The way Rod Potter and his crew of friends and neighbours sprang into action as two tourist buses rolled down the hill into his southern Ontario farmyard, you d think it was the first day of harvest.
In one respect, it was. Potter may be the fifth generation on his family s farm, but he s the first to capitalize on the burgeoning agri-tourism industry in Canada.
Less than half a day s drive from Toronto, Potter has found a way to not only keep the farm in the family, but make a living on 100 acres of steep rolling grasslands and forest by selling pretty much everything his bison herd produces direct to consumers including the view.
While the 80 visitors gawked at the bleached-white bison skulls adorning the fenceline, they were quickly sorted into groups and ushered into the back of pickup trucks that had been retrofitted with bench seats.
The convoy wound its way past the old-fashioned hipped-roof barn and through a ravine before snaking back and forth up a steep hill overlooking the farmyard. So what if there was steam wafting out of the radiator on one of the trucks, or another one needed a boost to get started? For the guests, it only seemed to add to their sense of adventure.
When the drivers stopped, it was in the middle of a bison herd that, instead of running away, swarmed the trucks to gobble up piles of feed Potter dumped on the ground to entice them.
The close-up view of these majestic animals that once roamed the Canadian Prairies set against a backdrop of rolling hills was breathtaking. As the visitors, agricultural journalists from some 31 countries, jostled for the best vantage point, Potter warned his guests not to wander too close to the huge, grunting beasts. Although seemingly docile, they are, after all, wild animals that can be unpredictable.
Potter said he came up with the idea of operating a game farm after participating in government- sponsored rural rambles in which city folks were encouraged to visit area farms. Farm tours now bring in about 20 per cent of his revenue.
His enterprise ties in with local maple syrup producers George and Alice Potter operating the Sandy Flat Sugar Bush and Pancake House, a host of local wineries and cideries, farmers markets and the Fifth Town Artisan Cheese factory along the shores of Lake Ontario.
Although there are 2,000 bison producers across Canada raising more than 250,000 bison, only five per cent of the producers are located in Ontario and east. That makes his agri-tourism venture an exotic option in a region noted for its maple syrup, apples and wine.
Bison meat, known for its lean quality, has proven popular with consumers. The existing producers can t keep up with the market demand. But besides the meat and leather products the herd produces, Potter routinely brings visitors on mini-safaris up to the hills behind the homestead.
We do a sunset tour, he says. We sit up here and have some h ordeuvres and a glass of wine from the local winery.
The all-inclusive evening tours cost $57 for adults and about half that for children. One-hour daytime tours cost $20 for adults.
If prodded, he sometimes even recites the poetry he writes in his spare time. We have a lot of fun, Potter said. Some people don t even care if they see the buffalo, if they can have the view. [email protected]
Wedoasunsettour,wesituphereandhavesome h ordeuvresandaglassofwinefromthelocalwinery.