During this busy summer’s growing season at The Jungle Farm, Blaine and Leona Staples also found themselves harvesting good ideas from a winter business trip.
Their U-pick, greenhouse, strawberry patch, market garden, and ‘agri-tainment’ operation near Innisfail has been constantly expanding since the couple came back to her family’s farm in 1996. A half-acre of strawberries has grown to 17 acres and a “couple of rows” of veggies to 12 acres. The farm now employs 15 to 20 summer staff and half a dozen seasonal workers from Mexico (plus a year-round HR and marketing employee).
One of the tools that has been helpful has been membership in the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association, which puts on tours featuring innovative direct marketers in a different region of North America each year.
The Staples first attended an NAFDMA tour in California in 2003, taking advantage of a scholarship for first-timers. They found it valuable enough — both in what they saw and what they learned from other attendees — that they’ve taken it in again every three or four years, including last winter’s tour in Abbotsford, B.C.
Their first tour offered so many ideas and possibilities, it was overwhelming, said Leona, especially since at that early stage, they were just dabbling in U-pick.
“For us to even know what would be our next step was mind boggling, and it took us a few years to decide, ‘OK, now we’re going to try this, and then maybe we’ll do this,’” she said. “By the time we went to our second one, in Wisconsin, we were much more prepared.
“Our eyes had been opened way big, and we knew that now we needed to go with some specifics in mind of what I want to see, and what questions I’m going to ask so that I can actually learn something.”
Having a clear idea of what you want to do on your operation is key, she added.
“I think if you don’t know what the focus is on your farm, it’s really easy to grab on to something you’ve heard someone’s done well, and run with it. Yet that idea might not be a fit here, like an apple activity in Alberta.”
Still, the Staples manage to fit a lot into their spring-to-fall season, which kicks off in April when customers can come in and plant their own flower baskets and concludes at the end of October with “extreme power tool pumpkin carving.” In between are a host of innovative special events, including gardening with your child; sessions on making jams and pickles; baking pies for Grandparents’ Day; and a sauerkraut festival.
But agri-tourism isn’t just about having innovative events to draw customers. This winter, the Staples went to Abbotsford looking for help on very specific topics and quizzed fellow attendees (networking on the tour bus is as big an attraction as the stops themselves).
“This time we went saying we need a new point-of-sale system, so I had specific questions to ask,” said Leona. “I heard what worked well and what didn’t on about four or five different systems, so I know more what to ask when I go shopping. There are so many things point-of-sale can do, and it was interesting to hear how these farms were using it.”
The Staples were impressed with the on-farm retail shops in B.C., and how the facilities can be used for other activities, ranging from festivals to summer camps. Visiting retail facilities was especially timely, as the couple gears up for a new retail space for their own farm.
“There was a session on on-farm buildings and planning for that, so that was good stuff,” said Blaine. “We took out our design schematics and got some feedback.”
Leona also came home from the tour with some great ideas from workshops on day camps and school tours (such as a science lesson on floating pumpkins) and signage for self-guided tours.
“To me that whole education (aspect) is really a calling I have,” she said. “We grew up on the farm, but know lots of people haven’t had that exposure. Things that I think are second nature, or common sense, they don’t know. They don’t know potatoes grow underground or what a broccoli plant looks like, if we don’t tell them.”
Another valuable session offered ways to deal with complaining customers in a positive way. The Staples also have several attractions they attribute to ideas first sprouted from NAFDMA, including a Human Foosball game and a 60-foot-long slide. In addition to tours, members of the association also have access to a Facebook page not open to the public. It’s an excellent resource for finding new ideas, asking questions of other members, or just venting, said Leona.
“Because it’s a North American organization, people are really willing to share.”
The Jungle Farm continues to offer new ideas for visitors each season, such as its sauerkraut festival and always sold-out Feast in the Field dinner.
“There’s lots of potential in the entertainment area, as people are looking for more family outings close to home,” said Leona.
“Part of our motivation for going to the last conference is that we’re going to move that way more,” added Blaine. “We plan to redo our entertainment area because that doesn’t require (as much) labour. So if we can’t afford to grow all the fruit and vegetables down the road, then we’ve got a plan there.”
Considering an NAFDMA tour?
The next NAFDMA event will be held in New England in early February. If you’re in the agri-tourism or farm direct marketing, and are thinking of taking this tour or a future one, here are some tips from Blaine and Leona Staples of The Jungle Farm for getting the most out of the experience.
- Know what you do well, and what you can improve on. Go with those eyes.
- Remember that you don’t have to do it all at once.
- Ask lots of questions, but come ready with specific ones that will benefit your operation.
- Don’t take home an idea and think you can just plunk it on your farm. Make sure it’s a good fit for your operation first.