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Pandemic year served up valuable agritourism lessons for Devlin farm

The Spry Farm in northwestern Ontario shared its 2020 experience during local food conference

The Spry Farm was gearing up for its second year in operation when COVID-19 arrived, bringing to a standstill the momentum it had built up following its well-received debut.

The five-acre Devlin, Ont. apiary and hobby farm, located in the Rainy River District of northwestern Ontario, had developed a solid reputation as a family-friendly venue where local children could interact with a variety of animals, and where families turned up every fall to pick out a future jack o’lantern from the pumpkin patch.

But, last spring, as the province shut down and restrictions were introduced, Leanne Spry quickly realized that those popular up-close-and-personal experiences would no longer be possible during the pandemic.

“I remember when the first lockdown was announced in March of 2020, and just the feeling of uncertainty stemming around the pandemic as a whole,” recalled Spry, who owns and operates the farm with her husband, Tyler.

“It really left us with a lot of questions that no one had answers to, so trying to plan ahead forced us to make some tough decisions in a relatively short period of time.”

Spry shared her experience on March 17 during the second installation of the North & Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference, which comprises a series of webinars examining local food trends across the northern and eastern parts of Ontario.

As Spry put it, the move to agritourism was actually a bit of “fluke” for the couple.

“Operating an agritourism business was never really our intention, but it came into existence and evolved out of necessity,” she said.

After settling on the farm in 2015, the couple gradually added chickens, pygmy goats, pot-bellied pigs, ponies and mini donkeys to its growing menagerie.

It wasn’t until the following year, when a friend asked to tour the farm with her kindergarten class, that the couple realized the potential for a thriving agritourism business. They marked their first "official" year in operation in 2019.

Today, in addition to producing fresh, local honey, The Spry Farm offers scheduled farm tours, petting zoos, and a public, on-farm event every fall.

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With the uncertainty brought by COVID-19, the Sprys cancelled all their agritourism activities for the 2020 season and started brainstorming other options for the farm.

Spry organized virtual farm tours and got a small uptake for the activity, but it proved challenging to keep young children engaged online for any length of time, and revenues were low.

Having had some success raising Cornish Cross chickens for their personal consumption, Spry said, the couple decided to raise a batch to sell as pasture-raised poultry.

Though they nearly sold out, it also wasn’t a profitable endeavour, and they’ve decided, in future, to include the raising of poultry solely as part of their educational farm experience.

“We’d really like to close that gap of people knowing where their food comes from and hopefully inspire some others to raise their own meat,” she said.

Their next challenge was growing and selling vegetables, but the plan was a wash. An early frost meant much of the produce had to be harvested sooner than expected, and Spry said it wasn’t of a high enough quality that they felt comfortable selling it.

Luckily, their pumpkins ripened nicely, and the farm was quickly sold out of the orbed fall staple.

One endeavour that was a success was the expansion of the apiary, which they doubled in size. Fielding a constant stream of requests through the year, they sold enough honey to make a “decent profit,” Spry said, and they’re already optimistic that 2021 will yield a large harvest.

By the time autumn rolled around, restrictions in the area had been lifted and the farm could easily have hosted its annual public event.

But Spry was wary of returning to normal operations too early.

“Quite frankly, on a personal note of social responsibility, we also didn’t want to be the reason for a COVID outbreak in our area as a result of us hosting an event,” she said.

“You have the control to do everything possible to make your event or service safe, but the one thing you can’t control are your customers prior to visiting, and all it takes is one person to bring the walls crumbling down.”

The array of challenges brought by 2020 pushed the Sprys to have a frank conversation about where the business was headed and what types of services they could offer to sustain it over the long term, she said.

In the end, they decided that, unless they were producing very large quantities of food products, they wouldn’t generate enough revenue to supplement their income.

“As our agritourism services are all seasonal in nature, we needed to add a product or a service that would be a year-round bread-and-butter for the business,” Spry said.

“This product or service would allow us to continue on with providing agritourism experiences and to expand our beekeeping operation, but to keep revenues coming in year-round.”

This spring, the Sprys will add dog boarding and training to their suite of services, and plans include building a facility that can host those activities year-round.

One half of the building will serve as a honey house where they can shelter their bees indoors over the winter months.

So far, Spry said, the community response to their plans has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“The years spent operating our agritourism services definitely built an excellent reputation that laid the foundation for this expansion,” she said.

Though 2020 didn’t go nearly as anticipated, Spry said it offered the couple an opportunity to try new things, learn from their failures, and reevaluate their goals for their business.

She believes their enterprise will have emerged stronger and more resilient as a result.

“I personally have never felt as secure in my business as I do now,” Spry said.

“I’m confident about the success we’ll have in the future, in all aspects of the business, from the addition of our canine services to the growth of our beekeeping and honey operation and to the continued success of our agri-tourism services that started it all.”

The North & Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference is a joint initiative of the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA), the County of Renfrew, and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

A third installation in this series of webinars will be held on March 24.