By Connor Lynch
AYLMER — When beekeeper Chris Hiemstra was contemplating how to drum up more business for his family’s retail honey shop, he thought a petting zoo would be a good place to start.
But the Hiemstras, one of this year’s recipients of the Bank of Montreal’s Farm Family of the Year award, ended up with a 17-acre amusement park around their house.
In early 2006, Hiemstra and his wife Christy took a bus trip through Texas. They came across many ranches with on-farm stores, drawing people in to see their animals. The Hiemstras raised honeybees and sold the honey at their roadside shop at Aylmer, 40 minutes southeast of London. But they weren’t selling enough. That same year, “we started adding farm animals, and charged maybe two bucks (for people) to come see them,” Chris Hiemstra said.” Over the years it’s taken on a life of its own.”
They still feature the original petting zoo but now boast of about 35 attractions including daily bee showings, a splash pad (a play area with a large bucket that slowly fills before dumping water), a corn maze and a pedal cart track. It’s so popular that they sell annual memberships. They know some customers by name and some families come every day during the summer. One annual membership holder drives two hours from Markham.
Called Adventure Farm, it grew organically. “It’s not like we had a big pot of money to hire an engineer, him say ‘do this,’ and then go out and buy everything. We figured it out as we went along,” Hiemstra said. When they first started expanding, “our accountant was like, ‘what are you doing?’”
Despite creating the park as a marketing tool to drive retail honey sales, it had its own marketing challenges. “You want to give people a good experience and don’t want them to get stung. Having a bee farm is a bit like saying, ‘I have a rattlesnake farm. Want to come visit?’ ” People do like being scared, as long as they know they’re safe, or else roller coasters wouldn’t exist, Hiemstra said. Kids can get up close and personal with a buzzing swarm from behind a screen. Bees also caught public interest around the time Adventure Park was getting started, he said. “Everybody wanted to help the bees.”
Beekeeping is what Hiemstra does. His father was a beekeeper and many in his family still keep bees. “That’s who we are.”
Marketing the park almost never made as much sense to the Hiemstras as investing in it more directly. So they defied marketing 101 in hopes that if they just built it, people would come. They added new attractions and improved on old ones, counting on word of mouth and social media to handle the rest. A couple of signs along the road were all it took to get them started. The farm sits just off a main artery between the town of Aylmer and Hwy 401; anyone going either way passes the farm. In the early days, they’d be happy with one customer popping in to the shop for some honey. Soon, they were pleased with having a couple in at a time. Then they had to move the grazing sheep to make room for parking. Then, they had to move their grazing beef animals. Last December, they bought their neighbour’s 23-acre property to make room for still more cars, add a corn maze and grow corn, pumpkins and soybeans.
On a busy summer day, Hiemstra said, they’ll fill an acre with cars.
But despite the whirlwind of the amusement park, the beekeeping side of the business has grown as well, Hiemstra said. He share-crops with a former employee. The number of hives fluctuates but hasn’t gotten below 600 and has broken 1,000 more than once, he said. The honey largely goes to the store, which is the family’s main source of income.
It’s proved to be a good investment, Hiemstra said, but if you’d told him that 12 years ago, he would not have believed you. “If you’d told me how much work it would end up being, I would’ve said, ‘No way.’”
The Hiemstras, along with 10 other Ontario farms, will receive their award at the International Plowing Match at Pain Court, at Chatham-Kent, on Sept. 22.
You can visit the Adventure Farm website for more information at www.clovermead.com.