Visitors welcome

OPENING THE FARM FOR AGRI-TOURISM

the first step to launching an agri-tourism business is realizing the general public is going to want to visit during the nicest times of the year, which will likely coincide with the busiest times of the grain growing season. After that, there are a lot of planning and details to consider. However, many have found the rewards of an on-farm business – including the opportunity to learn new skills and knowledge, to create something unique involving the whole family, and to diversify your income – can be tremendous.

bed and breakfast
One of the many families that have taken the plunge into agri-tourism are  the Millers, owners of ‘Country Haven’ Bed & Breakfast in Woodham, Ontario. “For any grain farmers contemplating starting a B&B, we would highly recommend it – if they enjoy hosting and are willing to have some interruptions in their normal schedule to share with their guests,” says Marilyn Miller. “The rewards can be many in the way of meeting people from various cultures, and also in educating urban guests about farming practices.”

When they started their B&B as a separate business in 1992, the family was also hog farming. “It was challenging to find time to get away from the farm, so it seemed like a great idea to have the world come to us,” Miller says. “People love having you take the time to explain things about farming.  There may be times that it requires extra patience, during the busy times of planting or harvesting, but it is also very rewarding when you see their excitement as they experience these things for the first time.” 

While B&B’s are a popular avenue, there are many other agri-tourism options to choose from. These include public viewing of lambing or egg hatching, hay and sleigh rides, hiking, scavenger hunts, horseback riding, and historical re-enactments. Other farms produce specialties such as maple syrup, offer hands-on educational farm vacations, or just serve as a venue for musical events, weddings and more. “Agri-tourism supports a growing desire by consumers to head outdoors and to the country for more leisure opportunities,” states Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Customer Services & Marketing Program Lead Dorene Collins in a Factsheet called ‘Developing an Agri-Tourism Operation in Ontario.’ She points out that there are many reasons why the public wants to visit a farm, including rest and relaxation, adventure and learning, and advises doing an inventory of the tangible and intangible assets your family and the farm have, such as special knowledge of the area and unique skills.

adventure farm
You also must be aware of what else is already in the area. “Do your homework and be creative,” says Julie Budd, who owns Leaping Deer Adventure Farm & Market in Ingersoll with her husband Don and son Chris, where they also crop 320 acres. “With an on-farm business like ours, you need to reinvent it every year and differentiate it from the competition.”

Budd and her husband researched and travelled for a year before beginning. “We had collected and restored antique John Deere tractors, equipment and memorabilia since we were married,” says Budd, “and most of the collection is housed in our museum which attracted people from around the globe just by word of mouth. Since we enjoy meeting people and wanted to continue to be diversified we decided to start up an agri-tourism venture.” The farm features a corn maze, venue for events, bakery, store, washrooms, a meeting room and many activities.

expert advice
After you’ve decided what you want to do, prepare a business plan, advises Teri Cobean, a certified farm advisor and certified management accountant with Allied Associates in Hanover. “The plan will include areas such as finance, marketing, operations and human resources,” she says. “It’s critical in so many ways, not the least is that if a start-up loan is being requested, the business plan must convince the lender that the loan can be repaid.”

Cobean says the agri-tourism venture should be set up as a separate business. “Keep the books and records separate from the farming operation,” she notes. “This is the only way to track the financial results of the new business.” She adds, “Whether you set it up as a proprietorship, partnership or corporation should be discussed with your accountant.”

Cobean also advises discussing insurance coverage with your insurance representative. Your visitors’ safety is largely your responsibility – everything from lighting to safe water to slippery surfaces. Miller agrees that insurance is very important, but has also found that “Any concerns that we might have had regarding farm safety have not been an issue. We find that people are very respectful about asking if they want to view the machinery or farm work, and also about listening to [us].” 

Lastly, marketing – everything you do that promotes your business – must be very effective. “You must always be adapting to change and know who your target customer is,” Budd says. “It takes a bit of trial and error to find your best marketing strategy.” Both Miller and Budd have used several of their local organizations. Miller adds, “It is also advantageous to network with other B&B’s in the area.”  

“Starting an agri-tourism business is not for the faint of heart,” says Budd. “You invest a tremendous amount of time, energy and money. There is ongoing paper work, training staff which includes many policies and procedures on farm safety and food handling, and much more. Like farming, it is weather-dependent.” She adds, “Of course, the busiest time is the fall, which coincides with harvest! But with a tremendous amount of help from volunteers, family and friends, along with great staff, it all gets done, and we have a lot of fun.” •