Agri-tourism must be sustainable

Farmers and ranchers across Alberta have begun preparing for the touring season, a chance for them to introduce city dwellers to rural life.

In Bergen, Alta., ranchers Gerald and Shelley Ingeveld are determining what cuts of beef they’ll need for this summer’s annual dining event, the Feast of Bergen. Their neighbours are also figuring out what types of veggies they’ll have in time for the occasion.

The feast takes place every year in the community hall. Mostly people from Calgary or other larger centres attend, eating and learning about the food that nearby producers have grown.

“It’s an awful lot of work, but we do it every year,” Gerald said. “We get a little nervous about it because we want it to go well; and it has.”

Across the province, similar long-table events will pop up in farmers’ fields. The goal is to connect urban consumers with producers, so they can learn about where their food comes from and how it’s grown.

Some farmers go even further. They keep their gates open to the public throughout summer offering tours, classes and products for sale.

Takota Coen, co-owner of Grass Roots Family Farm near Ferintosh, Alta., said they take part in the tours hoping to boost public awareness.

“The main reason we do these tours is because we want to educate people and essentially grow better human beings,” said Coen.

More producers like Cohen are participating in agri-tourism across the province.

Participation with Open Farm Days is increasing with slightly more than 100 producers taking part last year in the two-day event, in which farms open their gates to the public.

As well, more urbanites are visiting farms. About 87 percent of Albertans participated in some form of agri-tourism last year, according to numbers from the department of culture and tourism.

But even though such events open doors for farmers, they can be daunting for some producers, especially if they have never hosted such events before or they lack certain facilities.

Farmers in the business say persistence is key.

For starters, they say a budget, liability insurance and signage along highways and on the farm are needed, as well as possibly adding a separate washroom site or a specific parking area to easily manage the flow of people.

Following that, it’s recommended producers create a website and social media accounts to spread the word about specific tour dates or events, as well as look at print or radio advertising. Selling food or other products grown on the farm also allow for additional income.

“I would love to say this is all about me connecting people to the farm, and I’m passionate about that, but you can’t be sustainable in this if there’s no money in it,” said Leona Staples, co-owner of the Jungle Farm near Red Deer, which offers strawberry and pumpkin patch picking, corn mazes, veggie boxes and tours to complement the grain side of the business.

She said farmers looking to get into agri-tourism must first ensure they can turn a profit.

“Most investments don’t pay back instantaneously,” she said. “Nobody is saying, ‘here’s some money for your parking lot or your washrooms,’ ” but hopefully the people that are coming appreciate those things and have a more pleasant stay. That way, they can spend money or come more often.

“I think if someone is interested, they need to try it in a way that’s not going to break the bank. If they like it, and like having people on their farm, then they should invest and make the infrastructure so people can enjoy their time on the farm.”

Tam Andersen, owner of Prairie Gardens near Bon Accord, Alta., agreed that being sustainable is critical. She’s been doing agri-tourism for more than 30 years and sees about 50,000 visitors each year.

“You do it because you have to and because you love what you do and you love the land. There’s no alternative,” she said.

“I think if someone wants to get into it they ultimately have to love working with the public. It’s a lot of hours, and there’s no silver bullet to being sustainable. You have to make sure you have lots of income streams, so that if one fails another one picks you up.”

As for dining events, producers only need to invest their time. They’re paid for their products, but will likely have to help with setting up tables and spending time with consumers.

In Bergen, for example, the organization that puts on the feast breaks even, but it pays the chef for her time and for the food products. Community members volunteer to help the event goes smoothly.

“I think it’s helped our meat and dairy producers sell a bit more product and has helped spread that awareness of our farmers,” said Jamie Syer, president of the Bergen Institute, which puts on the feast.

“We’re very fortunate for all the help we get, and I think that if any community wants to do this, they really need a strong sense about why they’re doing it.”

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