Farm puts out welcome mat

HIGH PRAIRIE, Alta. — Lyndon Drefs once tried to use his bale processor as a snow-making machine, but it didn’t work.

The processor wouldn’t throw snow as far as he wanted while trying to augment the toboggan hill at EC Bar Ranch Adventures.

Drefs and his wife, Denise, are gradually developing the agri-tourism aspect of their working farm near High Prairie.

The big event of the season last year, and likely this year, was Flashlight Night, a Halloween weekend event that drew more than 1,000 people.

“Flashlight night took us kind of by surprise last year because the year before, we had 595 people, so we were kind of expecting the same,” he said.

“And then, 1,046 (people came in 2015.) It was, ‘holy smokes.’ ”

The event featured a haunted bale maze and other events, and as of Oct. 18, the Drefses were taking steps to ensure the event was just as popular this year.

Agri-tourism is one way to diversify farming operations, but the Drefses are developing their operation slowly as time and resources permit.

It all started when an outfitter who came to hunt on their land observed that many people would love to visit for horseback rides and trail riding.

The Drefses agreed and started offering those options in 2009.

“From there it escalated,” said Drefs.

“We started with horseback riding. Then Denise went to a seminar in Edmonton and they said value added is the way to go, so we added the corn maze. I’d never been in a corn maze in my life. Still have only ever been on one corn maze and that’s mine. I’d never grown corn.”

Nevertheless, the 18-acre maze has proven popular with visitors. It is opened to the public in late July and is available until November, after which the cows are turned in to graze.

“The first year of the corn maze, we had families out and we’d see kids rolling down the hill…. That’s when we put in a slip and slide.”

The slide, which operates in summer, is a steep, plastic-lined run that ends in a small pool at the base.

Soon the Drefses were adding a new attraction every year. To date, EC Bar Ranch Adventures has a corn maze, bale maze, slip and slide, toboggan hill, human foosball court, trail riding, hay rides, horse and pony rides, picnic area and ranch house for indoor parties and events.

Still to come? Possibly a “human hamster ball” trail, though that is still in development.

“There’s a few other things that we can do in the future to make it better or even just different that we’re kind of working on,” said Drefs.

The couple also allows the local football club and other groups to use some events for fundraising.

The ranch charges $10 per person and generally operates only on weekends because traffic doesn’t merit longer hours. The operation also requires generous insurance as a protection against injuries by patrons.

The Drefs say agri-tourism is not for the faint of heart. Lyndon estimates it now makes up about 15 percent of farm income, which also includes custom baling and a Flaman rental dealership.

“Right now we’re making about $3 per hour…. It’s still building. We’re building, we’re making it better all the time.”

Starting an agri-tourism farm

Establishing an agri-tourism venture is one way to diversify a farm or ranch operation. Alberta Agriculture has a fact sheet about such ventures and gives the following advice.

  • Start small and let the event mature.
  • Co-operate with other groups and operators, taking into account other regional events.
  • Anticipate expectations of guests for quality of service, experience, furnishings and comfort.
  • Package and market events at a cost that meets goals.
  • Develop wide consumer awareness through innovative marketing campaigns.
  • Assess ability to supply working capital while the event is maturing.
  • Recognize that the ability to develop new and wider markets for special events in rural communities is largely reliant on volunteer management.
  • Understand that special events need to be tied to other related farm activities that are enduring.
  • Anticipate changing trends.

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