Farm park businesses play a vital role in connecting consumers to growers/producers and their environments. They make many aspects of farming accessible to non-farmers and boost awareness of food sources and the valuable role of farmers and farm animals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged Canada’s farm parks to find new and innovative ways to engage visitors from a distance. One clever response was the introduction of farm animal brand ambassadors like Buckwheat the donkey from Farmhouse Garden Animal Home of Uxbridge, Ontario, to the virtual world.

By May 2020, Buckwheat was a big deal in the general and business media and was featured in a Toronto Life magazine piece. An interesting story about farm park business diversification, entrepreneurship, and COVID survival. Buckwheat, the “cattle guard” donkey that is, not buckwheat the grain.

Available at $175.00/half hour, or for shorter time slots, she would happily ‘crash’ online meetings to contribute some pizazz, hee-haw humour, or simply break the boredom and tension of doing business COVID style. Despite gratitude for still having their jobs, by May, work-from-home types were a bit fed up with three months of staging a corner of their home as a suitable screen backdrop, and donning smart office dress for their top half to appear polished for daily biz ZOOMing at 9 a.m. A Buckwheat surprise ZOOMbomb was a fun, welcome addition!

Farmhouse Garden Animal Home operated as a beef ranch and produce farm for more than 30 years but, in 2016, 3rd generation farmer, Mike Lanigan, shifted his farm business from beef to organic vegetables. A working farm still, but with sanctuary animals supported by farm visits, movie nights, and various local fundraisers. Suddenly cut off from needed streams of income during the pandemic, as were other diverse farm park businesses that rely on visitors, Buckwheat’s caretakers looked to their sanctuary community for ideas.

They heard about a U.S. Silicon Valley area farm, Goat2Meeting, that had just begun offering goats, llamas and a range of other animals for fee-based ZOOMing. A happy farm park outcome for the Ontario donkey; Buckwheat and a U.S. llama became unlikely online media stars.

 

Or, should we think of them more in terms of media influencers? After all, they connected the worlds of farm to non-farm, and highlighted the sudden income shortages for farm parks.

Our relationship with farm parks may start as childhood visits with parents and/or school trips to apple orchards such as Chudleigh’s in Milton, Ontario who, after opening the family farm to visitors in 1967, “were inspired to see how families from nearby cities loved this taste of country life.” The family quickly figured that selling apple pies and products was a profitable addition to bags of fresh fruit.

Such farm visits strongly embed as happy memories so that later, as an adult, you’ll find yourself with a favourite Saturday destination such as the Big Apple in Colborne, Ontario. Grab a great breakfast of an egg sandwich and apple fritter; buy a few apple dumplings to bring home for the freezer; load up with brown paper bags of varieties of apples; and walk the ever-expanding park grounds to pet the animals, peer at the antique collection of full-sized vehicles, or actually climb up inside the giant apple that always beckons from the Toronto-to-Montreal 401 highway—appropriately masked these days.

Some farm parks extend to services such as fishing, swimming, or even full camping, alongside their working productive farm. Pineridge Farm in British Columbia is a good example. And there are also farm stay programs, of course, if visitors want an authentic, albeit vacation-friendly, experience of farm work.

Farm parks promote the importance of heritage and farming through demonstrations and learning opportunities, as well as through their entrepreneurship and product sales. This writer had only experienced about four varieties of potato before purchasing the outstanding “lumpies” grown from rare heritage seeds at the 1860s historical farm at Black Creek Pioneer Village, Toronto.

Unfortunately, when the COVID-19 lockdown struck, schools shut down and travel was severely restricted, visitor revenue vanished as farm park events, restaurants and shops also had to close. Some farms responded by shifting to home delivery of products, but ticket sales from school groups and travellers were gone.

When Canadian maple syrup “sugar shacks” were shut down by the government on March 15th, many producers saw their income devastated. In one example, James Bond, owner of L’Érablière Hilltop, in Dunham, Quebec stated he had lost 40 per cent of the annual revenue from his mid-sized 12,000 tap farm. He also farms corn, soya beans, and apples. In Quebec alone, 220 such sugar shack operations struggled with closure while their U.S. neighbours/competitors in Vermont remained open.

In the UK, fans of farms will likely be familiar with the popular Countryfile BBC show, podcast, magazine, and website. One of their main presenters, generational farmer Adam Henson, hit the media on March 20th, devastated that he was about to go bankrupt and lose his family’s farm because of the forced closure due to COVID. With 53 staff and 50+ flocks and herds of rare breed farm animals, this working farm derives 40 per cent of its income from campsite and visitor revenue. The farm hosts about 150,000 visitors per year. In the end, help arrived from Prince Charles and the UK government to keep Henson’s farm financially alive until it can reopen to visitors.

So, what can we learn from the Buckwheat story? A “traditional” farm business can be a model of innovative entrepreneurship. Fresh farm produce was delivered direct to homes in big cities like Toronto, as were fresh orchard dumplings and pies. And this year, once pandemic restrictions relaxed enough for visitors, sunflower farms like Dixie Orchards in Caledon, Ontario, took online reservations at $10.00/person to see the blooms. Masks were needed on wagon rides, time slots held to two hours and two-metre social distancing was required in the fields. In addition to bloom visits, Campbell’s Cross Farm also in Caledon is offering reserved yoga sessions at $25.00/person, and photography opportunities at $100.00 per two-hour session. To be sure, creative and online entrepreneurship deserves praise, but particularly when added to the full running of a productive farm.

For those who might wonder about market potential for a farm park of sunflower fields, think back to the summer of 2018. Bogle Seeds, a 250-acre grain and seed farm in Flamborough, Ontario, operating since the 1870s, had an idea to share the wonder and fleeting beauty of their 1.5 million blooming sunflowers with visitors. For $7.50/person, visitors could view the two-week bloom, enjoy learning how birdseed is made and, perhaps, purchase some for feathery friends at home. A lovely idea in this era that celebrates wellness in nature. Sadly, absolute mob chaos was the result, with Instagram-hungry tramplers entering the fields to take vibrant selfies among the flowers. Roads were jammed and, at one point, more than 7,000 cars gridlocked a country road. People toileted themselves in bushes. Neighbours were hassled. In the end, the municipal and provincial police, along with the Ministry of Transport, arrived to shut it all down. In 2019, local authorities posted ‘NO PARKING” signs to discourage another bombardment of visitors. On the plus side though, the pandemonium proved there is definitely a market for sunflower farm parks and, no doubt, other farmed products, too.

In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, our awareness of breath has gained new appreciation, and, for many, the value of nature and fresh food has been similarly heightened. Add to this society’s focus on climate and on wellness, and the bucolic air of farm life seems ripe for romance between consumer and farmer/producer. Farm parks and donkeys who ZOOM into our urban/suburban lives strengthen our relationships and appreciation for the work of farmers. We all need to return to visiting as soon as possible.

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