Agritourism in Alberta foothills expanding to diversify, share ‘passion and expertise’

Producers in Alberta’s foothills region are shifting their businesses to incorporate agritourism.

A study conducted by Foothills Tourism suggests the area and historical agriculture is at risk without the transition.

“If we don’t have a clear strategy. The risk is that the entire region will be cut up into one- or two-acre parcels and all that agricultural heritage and culture will disappear,” said Hugo Bonjean, president of Foothills Tourism and co-owner of Spirit Hills Winery.

Bonjean says Foothills Tourism has been evaluating the future of the area and has realized attracting folks from Calgary and other large centres is the way to move forward sustainably.

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“If we bring visitors in and develop that agritourism aspect of it, then we can allow multi-generational farms to build different income streams and keep those farms within their families.”

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Bonjean has been hosting tastings and wine tours since his business opened its doors eight years ago.

Other producers in the area, such as Forage and Farm, made that adjustment further down the road.

Cheryl Greisinger braids garlic on her property near Millarville, AB. August 27. 2021. Devon Simmons/Global News

Forage and Farm grows regional Canadian hardneck garlic, and has since expanded into food products, tours and classes.

“It just made sense for us to kind of diversify our income stream and offer different things in the same realm of our expertise — garlic farming — but just addressing it in a different way,” owner Cheryl Greisinger said.

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Greisinger says incorporating agritourism into her business has allowed her farm to be sustainable year-round, and it gives her family more financial security.

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“I don’t want to have to get a part-time job somewhere else. The farm allows me to be here with my family, teach my kids things that I value, and… have a passion.

“It shows them that they could also work on the farm and then keep the property as they age and grow up.”

“One drought year like this year could kind of wipe you out. But if we didn’t have the other… workshop aspect, we may not have been able to keep the doors open.”

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Cheryl’s husband, James Greisinger, operates Stone Wood & Steel, making a similar transition into offering blacksmith classes.

James Greisinger in his blacksmith workshop near Millarville, AB. August 27, 2021. Jessie Weisner/Global News

He says business can be unpredictable and it’s an asset to have classes to depend on.

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“In between, I can teach classes, which really fills in those gaps quite nicely, if I’m not being told I’ve got to plant garlic or harvest garlic anyway.”

The Greisingers say interest from Calgarians has spiked since the beginning of COVID-19.

“With COVID and people sitting at home and realizing, ‘Wait a second, not only do I want to support local, but I want to know how to grow that, I want to know how to make that,’” said James. “It’s been a real positive.”

Cheryl is currently working with other producers, helping them incorporate agritourism into their businesses.

“They have a huge passion and expertise in what they do but they don’t necessarily know how to open up their doors to visitors and share it with someone else. So that’s kind of what we’re going to be helping them do,” she said.

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Bonjean says the agritourism sector is a $77-million economic opportunity and has a variety of other advantages.

“The fastest way to deal with rural crime is to give people jobs. So it would create jobs and help to retain our use here in the region as well. So there are lots of benefits to the strategy.”

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Foothills Tourism recently hosted Alberta Farm Days, showcasing local producers in the area. Outside of the event, they list all of them on their website.

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