Local agri-food tourism – Part 1

Local Agri-Food Tourism

Herding fifty adults onto a bus is no easy task. Not even when all of those same adults are excited about the bus’s destination. Just outside the bus we’re all milling about talking amongst ourselves ‘networking’, which might be the single most important part of this trip, but we’ll talk about that another time. When the bus is finally loaded, the door closes and our group heads off on a local agri-food tour around the Bay of Quinte area.

Our first stop is not far away, it’s at a production facility called Sprague Foods Ltd. In Belleville. The company produces mostly private label food products for American and Canadian markets including for Walmart and Loblaws (PC Blue Menu and PC Organics). The facility is about the size of a big box retail store and employs approximately eighty people. This family run business buys its raw materials from as many Canadian sources as possible remarks Richard Sprague who is the president and tour conductor. In fact, he said that he wished that they could buy everything from Canada and has been searching for a large Canadian producer of pulses (beans etc.) for some time.

The second stop on the tour was to the newly opened Barn Owl Malt craft malting business just outside of Belleville. The Huffman family takes great pride in malting Ontario grown grains and despite just starting out, they are already looking to increase their production. Using a facility about the size of a triple car garage, the Huffmans use a food grade cement floor to do their traditional floor malting process. Malted grains are used by the craft brewing industry and many Ontario craft brewers have to import them from other countries and provinces. Barn Owl Malt is currently the only malting business in Eastern Ontario, which seems bizarre because of the explosion of the craft brewing industry in Ontario and the extremely high demand for malted grains.

The next stop was just south of Tweed at the Enright Cattle Company. These local beef producers raise red and black Simmental cattle on an all-vegetable diet without the use of hormones. While walking through their barn and pasture field, Kara Enright told the group that the family business is able to plant, grow and harvest all of the feed for their cattle. Kara also outlined the past financial struggles of the business and up until a few years ago both her and her husband had to work away from the farm to make ends meet. With the help of some government resources, they decided to change their business model by shifting from supplying to a meat wholesale operation at low profit, to selling directly to their own customers making higher profit. Kara said that this new approach turned their business around dramatically.

The fourth stop on the tour was to Potter Settlement Wines, which was also just outside of Tweed and the only winery in all of Hastings County. Though not currently open to the public, this boutique winery has been selling their wines to high end restaurants mostly in the Northern U.S. with prices as high as $200 per bottle. Hidden in one of the most unlikely areas for a winery, right at the edge of the Canadian Shield region, this family owned winery is experiencing rapid growth but strives to maintain it’s approach to making only the highest quality wines. Tour conductor and former soap opera actor Sandor Johnson said that the land had been in his family since the early 1800’s. Needless to say there were many smiling faces boarding the bus after doing tastings of several of their excellent wines.

The final stop of the tour may have been the most fascinating, but had the least appeal to the senses. When the bus pulled into the long laneway at Donnandale Farms north of Belleville, just outside of the village of Stirling, it appeared to be a typical larger scale dairy farm. However, the actual reason for this tour stop was to highlight their two anaerobic digesters which convert biomass (biodegradable waste – used cooking oil, animal waste etc.) into electricity at a rate of about 750 kilowatts per hour. The electricity is then sold through their Feed In Tariff contract back to their hydro supplier at .02 per kw/hr higher than what they would pay for it. Family patriarch Keith led the tour and remarked that despite all of the money required to pay for the equipment, he anticipated that because of the sales of the large volume of electricity produced, the equipment would be paid for within three years. The electricity produced by the farm could supply energy to as many as 1500 homes.

Later that night I thought back to the day and what I had learned. The first thing that I learned was that there are currently several diverse business opportunities in the agri-food industry in Eastern Ontario. I also learned about how a family was able to turn their business around with the help of resources that are available to all agri-food businesses. Finally, I learned that the tour that I just went on represented approximately $5000 in revenue for those local agri-food businesses. In worldwide tourism spending, one third of all tourism dollars are spent on food. Local agri-food tourism not only generates money for the businesses they visit, it indirectly provides marketing for both the businesses involved & the region and it educates people about agriculture and food. For these reasons and more, agri-food tourism is a very important piece in any strong local food system. Who’s got a bus?