Several pandemic-era trends – an obsession with food, interest in supporting local businesses, worries for the hospitality industry and a new appreciation for local travel – are spurring a surge in agrotourism initiatives across Eastern Ontario.
“People have increasingly had more interest in knowing where the food they’re eating comes from,” says Alison Migneault, director of marketing and communications for Tourism Kingston.
In 2019, her organization began developing Frontenac Farm to Kingston Table, a program designed to attract visitors by highlighting growers from nearby Frontenac County and Kingston chefs. Plans to begin promoting the program in March 2020 were derailed by COVID-19.
The tourism board knew time was of the essence if it wanted to help its restaurateurs. In late March 2020, The Conference Board of Canada pinpointed Kingston as one of five communities across Canada most at risk of a severe economic impact from COVID-19, due to the city’s high concentration of jobs in accommodation and food services.
So Tourism Kingston reframed the farm-to-table promotion in fall 2020, focusing on encouraging locals to discover their region rather than on attracting visitors from further afield.
“We saw a great response and a lot of interest,” says Migneault – so much so that the tourism board ran the program again in late winter 2021, drawing on $15,000 in partnership funding from the Regional Tourism Organization for South Eastern Ontario.
Kingston is not the only Eastern Ontario community using food and farms to jump-start tourism (when we can all travel safely, of course). Further east, the Cornwall and SDG Counties Spark Program attracted 16 applications from entrepreneurs keen to take their tourism ideas to the next level. All of the winning applicants, who each received a $3,000 grant and tourism mentorship in late 2020, had ideas with a food or agrotourism slant.
Among those winners were Vanessa Leduc and Moe Bellefeuille, who plan to start offering food tours of Cornwall later this year. The couple, both keen travellers, have taken food tours in places ranging from Charleston to Cancun. After each, one of them would say to the other, “Cornwall has such great food – we should be doing a tour like this in Cornwall,” says Leduc. So they launched Cornwall Food Tours.
At first, they’ll offer walking tours to sample dishes and drinks from local restaurants for bubbles of four to six people – somewhat smaller than the usual food tour group of 10 to 12.
“People are looking for authentic experiences.”
“None of this is what we were originally hoping (for),” Leduc concedes, but she’s OK with that. Starting small will allow them to fine-tune the approach.
Despite the pandemic, Leduc is convinced the time is right for this business. “People are looking for authentic experiences,” she says, adding that small, outdoor tours will help locals discover homegrown food in a COVID-safe way.
The couple initially planned to run a one-time event in summer 2020 as a fundraiser for Baldwin House, a local women’s shelter. Over time, that morphed into a plan to run a more extensive slate of tours, with a portion of all proceeds providing ongoing support to Baldwin House.
A desire to give back to the community also motivated Johnny Slack of Calabogie Family Farm – an organic livestock farm in Renfrew County – to create a new venture. In early 2021, he launched Community Blossoms. Every week or so throughout the growing season, subscribers will receive a bouquet of fresh flowers grown on the farm.
Two weeks after the program opened in early January, Slack had sold half of the 50 shares, at $150 for a full share or $75 for a half share. Within six weeks, the program was completely subscribed.
Community Blossoms isn’t designed as a money-maker for the farm, Slack says. Instead, he wanted to buoy people’s spirits while raising money for a good cause.
“It’s about … showing that, even apart, we can be together,” he says.
The family will only keep whatever money they need to buy seeds for the zinnias, baby’s breath, cosmos and other flowers they will grow. The rest of the proceeds will go to the Renfrew & District Food Bank.
A strong emphasis on community also comes through when North Grenville mayor Nancy Peckford speaks about the sugarbush on the grounds of Kemptville Campus.
Frank Heerkens, an experienced maple syrup producer from Chesterville, began restoring the property’s abandoned network of about 1,000 maple taps in 2016. The lines had once been used to make syrup as part of the University of Guelph’s agroforestry program.
After acquiring the property from the university in 2018, the municipality decided to rehabilitate the campus’s network of trails to complement the restored sugarbush. Not only would they give local students and teachers a new place for COVID-safe outdoor educational activities, but the trails would also be a valuable addition to the community’s recreational infrastructure.
Before COVID, “People were travelling outside of our community to visit a sugarbush, but we had one right in the middle of Kemptville,” Peckford points out.
She adds that this is not the only new food and agrotourism initiative in Kemptville. In April 2020, a startup called My Local Markets set up a website to sell a wide range of local foods – such as flour from Winchester and honey from Arnprior – and deliver it directly to consumers. My Local Markets also organized socially distanced outdoor culinary events at Kemptville Campus last summer.