Ag tourism risky, but satisfying

MAPLE CREEK, Sask. — When Dan Sellinger and Dana Hassett returned to their hometown of Maple Creek, Sask., they could not convince lenders that an agri-tourism business would work.

The couple purchased Sellinger’s 20-acre family property in 2007, moving in 2011 and putting in 10 acres of saskatoons and a new retail and bakery space.

Despite having a business plan showing that 325,000 people travel past their Grotto Gardens each summer, banks were wary.

“They thought it was risky because it was seasonal and in Saskatchewan you don’t see this kind of agri-tourism as much as you do in B.C.,” said Hassett.

The couple lived and raised three children in the Okanagan for 16 years. Sellinger operated his own construction company, but always wanted to return to southwestern Saskatchewan.

That time came after the cancer death of their son, Dean, at age 14 and the passing of Sellinger’s mother.

They began to build their agri-tourism business, taking on construction jobs on the side to support their dream.

“We’re project people so for us it’s not so much about the money or the recognition. It’s just having something to do and with this particular project, there is endless growth potential,” said Sellinger.

Future plans include a bigger animal area, duck pond, windmill and pumpkin patch.

The retail side officially opened this past spring after Sellinger and Hassett were able to work with Southwest Community Futures in Swift Current to secure a loan for the new log barn, a centrepiece of the business.

The couple’s daughters, Sayla and Silken, joined their parents for the summer.

Sayla and her husband, Taylor Zoethout, took care of the front end of the bakery and gift shop while pasty chef Silken churned out saskatoon pies, fruit tarts, fresh bread and chocolate eclairs in the kitchen.

The family is averaging 400 visitors a day, outpacing original estimates for capturing traffic from Highway 21.

The goats that scale a 10-metre high maze draw in traffic, while the chickens, gourmet coffees and pastries keep tourists busy.

“It’s beyond our assumptions so we’re extremely happy with that,” said Hassett.

About two-thirds of sales come from the bakery while the remaining third is generated by the gift shop and U-pick sask-atoons.

Hassett said support has come from both the community of Maple Creek and visitors travelling to and from Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.

Sellinger hopes Grotto Gardens will include all of his children and future grandchildren working alongside him one day.

“Our whole intent is for our girls and their families to take what we’ve started here and run with it,” said Sellinger, who envisions other fruit here in future.

Hassett said the success of Grotto Gardens has proven there is an appetite for agri-tourism and a focus on local products.

“We can see it because our numbers show it.”

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