A tea party beside a herd of llamas may sound like an unusual idea, but Heather Porrill and her family have made that idea into a reality. Heather’s special take on business exemplifies the concept of diversity and agri-preneurship and has created a unique tourism opportunity. Porrill and her family run Star Bright Farm, located near Bay Tree, Alberta, just minutes from the British Columbia border near Dawson Creek.
Her current operation consists of a herd of about 30 llamas, pairs of miniature donkeys and horses, goats, rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs, kittens and a pair of pigs. Porrill and her family moved to the farm in 2005, and initially started a catering company focused on off-farm ventures. In 2008, Porrill decided to change tactics to bring people to the farm as an agritourism venture.
The family started the transition to the tourism business by building an observation deck and tea area out near the llama pen.
“Kids don’t have Grandma and Grandpa’s farm to go to any more.”
Porrill says many visitors who come to the farm may have seen one llama, but have not had an opportunity to watch the interactions of 30 in a herd. Several groups have come out to the farm for tours and tea. The operation has become a hit with seniors’ groups and their care attendants. A visit to the farm is a great way for the seniors to reconnect with nature and their own personal farm history.
“We definitely hear the stories,” says Porrill.
Children are welcome at Star Bright Farm. The Porrills have animal treat bags which can be used to feed the farm’s residents, and a handwash station which everyone must use before entering the outdoor tea room. Porrill knows her operation gives many people a chance to watch and interact with animals, an opportunity that may be difficult for many people today. “Kids don’t have Grandma and Grandpa’s farm to go to any more,” she said.
Porrill’s background as a chef has been an asset in her agritourism venture. Visitors to her farm have the option of enjoying a tea party prepared specifically for them. Porrill offers a pre-selected menu to guests, and tries to use her own produce or locally grown products in her foods. The menu features miniatures of tea party favourites including cucumber sandwiches, tiny butter tarts and carrot cakes, and miniature roast beef sandwiches. Three of her children help out with the business, acting as tea party wait staff, hosts, tour guides or even entertainment.
Visitors are required to phone ahead before coming to the farm, and have come from areas as distant as Dawson Creek, Grande Prairie, Spirit River and the Yukon. Porrill said the project is growing at a rate that meets her needs. “We’re still getting our feet wet. If things develop slowly, I’m okay with that,” she said.
In the fall of 2008, the family constructed a farm store which currently features the wares of 20 Peace Country producers, as well as hot tourist offerings such as Canadian maple syrup. Porrill also sells her own Buttery Bites homemade caramels, an old-fashioned caramel that is a hit with anyone who tastes it. The caramels are also for sale at several restaurants throughout Alberta.
Porrill is currently working with an agri-tourism specialist from Alberta Agriculture and has been pleased with the public reaction’s to the family business.
“The reaction of visitors is always a good reminder for me,” she said. “I forget how beautiful it is out here and how much work we’ve done to make it that way. When people come out here, they always remind me of how nice it is here and they appreciate the stuff that I take for granted.”
Porrill’s agri-preneurship has extended to trying to develop llama meat for sale. She has been working with a butcher in Grande Prairie to learn more about preparing and using the meat, and has been experimenting with sausages, stewing meat, ground llama meat and jerky. Eventually, she’d like to be able to use the specialty meats such as kidney, heart and tongue. Porrill says learning how to prepare the meat properly is important.
“When we sell you some meat, we have to be able to tell you how to prepare it,” she says. At present Porrill is able to offer a llama tenderloin and a New York strip for sale. “What we’d like to do is be able to host events where we’re serving llama at the farm.”