Cost of Living

Sunflower mazes, goat yoga and beekeeping: why farmers are getting more creative to attract visitors

It's harvest season, and across Canada, orchards and farms are opening their gates to visitors, giving city folks a taste of the country while also increasing revenue

Agri-tourism helps protect revenues against low commodity prices and bad weather

John Mills is the fourth-generation owner of Eagle Creek Farms in Bowden, Alta. (Falice Chin/CBC)

It's harvest season, and across Canada, orchards and farms are opening their gates to visitors, giving city folks a taste of the country.

On a busy weekend, as many as 1,500 people will pass through the gates of Bowden Sunmaze, a giant sunflower field in Central Alberta. 

That's more than double the number of visitors from just a few years ago.

The Bowden Sunmaze welcomes hundreds of eager visitors to Eagle Creek Farms on a regular basis. (Falice Chin/CBC)

"You could tell which groups are Instagrammers and which are just the families coming out to enjoy the fresh vegetables," said John Mills, the fourth-generation owner of Eagle Creek Farms in Bowden, where the sunflower maze began in 2006.

"High heels, nice dresses, and really big brimmed hats," he laughed.

Agri-tourism growing in popularity

Sunflower mazes, U-picks, and farmers' markets are all part of a growing industry called agri-tourism. Attendance to these operations and events in Alberta has been increasing by more than 87 per cent yearly since 2017, according to Travel Alberta.

While national statistics are scarce, in Ontario alone, the agri-tourism industry — wineries included — contributed $1.2 billion to the provincial economy in 2015, according to estimates from the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association.

In Quebec, a 2016 survey by Lemay Stratégies found 75 per cent of agri-tourism operators reported growth over recent years. More than 80 per cent of those respondents also felt the trend would continue.

Low commodity prices

"One of the main reasons to get into agri-tourism is really to increase income," said Claudia Schmidt, assistant professor of agricultural economics at the Pennsylvania State University. 

"That's because the ag sector hasn't been doing well because commodity prices have been decreasing."

To shield themselves from low commodity prices and bad weather, farmers are increasingly looking to diversify their land and resources. 

Beer routes, goat yoga and sleigh rides — they're all drawing visitors from the city.

Farms could grow their revenue

But if non-farmers have become the new cash crop, there's still room to grow, a report from Statistics Canada suggested.

The latest numbers from the federal statistics agency said only around 13 per cent of all farms in Canada directly market to consumers through things like gate sales, stands, kiosks and U-pick gardens. 

Attendance at venues like this U-pick garden in Bowden, Alta. have been going up in recent years, according to Travel Alberta. (Falice Chin/CBC)

According to Schmidt, farmers stand to make money from several related trends.

"Agri-tourism is really a consumer-based innovation," she said.

"In my opinion, that's also part of the minimalism trend. And consumers have become more interested in how food is produced and how food quality impacts their health and environment." 

Connecting people back to the farm

Agri-tourism now brings in a third of Eagle Creek's income. For the first time this year, John Mills had to install a gate and new signage to prevent eager Instagram users from trespassing.

But most visitors, he said, are well-behaving guests.

"It comes back to reconnecting people with agriculture," said Mills.

"We love to share what we do on the farm. So when they're back in their homes, looking to make food purchases they're more aware of what there is locally to buy."