Cindy Lou Oulton had no agri-business experience and no idea if luffa vines would even grow in the Annapolis Valley when she started her business.
In the 1980s, Cindy Lou Oulton first heard the song that resonates in her business life four decades later.
“Determination: the great foundation: that’s been a motto of mine,” saysthe owner of Annapolis Valley Luffa, recalling lyrics sung by Jamaican-born singer Danny Tucker.
True words, there.
Sitting in her home in Avonport, Oulton may seem an unlikely entrepreneur: a 60-something woman living in rural Nova Scotia with no thoughts of retirement. She has an even more unlikely product: versatile sponge products, not from the sea but made from tropical vegetables carefully coaxed to take root in Kings County.
“At first, it was like, ‘You can’t market a product that’s for the body and the kitchen at the same time. People will never buy that,’” she remembers hear- ing when she contemplated the body sponges and dish scrubbers she might make, if, and when, she could figure out how to grow a crop of Asian gourds here in Nova Scotia.
“I said, ‘People will buy them. I’ll show you they will.’”
But that hasn’t been easy.
Oulton is a gardener at heart. Raised on a farm in Hants County, she made a business out of gardening and property maintenance. After turning 50, she left that life behind and ended up on a survey crew in the oil and gas fields of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
One day she read a magazine article about how luffa, once commonly used for a variety of cleaning and filtering products before the advent of plastic, was used to help clean up an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Wow, that really took my attention,” she says. “I read that article over and over again. I took that on as my main hobby in the evenings. Back in my room, I would google luffa and learn all I could. A couple of years later, it was 2015, and I got laid off with so many people out there and I came home.”
She couldn’t shake the feeling that luffa, a sustainable, renewable and reusable alternative to plastic, could be the way of the future. And, she thought, this environmentally-friendly product should be her next venture.
“I knew it grew down south and I was trying to search anybody in Canada who was growing it (commercially) and I didn’t find anybody.”
Oulton says she spoke to her nephew and his wife who were successfully producing foods not traditionally grown in the Maritimes to ask if she could try to grow it on their property, TapRoot Farms, in Port Williams.
That first crop yielded about 350 gourds.
“You crack the shell open and that’s what you peel out of the middle — that fibre. It’s full of sap and seeds, so that was a learning curve.
She had proven it could be done. In 2017, she planted her first “full-on crop.”
She was familiar with nature’s challenges — things like dealing with pests on an organic farm, early frosts, not enough heat, too much rain. Other obstacles were more daunting, starting with financing.
Oulton says she received a loan from FarmWorks Investment Cooperative Limited which works with agriculture and food-related businesses and “they believed in me from the get-go.”
Her previous business was built by word of mouth, but she couldn’t rely on that this time. “Social media and a website, that was so intimidating for me,” she says. “Just not my skillset.”
Acadia Entrepreneurship Centre at Acadia University helped with marketing and creating Facebook and Instagram accounts and a website.
Her first employee was a Nova Scotia Community College horticulture student who came to her through the school for work experience, then stayed as a paid employee.
Today, Oulton turns luffa fibre into body sponges, dish cloths that become soft enough to use on scrunchable surfaces, veggie scrubbers and soap savers. Soap pockets are in the works.
Her products are sold in farm markets across the province. She sells them at other markets and fairs, and online across the country, which means she doesn’t have the expense of a storefront.
“I never thought that I couldn’t do it in rural Nova Scotia. … Our province is full of innovators.”
Oulton encourages would-be entrepreneurs to do their research, seek advice and help from all available resources, and to be realistic about their product. The main thing, she says, is to build a strong foundation.
“It’s about doing something you’re passionate about.”
To learn more about Annapolis Valley Luffa or contact Cindy Lou Oulton go online to luffacanada.ca or to AnnapolisValleyLuffa on Facebook and annapolisvalleyluffa on instagram. Acadia Entrepreneurship Centre offers business counselling, consulting and facilitation services to entrepreneurs and businesses in the Annapolis Valley and South Shore. Website: www. acadiaentrepreneurshipcentre.com Check out FarmWorks Investment Cooperative Limited on the web at www.farmworks.ca