Tanis Podobni means business when she pulls out the cookie sheets.
“I need 300 bags of six for the weekend,” she says, hands flying as she scoops out dollops of ginger cookie dough.
She’ll make several dozen pies while she’s at it. It’s a routine that’s repeated over and over during September and October as she and her husband Logan, his parents and their next-door neighbour welcome visitors to Meandher Creek Pumpkin Patch, the on-farm agri-tourism venture the five jointly own and operate near Oak Lake.
What was once a quiet cattle pasture off the Trans-Canada is now a huge farm playground with bright-red buildings, straw bale stacks, zip lines, a cornfield with mazes cut through it, sandboxes, hayrides, and lots and lots of room to run for literally thousands of kids.
From “just an idea” in 2007, the business has become Oak Lake’s biggest seasonal employer, employing about 30 through its nine-week fall season.
A sunny Saturday or Sunday will easily see 1,000 people and overall attendance is usually about 11,000 visitors between all the families, school groups and tours that come. Their customers view Meandher Creek as “their farm” for visiting in the fall, says Podobni.
“Basically, it’s become like their Uncle Don’s farm to visit,” she says.
“Uncle Don” is her father-in-law, Don Podobni, an Oak Lake cattle producer turned host farmer at the site, wearing his signature hat and greeting visitors who come to meet “a real farmer.”
The enterprise started with discussions on farm diversification with their friend and neighbour Louise Stitt, says Don. Stitt and Don’s wife Judy began by looking at the concept of a pumpkin patch, popular in Ontario, and after visiting sites down east, came home pumped to try it here.
They grew a few pumpkins and held cook-outs in the first year, says Don.
“It was very basic, but people who came seemed to like it and had fun,” he says. “Then it just kind of kept growing from there.”
What they discovered was a huge, untapped enthusiasm for visiting a “real farm.”
Families and school groups come from all over the province, as far away as Winnipeg and Regina, says Tanis.
“We kind of drew a circle and thought we could draw people from within an hour’s drive,” she said. “But we’ve had people who far exceed that. It’s not at all unusual to take a look in the parking lot and see Saskatchewan and North Dakota licence plates.”
It’s also a hit with locals.
“It’s usually a 50-50 split,” says Logan, who always asks those piling on for a hayride who has been there before.
“Lots have been coming for the full seven years we’ve been open,” he notes.
They have set rates for visiting families and school groups. They move a mountain of squash, gourds, pumpkins, and seasonal vegetables through a small produce barn, and sell more trinkets and pumpkin patch paraphernalia through an on-farm store. This year, they added a commercial kitchen where Tanis now bakes her zillions of cookies and pies.
It took awhile to stretch his farmer’s head around operating such a venture, and he had to start thinking like one of his young customers, says Don.
“It was trying to imagine what people would want to do when they came to the farm,” he said. “We’ve been exposed to most of this stuff all our life, but to understand what people want to do when they get here and then try and have that available for them when they get here, that was one of the biggest things.
“Once you can get your head around that, it’s a matter of making it as good as you can for them. And it seems to be working.”
Their five-person ownership model has been key. It not only allows them to operate the business around their other day jobs, but each brings a diverse range of skills and expertise, says Logan, a full-time IT co-ordinator with the provincial ambulance dispatch.
“Each of us has our own thing that we’re really good at,” he said. “Dad and I are good at electrical engineering and plumbing and building and welding. Louise is our horticulturalist and she looks after the varieties of pumpkins that we grow, and when to plant, when to pick. Mom looks after the staffing and a lot of the financials for us. And Tanis does all the baking and looks after the store and staff.”
They are also indebted to their staff, adds Judy. Meandher Creek has become a popular place, particularly among local teens, to get a part-time job.
“We have absolutely fantastic staff. We could not do this without them,” she said. “Last weekend we had 1,500 people here and you’re just running. We count on our staff.”
Payroll is their biggest operating expense, topping out at around $30,000 annually. Insurance costs are also significant and they’ve also made significant capital investments. It’s cash flowing back to the local economy.
“We probably spend as much at the lumberyard as anywhere else, building these different things,” adds Don.
The business earns modest revenues, says Logan.
“We make enough to make it worthwhile, but we don’t obviously get rich at it,” he said. “In the end it pays off, because not only is this a business but it’s also fun. This is the most fun job I’ve ever had.”
“We enjoy this,” adds Stitt. “We’ve become a family tradition. It’s the kids. We love to see the faces on those kids.”
Meandher Creek Pumpkin Patch is one of five agri-tourism ventures sharing best practices in a Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives-led seminar series earlier this year. It is aimed at encouraging other farm owners to think about ways to incorporate marketing farm-based experiences to the public.