In search of new customers, Brant farms make agri-tourism push

A spring frost in 2012 nearly obliterated Jay Howell’s apple crop. But it didn’t sink his business.

That’s because Brantview Apples and Cider near St. George no longer counts on sales of fresh apples to break even, as the farm did for most of its 200-year history.

Today, the Howells make and sell their own hard cider at Brantview’s farm market, where shoppers can also pick up pies, apple doughnuts and butter tarts made from scratch in a bakery attached to the building.

And since 2016, a rustic barn overlooking the orchard has played host to dozens of weddings and special events every summer.

Add it all up and the move to agri-tourism has paid off handsomely.

“We had two choices — either do it or be out of business,” Jay Howell said of the decision to open up the store and start making value-added goods while still selling apples at farmers’ markets.

The shift was prompted by wholesale apple prices essentially stagnating between the 1950s and 1990s. The Howells had to shake things up to stay viable.

Each expansion that followed did add some work for the family, but Howell said he loves chatting with customers and educating visitors from the city about farm life.

“Part of my job on a daily basis is explaining how we grow apples,” he said. “Some (farmers) aren’t comfortable with that. I am.”

Diversifying has made a “huge” difference in terms of revenue and repeat business, said Howell, adding the trick is not going too far too fast.

“We’ve had some marvellous experiences,” he said. “It’s a blast. You have to have the right personality. You have to be people friendly.”

Brantview is a “great example” of a local agri-tourism success story, said Russell Press, director of economic development and tourism with the County of Brant.

Press has watched farms in Norfolk, Haldimand, Elgin and Oxford counties reap the benefits of promoting agri-tourism. Now he wants to help Brant farmers lure tourists their way.

“Some of the best innovators on the planet are farmers. When things break down, they’ve got to come up with another way to make something grow and get it to the market,” Press said.

“As economic developers, we’re trying to facilitate that. They’ve got great ideas and great operations, and we know of markets that are thirsty and hungry for the things that they provide. So let’s do a better job of connecting the two.”

The county has already changed its land use bylaw to smooth the way for farms to add retail and processing facilities to the properties. And starting March 23, farmers can attend a month-long virtual workshop series that will guide them through the process of selling directly to the public.

The free workshops, presented by the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association, will cover merchandizing, digital marketing, customer service, and other tenets of agri-tourism.

Press hopes the workshops will inspire more Brant farmers to diversify what they do to attract new visitors, including those who have recently moved to the county and may not know what’s in their own backyard.

“That’s our focus right now — getting our own community to recognize and be patrons of these markets, and to get them to realize that much of the food they’re eating is grown right in their own community of the County of Brant,” Press said.

Taking that approach, he added, can turn locals into ambassadors who will spread the word about places like Brantview to friends and relatives outside the county.

“If you do it well enough, they’ll become your best marketing tool, and it doesn’t cost you a dollar,” Press said.

Howell said farmers looking to get into the tourism game need to know their market and have a plan. A little luck wouldn’t hurt either.

“Make sure you do a market study,” he said. “I didn’t, and we were greener than grass.”

A veteran market gardener taught Howell the ins and outs of commerce, and his wife and children have since offered new ideas to keep the business as fresh as the apples that remain Brantview’s core offering.

Howell said he never tires of seeing a steady stream of patrons make the trip to the orchard, leaving with fresh fruit, apple pies and cider, and a friendly word from whichever Howell rang up their purchases.

“You still get a bounce in your step,” he said. “It’s fun.”

He sees no reason why more Brant farms can’t draw from the many urban markets within an easy drive of the county.

“I don’t know why you wouldn’t,” Howell said. “We’re 45 minutes from everywhere.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator