020.
“Hunter is the reason we’re doing this,” stresses Tanya. “We wanted to get him out of the city before it is too late, so he could experience country living as we always have. And what better place than the beautiful property we have up here?”
There were a lot of challenges in rejuvenating the gardening centre, but Tanya and Gerard are no strangers to hard work. They also count their blessings in having inherited Tammy Teege, who had worked with the McMullins and was a walking encyclopedia of everything related to ordering seeds, pots and fertilizers.
Since taking over the business late last fall, they have renovated the reception area, repaired and built new greenhouses, rebuilt the kitchen and seating area of the former café, and started extensive landscaping of the property. And they’re just getting started.
The couple will reopen the café this summer offering light fare and have recently purchased the Authentic Belgian Waffle Company of South Baymouth to increase their menu offerings. There are plans for year-round greenhouses providing everything from spring plants and flowers, to fall harvest and Christmas plants, to a tropical house with ferns and banana plants. They have big plans for the garden centre expansion.
Their longer-term vision is to get back to livestock farming, having purchased 40+ acres surrounding their new property. In the nearer term, some of the additional land will be cleared for a one acre-sized pond stocked with fingerlings for kids to fish, a playground area and a campground with yurts for families looking for an outdoor experience.
“We want to do a lot and know how to work hard to make it happen,” Tanya and Gerard explain. “We want to draw people to the south end of the Island, instead of racing past us on their way to and from the ferry. We hope more urban families will take time to slow down and enjoy nature and its bountiful harvest, which has so enriched our own lives.”
*Heather Marshall and her husband worked as journalists and communications consultants in the National Capital Region for more decades than they care to admit before making their Sandfield summer cottage their permanent home. A lifelong learner, Heather loves discovering new things and people and relishes the opportunity to write about newcomers to the Manitoulin. If you would like to share your story or know of recent arrivals we should meet, send a message to email@example.com.