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11 Great On-Farm Businesses

Some are fulfilling a lifelong dream in combining farming with another related passion. Some are making a few extra bucks by putting their skills and knowledge to good use. Some still can’t believe they’re doing what they’re doing—but all of the farm entrepreneurs featured here share one thing: they love it! If you’re interested in learning about some great farm-related business opportunities that might suit you, read on. In each success story, you’ll find tips, tricks, words of advice—along with laughter, passion . . . and inspiration!

By TREENA HEIN

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Pooch paradise

Sandy Briggs and Ivan Paul in Powassan (northeastern Ontario) have beef cattle, goats, ducks, geese, swans, chickens . . . and lots and lots of dogs. At Wimberway Kennels and Farm, the cattle and goats graze the fields, keeping the cover at a suitable height for training the retrievers and running trials. The Briggs run a cow-calf operation (mostly Charolais), keep goats (alpine and Boer) and also breed, board, train and judge dogs. “It started as a hobby,” says Sandy. “I didn’t want to be a vet, but did want to work with dogs.”
Costs and labour?
“We had to rebuild the barn/kennel after they were hit by lightning in 1996, and by doing a lot of the work ourselves we managed to keep the costs down. It took the insurance coverage and about five years to get back in balance.?Any project with animals seems to be one step forward and two back . . . you fix something and something else breaks down or needs replacing.?We replace our fence panels as needed—usually getting a few each year.”
Biggest benefits??
“We get to meet a lot of people from many varied walks of life. In the training classes, you see people benefitting and beginning to enjoy their dogs more as they respond to the training.”
Biggest challenges??
“People tend to think you are available 24/7 and often do not come when they say they will.”
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“Someone who really enjoys working with all sorts of dogs and can put up with people who have spoilt dogs or who are unreliable.”
Funny story
“Our herd of goats got out of their fenced area one day and wandered over to where we have our agility equipment. The goat kids all played on the A-frame, dog walk, and even tried the teeter-totter. One time a young buck also visited the agility area several days in a row.?A neighbour painted his horns red so no one would shoot him—he’d become a regular visitor in the neighbourhood.” ?

Tea anyone?

After a colossal switch from growing tobacco to herbs in 2003, you’d think Tom and Deb Benner, owners of Heritage Line Herbs in Aylmer, Ontario, would have had their fill of change. However, when they heard their daughter’s descriptions of the beautiful tea gardens in Vietnam, Deb got to thinking. Why not create an open air tea room on the farm, with lots of plants (especially herbs), a waterfall, and a mouth-watering herb-based menu? By 2007, The Silver Birch Tea Room was open. Water elements are set amongst large stone features, creating a peaceful and private dining experience. The food is infused with fresh herbs: lemon thyme cheesecake, lavender lemonade, tomato basil tart, rosemary bread . . .
Costs and labour?
“We’ve not completely achieved cost return on our expenses because we’re seasonal,” says Deb, “although if you take into the consideration the overall increase in business in our store and farm, it’s more than paid for itself.”
Biggest benefits??
“Our customers.?We meet so many interesting people on a daily basis—people from all over, with different interests, and they love to share their experiences with us.”
Biggest challenges?
“Being able to finish your work each day.?There is always so much to do and so much to remember.”?
Type of person best suited to this type of business?
“You must be an optimist, even when it rains/pours, etc.?There are bad days mixed in with the good and if you spend all your time worrying about what might happen, you’ll never get anywhere.”
Funny story
“The first year we opened our business, a black cat was dropped off here.?It didn’t take long for Basil to grow on us, even though he was constantly getting into trouble.?He loves people and makes a point of introducing himself.?We decided early on that it was better to put Basil in the barn during our busy lunch hour, but he managed to get out occasionally.?Last summer we were surprised to receive a beautifully framed picture of Basil sitting with three of our regular customers, enjoying high tea.?Another time, during our Alice in Wonderland Tea Party, he also somehow escaped and entertained a family by sitting nicely on a spare chair, waiting to be fed.?We now make extra effort to make sure no one lets him out of the barn.”

Creating positive farming encounters

Things never stop at The Jungle Farm in Innisfail, Alberta. Leona and Blaine Staples started in 1996 with half an acre of strawberries, and now grow 16 acres, in addition to five acres of vegetables and 3,000 square feet of greenhouse. When it has its other hat on, the farm becomes a bustling space for everything from birthday parties to corporate picnics. The general public can enjoy a wagon ride pulled by an antique tractor, bale maze, corn maze, petting farm, pumpkin patch, tricycle track, pumpkin slingshot, bull roping, stationary wooden train, a sand pile with toys, and more. Jungle Farm also offers educational programs for school, youth, camp and senior groups, and workshops for the public. For example, during ‘Glimpse of Spring,’ participants learn about flowers and plan their gardens. Leona says: “We saw the farm as an opportunity to provide people with positive exposure to agriculture.”
Costs and labour?
“It depends on the item. With the pumpkin slingshot, there was a dollar amount attached to the activity, and it was easy to see we made cost return in one season. When we expand something like the petting zoo, it’s harder to tell. However, I believe adding anything new has value because it attracts returning customers.”
Biggest benefits??
“I really enjoy being with people, especially people who are really interested in learning about growing. I value educating children and this gives me a direct opportunity to do this. Our own children are also learning and enjoying the business.”
Biggest challenges?
“Managing your time. It’s a question of keeping everything balanced, especially at crunch times of year.”
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“You have to have lots of different skills – marketing, people management, time management.”
Funny story
“Last fall, we started offering a scarecrow-making activity, with clothes, wooden frames, hats, straw—all the trimmings. It was very popular. At the end, people were convinced they could fit their creation into their cars—even Austin Minis—with straw and boards sticking out all over the place, on roof racks, out hatches. There were some pretty funny vehicles leaving our property.”

Horsing around

One hour from Edmonton, near Sangudo, Alberta, people wanting to explore an authentic ranch experience—or explore in a canoe, tube, ATV or wagon—go to Lakeview Guest Ranch, owned by Eckhard and Diana Krah. Their one-day ‘Learning Experience Package’ allows guests to learn the basics of horse interaction, such as how to approach a horse and properly prepare for a ride. Refreshments, a certificate and photograph are included. Diana says they decided on this type of business because “we knew people are attracted to the freedom of the cowboy lifestyle, even if they don’t know what it really means to work and live a cowboy life.” Due to popular demand, the couple also decided to partner with a local company to provide guarantee-kill wild boar bow hunting. “This kind of hunting is price effective,” says Diana. “It’s exciting, and comfortable, with no license required, and safety training, guiding, accommodation and meals are provided for. Many beginning hunters come to try it.”
Costs and labour?
“We are still working on this. Since we are providing ranch vacations to only a very small number of guests during Alberta’s short summer season, there is a lot of unpaid labour involved. We love Alberta so much: we are proud and happy to share its beauty with guests from all over the world.”
Biggest benefits??
“Coming from very hectic lifestyles, this helped us feel connected to nature and animals. Also, with different health issues, we know we can grow our food and live healthier lives overall.”
Biggest challenges? “Marketing is very cost-intensive and very difficult to do for a small operation like ours. It’s tough to get into the travel agent system, since they prefer to accept operators capable of taking larger numbers of guests. Another challenge is insurance – it’s very costly, almost impossible, to carry insurance for every activity.”
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“I think it needs a strong husband/wife team, best with kids helping, who are very versatile in their skills and love this lifestyle, because there’s not much vacation time, and you can’t afford a tradesperson to do all the repairs.”
Funny story
“We have a canoe for our guests to use on the lake. One time, I showed a father and son to the life jackets and paddles, and they said ‘Oh, we know everything,’ and off they went. Soon after, they returned to the house, soaking wet. The son explained: ‘Well, we couldn’t get the canoe to move forward. We tried every way of paddling and we just ended up going in circles. After a while, we then thought if we would switch seats, this may help, and that’s when we both fell into the water.’ I asked: ‘Switching seats?’ ‘Well,’ the son replied, ‘we thought it may work better if we do not face each other.’”

Planting the seed

At the time Karyn Wright bought Terra Edibles in Foxboro, Ontario in 1997, interest was just beginning to bloom for heirloom varieties of vegetables. Chefs from top restaurants across the country were starting to feature them on their menus and mainstream media was expounding the better flavour of the old-time varieties. Wright’s customer list has expanded accordingly over the years, and now numbers over nine thousand people. In response to the new Canadian Organic Standards that came into force this past summer, Wright and her husband Don McKay offer what they call SANER heirloom variety seeds (Sustainable, All-Natural, and Environmentally Responsible) as well as certified organic seeds. They also sell heirloom veggie plant seedlings, and lots of earth-friendly products at their store, The Village Green.
Costs and labour?
“The cost return of the original investment happened within the first year
of business. But then the idea of building a greenhouse to be able to supply heirloom tomato seedlings as well as the seeds caused some unexpected expense. It has taken some time to pay this off but it has allowed us to expand even more. The gardens are bigger and the sale of seedlings is a big part of the spring/summer commerce.”
Biggest benefits??
“Lots of fresh air! I value being able to steer people into safe choices for their gardens and help them with seed selection.”
Biggest challenges?
“I have to keep up with all the new ‘green’ products—ensuring that they are what they purport to be, and affordable. This also means convincing customers who still want the ‘perfect lawn and garden’ to do a bit more physical work. It’s getting easier though. I also keep a good supply of locally-produced goods (a terrific jerk sauce is made up the road in Madoc), and I have to educate people that some of it’s seasonal and not always available. It’s also an ongoing challenge to find organic and SANER seed producers.”
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“You should able to multitask and listen carefully. Every customer has a story and much can be learned if you pay attention. We have everything from emu ranchers to ginseng growers in this area and they are far more expert than I’ll ever be.”
Funny story
“Well, here’s a sign-of-the-times story: I just spent three days at the Green Living Show in Toronto, with a huge percentage of the visitors asking about varieties of vegetables they could grow on their balconies. I guess this is not only reflecting the economic times but also the increased awareness about our food supply. People want to be more self-sufficient—hard to do in the middle of Toronto, but you have to admire the eagerness and the spirit of their questions.”

Fresh baked success

Hearing about baked goods made with organic grains, fruit, veggies, cheese and spring water can certainly make one’s mouth water . . . and even more so, if you’re a dog or cat! In Clam Harbour, Nova Scotia, you will find Katie’s Farm, Canada’s only certified organic dog and cat treat and dog food bakery that grows ingredients such as eggs, garlic, herbs, and vegetables right on the premises. The pet treats and food contain no meat, wheat, salt, sugar, corn or soy – instead, they’re bursting with organic grains such as spelt (purchased from a local mill) and organic fruit, veggies, cheddar cheese, cashew butter, sunflower seeds, oil, milk and more. Owner Jude Major started the bakery in 2002. “I had been making treats and food for my dogs for years,” she says, “and one day when I was walking, I thought ‘why not?’” She sells at the Halifax Farmer’s Market, wholesale to stores and ships across Canada.
Costs and labour
“I started in my kitchen and bought pieces of industrial equipment as I grew the business. A few years later, I moved the bakery to an empty business location down the road.” ?
Biggest benefits??
“I know a fair amount about canine nutrition, and get a lot of questions about dog health and allergies. I love to talk to people about their dogs and be able to help.”
Biggest challenges?
“You always worry you’re going to have a crop failure of something or other. Last year, for example, my squash didn’t want to grow for some reason, but I was able to buy certified organic squash from other local growers.”
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“You need an understanding of farming and good land stewardship. You can’t be afraid of physical labour.”
Funny story
“Through the power of the web, I was contacted and now manufacture private label parrot treats for Avian Organics in Crofton, British Columbia. These don’t have any milk or cheese, but have everything else. They’re a pretty rosy colour, and made in a bagel shape so the parrots can hold them.”

Counting sheep

Just by the name—Sheep Heaven Farm Bed & Breakfast—you can tell?this farm would be a wonderful place to get a good night’s sleep. At their farm in Fort Steele, British Columbia, Werner and Karla Ludwig raise lambs from about 80 ewes. They also have a ‘watch llama’ and an assortment of other animals such as cows and chickens.?The Ludwigs had raised sheep for two years when a neighbour suggested they start a bed and breakfast in 2000. Since then, their Canadian and international guests have?enjoyed the scenery, the?farm’s?pond and food from the wood-fired oven. “People treat this place like their own home,” says Werner. “In nine years, we have only lost one towel!”
Costs and labour?
“Cost return is very slow because we have only two rooms. We are not worried about it because it is a lifetime investment for us.”
Biggest benefits??
“We meet people from all over the world, from Scotland, Australia and Mongolia, from Singapore to Denmark to Israel. They are all very interesting.”
Biggest challenges?
“We have to be there in early afternoon every day, most of the time. But if we aren’t home, we leave new visitors a note to go and check out the rooms. If they like it, they stay, and so when we get home, we sometimes find we have guests!”
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“You have to be interested in people. You also have to not mind visiting with people at night in your living room.”
Funny story
“We had guests here from South Africa, and they said ‘Oh, it is strange that you have so many different plants and grasses that look just like the ones we have in South Africa.’ It turns out that here at the foot of the Rockies, it’s also hot in the day and very cool at night, just like it is in South Africa.”

Farm wedding bliss

Brides could wear ‘blueberry blue’ at Hugli’s Blueberry Ranch in Pembroke, Ontario, but most of them opt for white. The idea of offering Eastern Ontario’s largest high-bush blueberry farm as a wedding venue came at the same time that owners Brian and Judy Hugli were planning their own tent wedding at the farm as well as diversifying their operation to include a gift shop, animals, school programs and many fall activities. These include ‘Princess Tea Parties,’ pig races and blueberry pancake breakfasts, to a haunted house, corn maze and giant pumpkin boat races. “Outdoor weddings are very popular now,” says Brian. “We felt our picturesque and unique setting lent itself to holding them here.” The white garden tent attaches to the main building (with the gift shop and indoor washrooms), which is situated on top of a hill overlooking a spring-fed pond and the Laurentian Mountains. “Weddings are an important part of our financial diversification plan,” Brian adds.
Costs and labour?
“We use parts of the ‘wedding facilities,’ such as the washrooms and interlock paving stone platform, for other things, but I would say we achieved cost return in about two years.”??
Biggest benefits??
“Weddings expose the farm to people who might never have set foot on the property. It also helps from a cash flow standpoint because you get a deposit up front.”
Biggest challenges?
“Weather. We’ve had small hurricanes in this area in the past, and you have to make that well known from time of booking that storms on the ‘big day’ are always possible. Even with normal wind, you need to sometimes leave decorating to the last minute. Liability with alcohol is also always a challenge.”
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“You have to be diplomatic and quick on your feet to solve all kinds of problems. Sometimes you have to mediate within families to find common ground. You can have up to four sets of parents (with divorces and remarriage) to cater to, in addition to the bride and groom.”
Funny story
“We hosted a lovely Hindu wedding a few years ago. The ceremony went on for several hours and, being unfamiliar with these weddings, we were surprised that people got up and walked around—but it turns out that’s completely normal. This wedding couple dropped by last summer for a visit with their new baby. Many of our wedding couples over the last eight years now have children.?These are our ‘new customers’ for our family fun activities.”

Livestock breeding

Driving past the farm of Michael and Glorianne Bjerland in Pense, Saskatchewan, people often do a double-take. That’s because the cattle are just a little (!) smaller than usual. At between 36” and 46” at the hip, Dexters are among the smallest beef and dairy cattle breeds in Canada. On their 20 acres, the Bjerlands keep a small herd of 20 for both milk and beef for their own use, and for their breeding business. “We chose to raise and breed Dexters because they allow a family to have a safe food supply and limited vet bills with an animal that’s easy to handle,” says Michael.?“They provide enough milk for us and meat for our own use and for sale. We feed the excess milk to our piglets.” The Bjerlands sell an average of two trained milk cows per year, and occasionally a breeding bull. ?
Costs and labour?
“The original breeding pair was $2000 and then we bought a couple more heifers for quite a bit less. We built a barn and fenced our land for about $5000, and also bought a used AI kit. We use no computer programs. It took about six years to break even, but we’re still spending money to make things easier or more efficient. Our yearly animal registration fees and Canadian Dexter Cattle Association membership are?quite inexpensive.” ?
Biggest benefits??
“It?gives us great satisfaction?to see our animals used?for both meat and milk production and supplying all a family’s?needs.”?
Biggest challenges?
“Dexters are a rare breed and?we strive to meet the standards. There is a limited genetic pool and finding a bull that meets all the standards can be difficult.” ?
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“You need to know the Dexter?breeding guidelines and have the courage to cull all undesirable animals, even if they feel like best friends.”
Funny story
“Sometimes the lack of knowledge about livestock farming is pretty amusing. We were doing a milking demonstration at a farm fair when we heard a child crying and saying to his mom that ‘milk didn’t really come from a cow, it came in a carton from the store.’ The sobbing intensified when he touched the pail of warm milk. Another time, a father said to his child about one of our full-uddered milk cows, ‘Yes son, that is a bull—you can tell because it has horns.’”

Supplying other farms . . . and more

Amidst the 60 acres of horse hay, 25 acres of black sunflowers and 15 acres of horse oats on the Davis Farm in Caledon, Ontario, you will find Davis Feed & Farm Supply. Since 1989, owner John Davis has sold livestock feed, bedding, pet supplies and hardware—and, since 2007, gardening supplies. “We make our own birdseed and also grow an acre of pumpkins and sweet corn to sell in the fall,” says Davis. He’s always been involved in agriculture—dairy farming while growing up, then studying it at the University of Guelph, then working for a major feed company. But he decided in the late 1980s to strike out on his own and create a business specific for the area he knew best and had lived for most of his life. “I had the idea that if I stayed somewhere in the food chain [people must eat], I could always make a living,” he says.
Costs and labour?
“In this area, we’re rapidly losing agricultural land to the expansion of urban subdivisions, so in order to attract more residential customers to our store we added a garden centre three years ago. It’s worked well, and we achieved cost return within the first year.”
Biggest benefits??
“It is very satisfying when you make your own decisions and everything works out well or even better than you thought. You get a sense of belonging to a community where you can provide a needed service. Being in agriculture also means being a part of the ultimate food chain, so it’s almost recession-proof.”
Biggest challenges?
“Working with uncontrollable farm market prices as well as government regulations that sometimes don’t favour agriculture. Another challenge is increasing our market share in a decreasing local market. This has caused us to try new ventures such as the garden centre.”
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“Someone that is willing to put many hours in, has a positive outlook and can adapt to certain situations while accepting alternative solutions.”
Funny story
“Our farm is famous in its own way. Our feed mill cats were once written up in a local paper—sort of ‘The Life & Times of a Feed Mill Cat.’ A litter of our kittens was used for the Disney movie Mark Twain & Me. Our farmland has also been used for commercials for such companies as President’s Choice and Jimmy Dean Sausages. When we raised pigs, our barn was used to film a scene in Road to Avonlea.”

Field to table adventure

Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guest House is becoming a legend in Duncan on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Five years ago, chef, educator, and slow food aficionado Mara Jernigan formed a unique partnership with Darrel and Anthea Archer, owners of the historic 130 acre farm and operators of the Cowichan Water Buffalo Dairy. Mara offers cooking classes, guided trips to Italy and a twice-yearly Culinary Boot Camp—a field-to-table feast for the tastebuds, senses, mind and soul. Participants harvest from the two-acre kitchen garden and orchards, forage for mushrooms, bake from a wood-burning brick oven, take field trips to meet local producers, and taste wine as they learn preserving and cooking techniques. “I love to teach people to cook, and it’s such a positive way to inspire small but important changes in their lives,” says Mara. “Food is my instrument of social change.”?
Costs and labour?
“I have not really aimed to ‘recover’ my investment. When I moved my?cooking school?to Fairburn Farm, I invested quite a bit on cosmetic improvements, revenue generating renovations (a kitchen I could teach in) and agricultural infrastructure which I knew would save time and labour (irrigation systems and raised beds)—and a brick oven because I love cooking and gathering around the hearth. This was reflected in the terms of my lease. I?feel it is a?real privilege to live on such?a beautiful and historic property and?I consider?making improvements my contribution to the farm’s legacy.”
Biggest benefits??
“By far the most important thing is living within my own value system and sharing what I have in a career that gives me great pleasure. The food I serve has a story, context and a small ecological footprint. Through my work with Slow Food International and Slow Food Canada I feel genuinely connected to a larger purpose and community.?I have raised my son in an environment where he can learn some of those skills. We love meeting guests in the summer, and in the winter when it’s quiet, we enjoy having the house to ourselves.”
Biggest challenges?
“Staying afloat financially. Frankly, I really do not pay myself and have often subsidized my business. The old saying ‘How do you make a small fortune farming? Start with a big one!’ really is true. I have bought myself a lifestyle with some great benefits, but I am definitely not building a retirement fund here.”
Type of person best suited to this type of business??
“A workaholic! You have to be dedicated, driven and passionate, strong physically and mentally. I have many days in the summer that are 17 hours?and I might not get a day off for weeks.?If you are in a marriage or relationship, it is very important to be absolutely clear about?what it is both people want and have clear areas of responsibility.”
Funny story
With so many people coming and going at the farm Mara is very careful with the safety of her guests staying or helping out in one of our cooking classes. It turns out it wasn’t the customers she needed to be concerned with! A couple of years ago she was taking scraps to the chickens when a ram blindsided her, breaking her leg. Managing?the guesthouse and teaching cooking classes?was rather difficult, to say the least. On top of that, two weeks after her accident, her son broke his leg too!