NEWTONVILLE — Bringing the city to the country has always been the name of the game for farms in the agri-tourism business. With lockdowns and anxiety in urban areas, many flocked to the fresh air and freedom of farms.
For Haute Goat at Newtonville, near Port Hope, COVID-19 has been a mixed blessing: more work, longer days but no drop in customers, even when you include the three months they were closed, said owner Debbie Nightingale. “I hate to say it, but it’s been good.”
Last year the farm saw about 30,000 people, mostly city folk, wander through nature trails with goats or alpacas or take workshops on how to milk or make goat cheese. Even with the workshops cancelled, foot traffic hasn’t dropped, Nightingale said.
The 200-acre farm that Nightingale operates with her husband Shain Jaffe, two city ex-pats, features 35 Nigerian Dwarf goats. In the city, Nightingale said, COVID-19 seems to haunt people. “Here, you can almost forget about it.”
With such a fluctuating situation, agri-tourism spots had to make some tough decisions and be creative. Nightingale cut the number of people in a goat or alpaca walk and boosted the price. For a time she was hosting three walks per day, up from her former one. As well, the farm switched to a pay-what-you-can model from free entry and people responded generously, she said. To make up for cancelled workshops, the farm introduced frozen take-home dinners from their on-farm restaurant.
Between all the interest and a thriving gift certificate market, she actually figured the farm might be ahead financially, from last year. The farm grew in popularity based on word of mouth, and this year attracted many newcomers who likely would never have come if it weren’t for the pandemic restrictions, she said. “And they found it was kind of neat.”
Not all agri-tourism destinations fared so well. Cannamore Orchards, near Crysler, had to switch to a sign-up model for its Acres of Terror, their four-part haunted experience in the fall. With social distancing requirements, the farm had to restrict entry but haunted house time slots sold out quickly, said owner Dennis Taylor.
As a diversified farm, pick-your-own strawberries, apples and pumpkins all sold better than usual this year, said Taylor. “You cannot believe how extremely pleased we are that people have supported us through this whole pandemic.”
And not just the regulars either. “I don’t know how many people walked in and said I’ve never been here before, can you explain what’s going on?”
At Saunders Farm, a 100-acre agri-tourism hotspot between Stittsville and Richmond, west of Ottawa, pivoting has been the name of the game. The farm locked down at the beginning of the pandemic and very quickly launched an online grocery store, stocking about 100 items, as many people in the area were having trouble getting certain staples, like yeast, said owner Mark Saunders. As grocery stores caught up, the on-farm store slowed down and the farm pivoted again to offering barbecue packages with meat supplied by local producers. It wasn’t long before they figured out a socially-distancing way to get people to come to the farm: a campfire program. Visitors could buy a meal and sit around a campfire. Five campfires soon became 10, then 15, then 20. Anticipating demand for pick-your-own, the farm boosted its pumpkin patch from 10 to 15 acres and, in a rare move, planted sweet corn.
But the events got hammered this year. Last year, the farm hosted over 20 weddings, over 40 corporate picnics, and drew plenty to the playgrounds, puppet shows, wagon rides and the hedge mazes. The farm will only be able to put through about five per cent of its usual traffic this year, Saunders said. Sales are down between 60 and 70 per cent, despite all the interest. “We’re in survival mode.”
In mid-October the farm had around 75 staff. Normally at that time of year they’d have over 300, he said. Four years of 10 to 15 per cent revenue growth and prudent planning, as well as owning the property, all help, Saunders said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.” And Saunders was confident that all the local demand wouldn’t be going away. Consumers have been grateful that farmers have stayed open and given them a place to go. He figures that will pay future dividends. “I think people have seen the importance of farmers.”