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Helping city people reconnect with the farm

Agritourism operators like John Penner are a growing link between rural and urban

Ask John Penner what he considers his mission in life and he’ll say he’s a middleman between farmers and city folk.

What he wants to do is help urbanites disconnected from the farm understand where their food comes from.

“I want them to know that an egg comes from a chicken, not Safeway, that pumpkins don’t come from a store in Texas, that potatoes grow underground here in Manitoba and don’t come from Sobeys, and that brown cows don’t give chocolate milk,” Penner says.

Penner is among a small but growing number of rural people involved in agritourism — getting non-farmers to visit farms. The Canadian Farm Business Management Council defines agritourism as “travel which combines rural settings with products of agricultural operations within a tourism experience that is paid for by visitors.” John Penner provides a good example.

Penner owns Penner Pumpkins and The Scarecrow Forest just north of Steinbach. This year he expects to welcome between 7,500 and 8,000 day-visitors to his location. About 80 per cent of them come from Winnipeg.

At first glance, Penner Pumpkins looks more like an amusement park than an agricultural learning centre. But appearances can be deceiving, as Penner demonstrates while escorting a visitor around his 10-acre site.

Yes, there are amusement activities aimed at children aged two to 12. There’s a paintball gallery where you shoot at a target, not at each other. There’s a zip line where kids climb into a harness and slide 200 feet from a 25-foot height along a trolley. There’s a play village inside an old Quonset hut where kids can dress up in a make-believe clothing store or pretend they’re in a classroom. There are also trained pig races (yes, really), train rides (ATM carts pulled by a tractor) and several playgrounds. Don’t forget the 1.5-acre corn maze, currently in its first year.

But there are also real-life farm attractions, such as goats, horses, chickens, ducks, geese and, of course, a pumpkin patch.

It’s all part of Penner’s objective to get city people out of the asphalt jungle, at least for a few hours, and taste the agricultural outdoors.

Of course, Penner Pumpkins isn’t a typical farm and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s primarily a gathering place, especially for families and corporate groups. The operation hosts banquet meals prepared in a certified kitchen that can feed up to 250 people with the specialty of the house: pulled pork, potatoes and baked beans. Penner has also converted a former workshop into a concession stand where people can buy burgers, hotdogs and fries on weekends.

If you want to take home some farm-raised food (besides pumpkins, that is), Penner sells free-range eggs, chickens processed at a nearby abattoir and vegetables in season.

Longtime dream

It’s been a long journey since 1990 when Penner, 67, bought the site just across the road from the dairy farm where he grew up.

Penner Pumpkins began inauspiciously when his three kids began selling pumpkins at the end of the road in fall. But customers, most of them from Winnipeg, kept asking questions about farm life and Penner gradually recognized a potential business opportunity.

Today, after operating for seven years, Penner Pumpkins grosses roughly $100,000 a year and is experiencing a 20 per cent annual growth rate. But expenses are high and Penner invests any remaining money back into the business. He still has a day job selling trailers.

Penner advises people going into agritourism to do their homework first. Ample parking on the yard is a must, since parking cars on the road leaves pedestrians vulnerable to oncoming traffic. Buildings and attractions should be spaced well apart to avoid crowding. Facilities must be kid-proofed for safety. A good public liability insurance package is essential. Adequate staffing is also important. Penner employs up to 10 local people on weekends, plus his grown children.

There are other efforts to encourage agritourism in Manitoba. Last month, a record 44 farms across the province opened their doors to visitors during the seventh annual Open Farm Day. Total attendance was down slightly from last year’s peak of 6,500 because of unsettled weather. But organizer Wendy Bulloch still pronounced the event a success.

The purpose of Open Farm Day isn’t just agritourism. It’s also agricultural awareness, says Bulloch, a private consultant who co-ordinates the event for the Manitoba Association of Agricultural Societies, which took it over from the province two years ago.

“Do we change people’s minds and do we broaden their horizons of knowledge about agriculture? I would hope we do. That’s our main reason,” says Bulloch.

Although agritourism is a small industry in Manitoba, it is big business in other tourism regions of North America. A report for the Southwest Ontario Tourism Corporation calls agritourism a way to supplement farm income, utilize farm resources and “provide income for family members, which in turn may contribute to the stabilization and sustainability of rural economies.”

Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler believes producers can make money from agritourism by attracting urbanites with farmers’ markets, U-pick operations, bed and breakfasts and direct marketing.

“Once they start coming, they’ll come on a regular basis,” Eichler says.

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