Okanagan farmers are getting a boost from the Economic Development Commission and a tutoring program tailored for food producers
When Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm opened its doors in 1999, owner Andrea McFadden had her sights set squarely on chefs.
Up-cycling palettes to grow a moss chair sculpture, a decorative element for a farm festival, would have seemed a world away from the needs of her business, focused as she was on lavender jelly and edible-grade flower buds.
“We only did culinary things.That’s who I thought my market was,” she said.
Yet the trail she blazed would soon include a product line with linen water, foot soak and an organic fair trade shea nut butter and lavender hand salve aptly targeted at the conscientious consumers who visit her farm. She also added a string of tours to develop a property on the vanguard of the Central Okanagan agri-tourism industry.
McFadden had seen lavender farmers the world over launch festivals to secure a sustainable operation capable of weathering the myriad challenges of farming and followed suit. Over a decade later, the area’s economic development commission is now helping others do the same, delving into the possibilities the buy-local movement and foodie frenzy present for farms on the edge.
“We had been focused on removing obstacles (to economic success) for farmers, but noticed, for a number of the smaller farms, it seemed agri-tourism was the most viable model,” explained Robert Fine, Central Okanagan Economic Development Commissioner.
Agri-tourism can involve anything from farmer’s markets to corn mazes, U-pick operations to farm weddings, but generally connects those who grow with tourists hungry to understand how food lands on the table.
For farmers, it’s another source, or two, of income and for the tourism industry, an avenue to attract or retain customers.
At the lavender farm, it’s meant expanding into art, a partnership with an organic sculptor, fundraising initiatives and even a butterfly release for charity.
“We don’t even do the farmer’s market anymore. Now that we’re open seven days a week, we can’t,” McFadden said.
Selling at the market was heartbreaking from a business perspective; so much invested, so little return. But this is often the plight of the contemporary farmer. The lower cost of labour internationally, environmental changes and land costs have left many Central Okanagan farmers in a tight spot.
In 2011, as Tracey Fredrickson was building the business case for her agri-tourism mentorship program, the Chartered Accountants of British Columbia reported the sector lost 1400 jobs in the region.
Internationally-driven commodity pricing had forced farms from coast to coast to expand. In the Okanagan, it meant the same 20 year period, from the mid-80s to the early 2000s, which saw land prices explode, saw farmers forced to grow their acreages by an average of 14 per cent to compete.
On the other hand, looking at data from the Canadian Tourism Commission, Fredrickson saw the experiential tourist many farmers were experimenting with were plentiful. Some 35 per cent of the global tourism market are described as “learners” by industry analysts, or the type of people who might want to attend McFadden’s Lavender Discovery Days.
The trick was marrying the two.
“In some ways, farming is almost harder than any other sector to make the transition to business,” said Fredrickson.
From accounting basics, to insurance knowledge and even social marketing, the mentoring program she now runs on behalf of the Economic Development Commission helps those who once survived on their knowledge of bug kill and harvesting techniques to write research-based business plans and form an understanding of Twitter.
She has helped one university graduate with no farming experience start a U-Pick berry operation and is ensuring that Function Junction and Double Cross Cidery’s new tractor-led farm tours are a hit.
“People crave locally grown food and seek a deeper understanding about how it’s produced,” explained Nancy Cameron, executive director of Tourism Kelowna when asked what a farm tour provides. “Kelowna’s agri-tourism businesses create the perfect environment for this to occur as they enrich the tourist experience, leaving with them a lasting impression of Kelowna’s proud agricultural heritage.”
Creating these experiences comes naturally to a few.
Helen Kennedy boasts Alberta ranching roots, worked in commercial real estate, then bought a landscaping operation in Kelowna before developing Arlo’s Honey Farm.
Mid-summer, her bustling honey shop, skincare line and opportunity to don a bee-keeping suit are the perfect showcase for Tourism Kelowna.
Kennedy doesn’t sugarcoat her route to success, however.
“The pot of gold for every farmer is when they get old and sell their land, which is really kind of sad—especially with our aging farm population. It’s difficult for young people to be able to step into a farm and make it work,” she said.
Kennedy came into the valley with enough money to buy her first property in the Lower Mission. Moving to her South Kelowna acreage to start farming, the business acumen and people skills she already possessed were critical in battling the bureaucracy she faced defending her vision and building the connections needed to reap the rewards of her risk.
“We layered the business. We started with the bees and the honey and then I wrote a little cookbook to show people how to replace white sugar to be healthier…Then we added skin care…Then we added soap,” she said.
The farm is now 50 per cent a honey and agri-tourism operation, and 50 per cent food production. Built around the flowering seasons, she grows everything from radishes to raspberries, garlic to onions and gooseberries. From a lectern space built of pine beetle-kill wood, she regularly hosts travel writers and familiarization tours for tourism operators who will go out and sell the area with some of the knowledge she imparts.
“Farming is not where you’re going to make a million dollars. It’s basically a lifestyle,” she said.
This life can see her hosting 300 doctors from India one day and talking shop with the area’s top restaurateurs the next. Her husband now makes beeswax candles and her dog romps beneath the pussy willows. The farm buzzes with activity year-round and Kennedy can relax, a little, knowing she’s less likely to be stung by the volatility of the agricultural industry.