People skills required to move from agronomy to agritourism

This creative photo of the vineyard at 13th Street Winery near St. Catharines, Ontario is symbolic of the agritourism industry. While many enter with rose-coloured glasses, many find there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s a tough business. Doug and Karen Whitty, owners of a 50-acre vineyard, winery and bakery share their insights for success. Photo by Denis Cahill, courtesy Grape Growers’ of Ontario.
LCBO wine sales. Source: Grape Growers’ of Ontario
LCBO wine sales. Source: Grape Growers’ of Ontario

A conversation with Doug Whitty is three parts marketing and one part infrastructure planning. That ratio reflects the realities of moving from the agronomy of a 50-acre vineyard to running a tourist destination that caters to 20,000 visitors a year. 

Growing grapes and making wine is part of the skill set, but there’s so much more complexity in direct marketing to consumers. Attracting and hosting these numbers is a big business enterprise. 

“Since 2009, we’ve built a bakery, a foodservice component and a roadside market,” says Whitty. “They have added an art gallery, featuring sculpture and local artists. Together, it has a village feel.”

Ironically, the farm has returned to its roots of 1908 when Whitty’s grandfather sold eggs and raspberries directly to consumers. The next generation increased the farm’s original acreage and sold wholesale. But when third-generation farmer Doug and his wife Karen took over, they decided to execute a direct-marketing model. Their business plan has been bolstered with the expertise of a silent partner from the automotive industry who knows that sizzle sells.  

Butter tarts sell a lot of wine.
                        ~ DOUG WHITTY

“Butter tarts sell a lot of wine,” Whitty quips. 

His insight reveals a lot about the changes in society and the marketplace. In agriculture, farmers have been ingrained to produce volume at low cost, but in agritourism, the goal is to satisfy desires rather than needs at a higher margin. 


Understand the marketplace


For grape growers and winemakers in the Niagara peninsula and indeed Ontario’s other major viticultural areas of Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore, it’s now about selling the experience. While there is a large consumer market in the Greater Toronto Area and other urban centres, there’s still a long way to go to own that domestic market. Of all the wine that the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) sells, only seven per cent of purchases are Vinters Quality Alliance (VQA) wines.  

The Whitty family, for example, is emblematic of many wineries beckoning consumers to come to the farmgate. It’s hoped that the experience will translate into more loyalty to local when it comes to shopping for wines. The formula seems to be working. LCBO reported that Ontario wine sales for 2015-16 have increased eight per cent to a total of $456 million.


This summer, 13th Street Winery has a new listing at the LCBO with Burger Blend Red priced at $14.95. The Gamay and Pinot Noir blend is marketed precisely for a price-conscious consumer who wants a picnic-friendly wine. 

“We want to create a portfolio of wines in higher volumes to help cover the overhead of our expansion,” explains Whitty. While their Essence line of wines command higher prices, the plan is to increase current volumes of 14,000 cases per year to 20,000 or 25,000 cases per year by 2020. By producing larger volumes of $15 per bottle wine, the farm can sustain the costs of a new bakery and wine-making facility underway this summer.  


Leverage the strengths of others


These expansion plans require leadership of a diverse team of professionals: marketing, accounting, food catering.  

As Whitty explains, agritourism requires an honest self-assessment of your skills. While farming may be in your blood, it’s leadership of people and leveraging the individual skills of team members that will build success. 

“The challenge for farmers in moving to agritourism is that the learning curve is steeper than for most businesses,” says Tracey Fredrickson, business enhancement officer for Invest Kelowna. In British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley is home to more than 120 wineries and a sophisticated tourism industry. But for many farmers looking to capitalize on that critical mass, it’s important to be world-class ready.  

~ Tracey Fredrickson

“The challenge for farmers in moving to agritourism is that the learning curve is steeper than for most businesses,” says Tracey Fredrickson, business enhancement officer for Invest Kelowna. In British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley is home to more than 120 wineries and a sophisticated tourism industry. But for many farmers looking to capitalize on that critical mass, it’s important to be world-class ready.  

Between 2011 and 2014, Frederickson led an intensive agritourism business planning course with groups of screened farm operators to help them start or expand agritourism businesses. Research led her to the University of Tennessee’s agritourism business planning workbook which was modified to the Central Okanagan environment and provided the template for the participants to create their tangible plans. 

One of the first orders of business, participants learned, is to take a tour of your own property and assess the needs for parking, washrooms and food safety-certified facilities. Liability insurance and fire safety protection don’t necessarily come to fore of mind but are critical line items in the business plan.  

All of the farmer students Fredrickson has worked with are somehow unique. Caldwell Heritage Farm, for example, has showcased its collection of antique tractors and milk trucks while Jackalope Farms has built one of the few U-pick strawberry businesses in the area. 

Owner of Jackalope Farms, Serina Penner, is a member of the Westside Farm Loop, leveraging the diversity of farms in her area. A map can be downloaded that shows seasonal fruits, honey, pick-your-own farm-fresh eggs and a century-old nut farm. For tourists unfamiliar with the growing seasons, there is a chart of bloom and harvest dates by crop. 

The point is that agritourism requires a critical mass to be successful. It’s not just one winery or one farmers’ market but a blend of attractions. These collaborative efforts speak to the natural tendencies of farmers to be part of communities. 

If latest news: 
Check if it is latest news (for "Latest News" page)
Publish date: 
Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Click to leave a comment

For security purposes, please confirm you are not a robot!


The future of IPM: something old, something new

Dr. Mary Ruth McDonald has mentored dozens of students as professor of plant agriculture, University of Guelph. Equally at home in the field, she’s working with Master’s student Alexandra Dacey, documenting carrot weevil found in carrot trials at the Muck Crops Research Station in Bradford, Ontario. 

How to tell and sell the origin story

Seedless watermelon is only one of the specialties carried at Howe Family Farm Market near Aylmer, Ontario. Kevin Howe says ground cherries and canary melons also pique the interest of consumers. The on-farm market has been so successful that the family has opened another location south of London Ontario. 

Showing face in the midst of trade wars

Bill George Jr. and his son Will have tasted the promise of Icewine exports to China. With geopolitical tensions in 2019, the risks of diversifying into markets abroad have been amplified. It’s too early to know if the recent U.S-China deal will help or hinder.    

Soil fitness – just do it!

Fourth-generation grower Kyle Horlings is questioning the way things have always been done. Since 2015, he’s taken about 10 acres of carrots and onions out of production every year for restorative cover plantings. His experiments near King, Ontario garnered him the Healthy Soil Award from the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority in November. 

Frequent flyer earns bonus points for good taste

Oleen Smethurst is known for her quest for flavour. As assistant vice-president, general merchandise manager for produce, Costco Canada, she jets all over the world from Berlin to Bogotá, meeting with growers and seed suppliers. While touring southern Ontario in late August 2019, she visited Martin’s Family Fruit Farm near Waterloo, Ontario.