This year was the first full Easter weekend in the past three years that Chappell Farms was able to throw open the farm gates to visitors.
“Last year, we purchased and prepared and hired and we were open for one day and it was totally shut down,” said Pauline Chappell.
Some farms long run by families, such as Chappells, where a huge granite sign on its entranceway declares it was established in 1834, have made a business welcoming visitors and providing them with experiences.
While the pandemic isn’t over yet, local fun and experience farms have found ways to once again welcome visitors.
Keith Currie, a Collingwood-area farmer who is active in the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, says those experiences help to connect urban populations to the rural use of land. They provide that important link, which is also tied to education, while at the same time finding new sources of income.
The farms in Simcoe County that provide products and experiences draw business from the larger local communities, such as Barrie and Orillia, but also attract visitors from the Greater Toronto Area.
“It’s an opportunity to not only entertain the public, but also a really key education piece, because people can come and touch and feel and can also ask questions about what’s going on in the farm,” Currie said. “This gives people the opportunity to actually see how things work.”
The pandemic, he added, brought attention to food security and that led many to search for local products, connecting with local providers. That, in turn, prompted some of the farms to adapt to new conditions and demands.
“Farmers are really happy to share their story,” he said.
Nicholyn Farms, which was busy over the weekend with turkey and market sales, is also opening to visitors again in June after a two-year hiatus.
“We love showing people where their food comes from,” said owner Lynda Van Casteren, pointing to the cattle in the pasture, the chickens in their movable coop and the produce growing in the geodome on the diverse farm on Horseshoe Valley Road. “And we love having the children here that are actually interested in seeing how things grow and finding out more about the environment.
“And then they come into the market building to see how things get from the fields to the shelves,” she added.
As a farm market, Nicholyn experienced a shift during the pandemic as many looked to source their food locally.
And although Nicholyn offered delivery, Van Casteren found many people wanted to get out and pick up their own food and curbside sales grew. So the Minesing-area farm adapted to the change in demand by moving its ice cream and hot food service to a separate building outside, where it remained.
“We did find that we gained new customers, new ambassadors that are following the local trend,” she said. “I think people are supporting local and they’re glad to do that.”
Simcoe County is a huge area that provides an interesting mix of rural and urban. The result is that farms are across the area, for the most part, within easy driving distance of large pockets of population, said Ruth Walker Scott, experience development co-ordinator for Tourism Simcoe County.
Many made that discovery during the pandemic when travel was prohibited and grocery store shelves cleared out.
“People are maybe more aware of what we have to offer,” said Walker Scott. “Consumers’ minds shifted that way almost immediately, thinking locally about where their food was coming from.”
In addition to the experiences and sales of the products grown on the farm, many provide freshly baked and other goods that they sell at their farm markets year-round.
And they’re also building partnerships with community organizations, getting involved with various groups, helping in fundraisers and cross promoting with other businesses.
Flowers have proved an attraction in recent years with the addition of lavender and wildflower farms. Some of the fun farms have added sunflowers as well, providing what Walker Scott calls ‘Instagram-able’ moments for visitors.
“While they have fairly short growing seasons, they tend to welcome people in to come and picnic, you can buy the lavender-infused products that have been made in partnership with other producers in the area,” said Walker Scott. “People have recognized that sunflowers really draw people in. So you have a number of farms dotted around that plant specifically for that.”
Back at Chappell Farms in Crown Hill, which is highly visible from Highway 11’s southbound lanes as it merges with Highway 400 north of Barrie, the gates are closed following the Easter event as the family gets ready for planting season and summer events. This year, they’re adding sunflowers, hoping for a nice sunflower garden this summer.
The farm plans to open its animals, play areas and wagon rides to visitors daily on July 2 until the end of Labor Day weekend. The Chappells then close down for four days to transition into its fall activities which includes a large, colorful pumpkin patch, hosting visitors again until the end of October.