With a background that includes being a documentary filmmaker and heading up fundraising efforts for a wide range of non-profit organizations, Eleanor McGrath is not exactly your prototypical farmer.
But the former Toronto resident says she’s now found her true entrepreneurial calling – not on the busy streets of downtown T.O. but on a tranquil rural farm just outside the small community of Apple Hill, about 90 kilometres southeast of Ottawa.
McGrath and her husband, Finbarr McCarthy, have owned Springfield Farm, a 55-acre property in South Glengarry, since 2014. They’re part of a growing number of Ontarians who are finding business opportunities in the province’s thriving agri-tourism sector, which includes everything from traditional market gardens that sell fresh fruits and vegetables to operations like Springfield Farm, where guests can escape the noise of the city and stay overnight in a large tent-like structure called a yurt.
Originally a small organic growing operation, Springfield Farm began to attract more tourists after it added the yurt in 2017. Since then, the business has welcomed visitors from across Canada and the United States as well as England and Sweden, McGrath says.
“We’re very proud of it,” she says of the yurt, which is insulated, includes a stove to heat it in cold weather and cost about $15,000. “It’s really lovely.”
Businesses like McGrath’s are sprouting up across Ontario as city-dwellers seek ways to escape the concrete jungle and get back to nature, says Cathy Bartolic, the executive director of Ontario Farm Fresh, which represents about 300 agri-tourism operations.
Today’s consumers aren’t just looking to pick their own strawberries, she adds, noting the proliferation of businesses such as Ottawa’s Saunders Farm that offer attractions such as mazes carved out of crops and Halloween-themed wagon rides.
“If I had to sum it all up, I think we’re moving more towards a farm experience,” Bartolic says, adding the evolution of agri-tourism is inspiring a whole new generation of young, enthusiastic entrepreneurs in rural areas who might once have left the family farm for better opportunities in the big city.
“A lot of them are now coming back because they can see a career for themselves on the farm,” she explains.
Consequently, agri-tourism has become big business in the province. Ontario Farm Fresh’s latest research indicates that up to 1,700 farms in the province now offer markets of some kind, attracting six million tourists and pumping more than $1.2 billion into the economy each year.
Still, McGrath says newcomers to the industry should be prepared to endure a few hardships as they establish their agri-tourism cred. While her overnight stays have garnered rave reviews online and she’s seeing a gradual uptick in traffic to her farm, a good month will see the yurt occupied about eight times.
“It’s a very new industry,” she says. “It’s not like it’s non-stop visitors, to be very honest. You can get a little discouraged sometimes.”
In a bid to boost revenues, Springfield Farms recently erected a new barn that features a wood-burning stove and has one wall made of stone to give it an authentic old-school look. Next spring, McGrath plans to work with local caterers to start offering “farm-to-table” experiences where visitors can sample dishes that include her freshly grown squash, pumpkins, beans and sweet peas or chow down on pizza cooked in the wood-burning oven.
“I would say we’re definitely in the development stage,” she adds. “The pressure is entirely on our shoulders to make this farm a destination for visitors as well as profitable.”
While she concedes that growing the venture has been a “huge challenge,” McGrath also calls her work “very satisfying.” And like any farmer worth her salt, she can’t resist mentioning the weather at least once in her conversation.
“It’s very much true to the entrepreneur spirit,” she says, explaining why she loves her adopted vocation. “You really feel like you’re in charge. If you work hard, something will pay off. The hardest part of it is Mother Nature. She’s really in charge.”