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How a forgotten Langley farm inspired an interior designer and her IT executive husband to get into the garlic business.
Sydney Carlaw certainly did not set out to be a garlic farmer.
But when the interior designer and her husband Vance, an IT executive, moved onto a five-acre rural property in Langley, B.C. three years ago, taking up farming just seemed like the natural thing to do—never mind that they were also busy with their careers and raising two daughters.
“When we bought this property, people were shocked. Everyone kept asking, ‘What are you doing? How can you possibly take care of this?’” says Sydney. “Hearing that was a little overwhelming.” But it was a place simply too magical to pass up.
It’s easy to see why. “Bucolic” is the only word to describe what’s happening at Purity Farms. A turn onto the shady gravel driveway, and the bustle of the Lower Mainland fades into the background, replaced by the sound of rustling leaves, birds chirping lazily and the spa-like burble of a trickling stream, which runs in a rivulet underneath the house and out to the other side. It seems like the kind of place that’s always dappled in sunlight, even on an overcast day. It’s no wonder that Sydney decided to move her interior design firm onto the property, too, into a renovated barn just steps away from thegarlic patch—who would want to leave?
Incredibly, the farm is only five minutes from the freeway and a stone’s throw from the Carlaws’ former suburban home, where they lived for four years. That former residence also happened to be the house that gave Sydney her start in the interior design business: her contractor was stuck for design help, Sydney offered to take it on, and recommendations and new projects snowballed from there.
In fact, it was while Vance and Sydney were on the hunt for another design-and-flip project that they stumbled across the farm for the first time. “We just fell in love with it,” says Sydney. “We saw so much character and it felt so different…like walking into a different world.”
It’s hard to believe now, looking at the lovingly manicured pathways and neat rows of sprouting garlic, but the expansive property had sat vacant for two years, after the elderly homeowner passed away and his children sold it. The Carlaws had some serious work cut out for them: dealing with an overgrown yard, precariously perched peach trees, dusty old barns and even a herd of sheep that came with the place. “There were so many times in the two years of fixing this place up that we were like, ‘Are we crazy?’” says Sydney, shaking her head. But they kept plugging away, fixing it up one piece at a time.
The buildings were first. Renovating the interiors of the low-ceilinged ranch house took just two months—Sydney rushed to get it done so they could actually live on the property as soon as possible. The 1970s building has been reimagined as a modern farmhouse, with rustic ceiling beams painted warm grey and the original stone fireplace still at the centre of the elegant-but-unfussy design. Next, they fixed up the old barn with refinished floors, whitewashed walls and cottage-chic furniture, creating a dreamy workspace for Sydney’s interiors firm, Purity Designs.
Throughout the renovations, they attempted, slowly but surely, to tame the wilderness that lay beyond the front porch. The previous homeowner was a true man of the land: he would make his own bamboo brooms and raise new varieties of flowers in his greenhouse to sell to VanDusen Garden. “To see a plastic hose here seems foreign because everything’s so natural,” says Sydney. The more they explored the property and saw all the work and love he’d put into it, the more it seemed like a shame to let his legacy be lost. And so, an interior designer, her IT executive husband and their two daughters found themselves considering the farm life.
Garlic seemed like a low-maintenance project for first-timers, so the Carlaws started the process of learning, well, everything. “The first year it was honestly all YouTube,” laughs Sydney. “It went from basically zero knowledge to this,” agrees Vance, waving a hand to the fields of garlic bulbs. “It’s definitely been a learning curve.” But there was help to be found both online and offline. A garlic farmer in Maple Ridge—Al Kozak of Gusto Garlic—showed Vance the ropes and supplied his very first garlic seeds.
They decided to plant hardneck garlic: Yugoslavian and Russian Red, mild varietals that chefs love. (Comparatively, Portuguese and Korean garlic are spicier, with a sharper taste.) And, lo and behold, things started to actually grow.
The rich, natural soil fostered by the previous owner has been a huge factor in their successful harvests so far. “A big part of it is that the previous owner tilled all the land by hand, used no chemicals or pesticides at all,” says Sydney. A diverse ecosystem that calls the backyard home—insects, songbirds and owls—helps maintain a healthy, natural environment that produces big, flavourful bulbs.
Now the farm produces more than 6,000 bulbs a year on the three-quarter-acre garden patch. It’s a solid amount for a hobby farm: enough to reap the therapeutic benefits of working with the soil, enough to teach the kids about where food comes from. Planting takes place in mid- to late October, and the plants are harvested between mid-June and mid-July—though this year things are delayed slightly thanks to a rough winter and some rogue sheep snacking. As a family, they cure and then dry the bulbs, a process that takes about two weeks.
Two years in, they’re making connections with local restaurants and other farms. “There’s this new younger generation that’s trying to make everyone more interested in knowing where our food comes from,” says Sydney. “Those kinds of things are what excite us.” Herbs may come next, to complement their organic offerings. There are talks of collaborations with a local beef farmer and of hosting long-table dinners right here on the farm. Because, really—who would want to leave?
As a teenager, Sydney lived in the forests of Austria for a summer in an Upward Bound program, so she’s no stranger to the magic of nature. But then you grow up, you move to Yaletown, and priorities change. “You get caught up in stuff,” says Sydney. But it’s hard to imagine her swept up in the rat race as she sits curled up on the porch, basking in the morning light. “I’ve realized how important it is to have a space you feel is restful, whatever that might mean to you,” says Sydney. “I think there’s something to be said about our soul needing nature and beauty, and being surrounded by that.”
Check back for garlic recipes (Fries! Ice cream!) and cooking tips—part of our “Accidental Farmers” feature.
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