By Tracey Fredrickson

Farming is much more complicated than most people think. While I’m technically the coach and mentor to six farm operators in the Commission’s Agri-Tourism business planning program, most of the time I feel like I am the student.

Today’s farmer needs a working knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology, weather patterns and ecosystems; they better understand marketing, land use regulations, distribution channels and possibly export development. Oh, and they need to be extremely fit, hardworking and passionate about farming. It’s safe to say most farm operators would rather spend a day picking weeds than working on the computer.

The six operators in our current intake (including two husband and wife teams) have embraced the added challenge of creating a business plan to do agri-tourism on their farms. This means developing the business skills, doing market research and coming up with a strategy to be successful in a whole new way. They are committing a significant amount of time over a four month period – what is usually their “off season” – to the business planning process.

My own aha moments have come from watching the synergy evolve within the group and because of it. We meet every couple of weeks in between one-on-one sessions with each participant. Their agri-tourism activities include organic and non-organic produce markets and u-pick; farm tours that are both entertaining and educational, and using agricultural land for a unique wedding venue with additional agri-tourism activities. They bring each other up to date on the progress of their market research and share everything from pricing tips to challenges related to bookkeeping, insurance, and dealing with employees and tourists. Local experts in tourism, economic development, land use regulations, and even chefs have readily shared their knowledge and contributed to this research through customized presentations to our group.

The greatest challenge for our participants is about to come: taking all that information they’ve gathered over the past few months and turning it into an actual written business plan – a road map for them to follow and help keep them focussed on their goals in preparation for the 2014 season!