Julie Baglole Keenan is this week's Ms New Brunswick. She owns and runs the Apple Tree Market, a small grocery shop in Gagetown that focuses on local, natural and organic foods and dry goods. She and her husband Sean supply the store with produce from their working microfarm, where they also hosts guests regularly at the Lazy Farmer Hostel, their other business. If all that wasn't enough Julie is also a Lieutenant with the Village of Gagetown's Volunteer Fire Department. She is a supremely impressive woman, with an extremely demanding work schedule, and yet her demeanor is very open and casual. She's happy, and you can tell.
Julie walked away from her work as an Engineer with the Province in order to pursue holistic nutrition, among other things. Though we didn't discuss it explicitly, you can tell that she is passionate about the healing properties of food. We talked about the trend we are noticing in New Brunswick, where people are craving more local and organic produce. People, it seems, are more interested and knowledgeable now about the importance of healthy eating and it's relevance to our well-being and general health. It's great to see, because the more we support local produce growers in our communities, the better off we are.
Fun fact: The village of Gagetown is the ONLY rural community in New Brunswick that is growing, which is amazing. For information on WHY it's critical to grow our rural communities, read this 2010 CBC article. A 2017 census study confirmed that rural communities in our province are still largely in decline, so we should be paying particular attention to what is going on in Gagetown, and figuring out how we can apply it elsewhere.
Tell me about your businesses.
The Apple Tree Market is a small grocery store or market where we try to carry as much local product as we can. If we can’t source things locally, then we try to keep it all natural or organic. We’re the only grocer in the Village of Gagetown, and we are about to celebrate our 2 year anniversary. I suppose that we are more or less a health food store, but that is sort of a by-product of focusing on local and natural foods and goods. We are open six days a week through the winter and seven days a week in the summertime.
We also have a small organic farm – actually a micro farm – and we operate a hostel there too. It's called the Lazy Farmer Hostel and we have travellers passing through there all the time. We find that people are attracted to it because it’s so close to nature. We see a lot of families because of the animals we have on the farm.
What animals do you have on the farm?
We have goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits and a dog.
How did you get started?
I was originally an Engineer with the Province, and I wasn’t ever in love with that career, but I did it for a long time because I didn’t know what else to do. Sometimes when you invest a lot of time and money getting an education in a certain field, it can be difficult to realize that it's just not for you. And it just definitely wasn’t for me, and I had come to terms with that. At some point, I was researching programs for my husband who was thinking about going back to school, and I stumbled upon a course for holistic nutrition and knew that it was something I wanted to do. I ended up getting my certification, and then I also got my acupuncture license and eventually I left my job with the Province and took a job in the holistic/naturopathic sector to get my feet wet.
Around the same time we moved to the farm in Gagetown, and we start growing our own food. After the first year we were producing 75%-80% of our own food, and then the garden was producing too much. We couldn’t eat it all, and we thought about the best way to share it with people, and we ended up starting a farmer’s market in the village. At that point, I knew I wanted to open the grocery store, so the farmer’s market was a great way to gauge local interest and see if we could be successful here. It was a hit, and before long we were opening the Apple Tree Market.
Has the community been supportive?
Super supportive. Living in Gagetown was part of the reason that I even wanted to open the grocery store. We had been living here 6 years before we opened the market, and the community had showed a great interest in buying local, and they also wanted to see us succeed. Everyone here tries to support us as much as they can. We are able to be open year round because the community that lives here shops with us regularly. In the summer we also get a lot of business from the boating community that come upriver. They know about us now and they are very loyal and very supportive. We hear all the time about how nice it is not to have to drive in town to pick stuff up for supper in the summertime.
What is the biggest difficulty in your business?
The biggest difficulty we have is sourcing local suppliers. Most of our suppliers are other small businesses in New Brunswick. When you are working with small businesses or companies, anything can happen. If they change their business model, or close shop or take a different job, go on maternity or retire that can make it hard for us. The logistics of finding other nearby suppliers is really tricky, and there is no database that exists that would make it easy for us to find people in other communities. If people go on vacation, or their family circumstances change they may drop in supply or stop supply. We are sort of stuck, because we don’t want an interruption of service for our customers, so if we can’t get a product locally we have no choice but to source it elsewhere.
So the two of you run the farm, the hostel and the grocery store alone? That sounds like a lot of work. Any one of those things sound like they could be a fulltime job.
It is a ton of work, but we love it. I mean, it’s actually considerably more work than my previous job with the Province, but I am so much more fulfilled here than I was there. We are really living the life that we want. I think that working an 8 hour day doing something you hate is infinitely harder than a 14 hour day doing something you love.
How do you balance work and personal life?
It is a little challenging. Most of the year it’s just the two of us and one of us always has to be at the store. We eat breakfast & lunch together. We have one day off a week and we work some evenings. We hire a seasonal employee to maintain that schedule in the summertime. Oftentimes what happens is we split the time and we both work the farm and the store in the same day. It’s so social, and we really love it. It just works for us.
Oh, we also close up the store for a few weeks in January every year and go on a big vacation. We just came back from a trip actually!
You’re also a volunteer firefighter, how on earth do you fit that in?
It’s one of my main passions. I do it for me. I really, really love it. Most of our calls happen at night anyway, so I’m only missing out on sleep (haha). If I’m at the store when the tones drop, I lock the door and leave and Sean knows he has to get there to cover me as soon as he can.
What piece of advice would you offer other women starting their own business?
You should expect that when you go out on your own, it’s going to be a lot more work, but a lot more fun. Happiness has always been paramount for me, and I think others should pursue that. Money should come second. I happily make a lot less money now and have never doubted that I am much better off now. I think you should be brave, and do it. What’s the worst that could happen? If you are passionate and knowledgeable then you will succeed. Also, be willing to work really hard for it at the beginning.
How can we get in touch with you?
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The Ms New Brunswick project is about taking a title back for all the women who really embody the heart and soul of our province through creative endeavours and entrepreneurship. The makers and doers who are sharing with us their time, energy and talents, and carrying us forward. Full-time or side hustle. Big or small. At home or in an office. Products or service. Crafters, moms, entrepreneurs, shop owners, consultants. Whatever. If there is a woman in our province giving life to an idea or product, I want to know about it.
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