AYLMER — Clovermead Adventure Farm expects to be buzzing again later this year, much like the apiary that started it all.
But for now, one of Southwestern Ontario’s biggest agri-tourism attractions is in semi-hibernation waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to pass and getting by with online orders or curbside pickup of honey and bee products.
“This will be the real crunch time for a lot of businesses to try and make it through until the vaccinations are widespread. I’m hoping that by mid-summer we get our visitors back . . . I feel optimistic about the future,” said owner Chris Hiemstra.
Starting with an apiary founded by his grandfather, Hiemstra and his wife Christy expanded the business by opening a honey and bee pollen shop. In 2006 the business evolved into a farm-based mini-theme park with a playground, splash pad and zip lines that draws more than 50,000 visitors in a normal year.
The honey shop usually operates year-round but during the spring lockdown caused by COVID restrictions, Hiemstra decided to shut down and move to curbside pick up and online sales. As a food vendor, the shop could have legally stayed open but Hiemstra said the safety of his staff was more important.
In the spring, when the adventure farm normally opens, Clovermead took tentative steps by holding Mother’s Day and Father’s’ Day drive-throughs where visitors could get a look at the farm animals and the apple blossoms in the orchard.
In July, after consultation with the local health unit, Clovermead was able to reopen by splitting the six-acre operation in half with 100 visitors allowed on each side. Visitors were allowed to book a two-hour time slot for one half and a separate two-hour slot on the other side if they chose.
Hiemstra said Clovermead managed to operate under that system through the summer and fall but revenues were down more than 50 per cent. Along with the reduced visitors, honey and other product sales also fell because visitors were no longer directed through the honey shop on their way out to avoid indoor crowding.
He said the restrictions were frustrating because most of the visitors were outside, where the risk of contracting COVID is diminished.
“We are playing by the rules but it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth. Everything is outdoors. People are spread out. But Walmart and Costco can have about as many people as they want indoors.”
Hiemstra said visitors were generally co-operative with social distancing rules and wearing masks.
In the fall, Clovermead was drawn into a controversy when Christy posted an offhand remark on social media that was misinterpreted as an anti-mask protest. Mask wearing had become a hot topic in the Aylmer area because of anti-mask protests led by a local pastor. Hiemstra said Clovermead quickly posted a video to clear up the misunderstanding and avoided a possible boycott.
Hiemstra said he was grateful that he was able to access government programs to offset labour costs. Clovermead has about 25 staff, including three beekeepers and high school students who work in the peak season. Mild fall weather allowed the theme park to stay open well into November.
But as Christmas approached, COVID hammered Clovermead again. Chris’ father Henry was diagnosed with COVID after being admitted to hospital for other health problems. Previous contact with Henry forced Chris, Christy and one of their employees to isolate. Then their daughter and son-in-law were also forced to isolate because of contact with an auto mechanic who had tested positive and had an obligation to tell customers. With so many staff sidelined, Hiemstra was forced to shut down the honey shop just before Christmas.
It reopened for online and curbside pickup on Jan. 4.
Hiemstra is hoping for a limited opening in April, with the same system as last summer.
On the bright side, Hiemstra said Clovermead, which has about 1,000 beehives, had a good crop of honey this year. He said selling bee pollen to greenhouse operators and bees to hobby apiarists has become a significant part of the business.