Norfolk County’s rise from the ashes as a new hub of agritourism

Norfolk County is among the most biologically and agriculturally diverse areas of Canada. The property, 1,600 square kilometres nestled on the north shore of Lake Erie in southwestern Ontario, is characterized by rolling hills, charming little towns, rare Carolinian forest and dirt so sandy it is tough to spot where the beach ends and farmlandnbsp;begins.

And, until recently, it was best known for one broad-leafed and nicotine-laced plant:nbsp;tobacco.

Previously, 90 percent of the nation’s tobacco has been grown here — that, at its peak in the 1990s, intended 100 million pounds annually. Tobacco was Norfolk’s primary economic driver, using thousands of individuals from throughout the country and overseas and producing numerous spinoff support and manufacturingnbsp;businesses.

But following sin taxes, lifestyle changes and advertising prohibitions hit hard and, by the early 2000s, production was cut by more than half. After the decline showed no signs of abating, a tobacco action team was set up to advise about the impendingnbsp;catastrophe.

“There was lots of fear, worry and anxiety,” says Clark Hoskin, Norfolk’s director of economic development, who had been a part of the advisory team. “There was concern not just about the fiscal impacts, jobs and spending, but the services and health unit was also included due to the psychological and emotional issues and concerns about increased suicides and family {}” From 2009, the long-time love affair with tobacco was over and the federal government offered up $300-million to assist the more than 1,000 farmers holding tobacco quotas transition into anothernbsp;harvest.

Now, less than a decade afterwards, Norfolk farmers grow vegetables like sweet corn, and soybeans in addition to ginseng for export to Asia. The fertile ground devotes grapes for wine, hops for beer in addition to fruits, vegetables and evennbsp;cows.

Norfolk is also starting to provide something else: the chance for food-savvy southern Ontarians to spend the weekend at pretty farm country on a coordinated local food, beer, wine or cider excursion, or cycling between restaurants and farms before glamping on the beaches of Lakenbsp;Erie.

To put it differently,nbsp;agritourism.

“Years ago, it was a difficult sell, but they get it,” Hoskin, Norfolk’s agritourism genius, states. He says that a decade ago, only a few farmers, most with onsite markets, signed on to Norfolk County Tourism’s marketing initiative that, for $175 a year, guarantees local farms and companies will be featured in each the tourism board’s promotional material, from printed brochures into socialnbsp;media.

“Farmers would look at me funny when I said ‘agritourism,’ or tours on farms and that I think the older generation was not interested as much and just did not want people coming to their farms,” Hoskin states. “But the younger team, in addition to a few of the older ones that were ambassadors, saw it as the chance to educate people about farming and are extremely eager to open their doors and speak tonbsp;individuals.”

This year, he says, 300 farmers participate in the advertising program. Today’s farmers have learned to become self-promotional tour guides showcasing their houses for famished city people, in the hopes Norfolk becomes a culinary destination as sexy as, say, Prince Edwardnbsp;County.

One of the participants were Steve and Anita Buehner, who run a farm near the town of Simcoe that was in the family fornbsp;generations.

As the end of the tobacco age grew near, they were confronted with a choice: try a new crop or market thenbsp;farm.

The Buehners received transition funds from both the federal and provincial governments — although they say that there was not much choice in the matter. “It was, ‘This is what we can provide you for your tobacco quota, take it or leave it, but we’re still taking your quota,'” Anita says. “So, in my books that’snbsp;expropriation.”

Casting around for new crops, they began testing lavender in 2003; in 2010, they planted a vineyard. Now, Bonnieheath Estate Lavender and Winery has 120,000 English and French lavender plants, a vineyard and an apple orchard as well as 50 acres rented out to farm ginseng. The Buehners also open their farm to people who wish to taste the wine or just walk through thenbsp;lavender.

About 15 minutes south of Tillsonburg, Bryan Gilvesy once grew 300 acres of tobacco. Now, just a couple of old drying kilns remain as a reminder of the farm’s history. His YU Ranch is home to an old-growth Carolinian forest, a tallgrass prairie and a huge herd of stunning Texas longhornnbsp;cows.

Half of his company is selling grass-fed beef to Toronto restaurants like Nota Bene and Cafe Belong. The other half is in-house earnings to those who have travelled to see thenbsp;farm.

“Normally the first time we have a walkabout and instruct them,” Gilvesy states. “It is not exactly the same as a supermarket.” As an example, although all of his herd are longhorn cattle, none of them look alike. They don’t reside in a barn and rather, remain out in pasture at all times eating grass unless you can find droughtnbsp;conditions.

Hoskins says another wonderful aspect of the expanding tourism market is that young men and women are being persuaded to remain in the region or return home. “We’re seeing a new generation taking over and it is really exciting and they’re all very social-media savvy and possess the company smarts,” he says. Many are attracted by the opportunity to make and sell beer and wine. The Charlotteville Brewing Co. is run by natives Melanie Doerksen and her partner, Tim Wilson, who returned to Ontario after years of traveling in Europe. They started growing leaps in 2010, finally bought 41 acres of a former mink farm from a relative and intend to open a farm-to-table restaurant thisnbsp;fall.

Until this summer, the farm which is home to Inasphere Wines was known for its roadside tomato rack. Third-generation farmers that operate a 100-acre plot near Turkey Point, Shantel and Ryan Bosgoed wanted to do something different, so that they planted anbsp;vineyard.

Before coming home to put his mark on the family farm, Ryan Bosgoed went away for college, studying wine and viticulture in Niagara College then working at Jackson-Triggs Winery for three years planting. Upon returning to Norfolk, he implanted 5 1/2 acres in riesling, cabernet franc and pinotnbsp;noir.

“Years ago, Ryan put a half-acre plot of 10 varieties and took the three greatest,” Shantel Bosgoed states. “We’re taking it slow, doing everything from growing the grapes to corking each bottle by hand.” New stores and restaurants are constantly opening in the region’s small towns, like The Blend, a restaurant at Simcoe that advertises a “menu built with localnbsp;bounty.”

“The area is exploding,” Shantel Bosgoed states. “Every year, it is changing.” Norfolk County’s chosen motto is “Ontario’s Garden” — a beautiful reinvention for a place that used to provide the state with itsnbsp;smokes.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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