Conference explores opportunities, best practices in agri-tourism
What’s the main attraction on a farm these days?
If you’re a kid, it might be patting the puppies or jumping off a stack of bales. But meeting ‘a real farmer’ can be a special moment, too.
That’s the case at the Meandher Creek Pumpkin Patch, a transformed barley field that offers U-pick pumpkins, zip-lining, and corn canons. The agri-tourism venture near Oak Lake attracts thousands of visitors each fall, but organizers soon realized that ‘the farmer’ was also a big draw, says Louise Stitt, one of five partners in the operation.
Don Podobni, also a partner, initially stayed out of the limelight, opting to drive the tractor that pulled visitors around on a haywagon.
But people clearly wanted to talk to him, says Stitt. So they coaxed him off the tractor and got him mingling with visitors instead. Visitors say they really like being able to go up to Podobni — he’s identifiable by his hat — and talk to him and ask questions about the farm.
“It’s been so good for everyone,” Stitt said. “People wanted to make that connection with the farm owner.”
Stitt heard an endorsement for that sort of approach at last week’s Direct Farm Marketing Conference from Pennsylvania-based ‘entertainment farmer’ Hugh McPherson, who talked about the growing appeal of agri-tourism and the public’s desire to make a connection to a farm.
The success of agri-tourism ventures is based on enhancing ‘the experience’ of the farm, said McPherson, who started a corn maze 15 years ago and then went on to franchise Maize Quest Corn Mazes to 75 farms in North America and the U.K.
Manitoba’s agriculture minister said he would like to see more agri-tourism ventures in the province.
The success of Buy Manitoba, a made-in-Manitoba food promotion, and Open Farm Day, are indicators that urbanites want a stronger connection to farming, said Ron Kostyshyn, who pledged his government will work to make this sector “more recognizable as a niche market.”
Other workshops at the two-day conference looked at how to boost profitability of market gardens, options for greenhouse production, and marketing tools for U-pick farms. An evening spent at a historic church in Dauphin demonstrated the potential for ‘experiential tourism.’
The annual conference and trade show is supported by the Prairie Fruit Growers Association and the Farmers Markets Association of Manitoba, and is organized by staff from Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.
Rural leadership specialist Ann Mandziuk, who chaired this year’s conference, is retiring after nearly 30 years in the civil service, as well as many years of helping to organize the event.
“If everyone goes home with just one idea they can use from one of the sessions, it’s all been worth it,” she said in her closing remarks.