When I explain my agritourism book project to friends, one of the most common questions I get is: “how do you find the places you’re visiting?” People are curious about how I go about my research. In particular, they want to know what kind of web resources there are for planning farm visits – especially for the less well-known destinations.
The answer to this question is complicated, which is partly why I decided to write a book and create a website on this topic. Although there are multiple websites covering the topic of local food and agritourism, there are some particular challenges in our region:
- The city of Ottawa itself is huge – almost 5000 square kilometres. When you add in the regions within a one hour drive of downtown Ottawa, you’re talking about multiple municipalities and two provinces. There is no one-stop-shop for this kind of information; it’s spread out across multiple websites and tourism authorities.
- Some of the agritourism destinations promote themselves mostly in French (although it’s surprising how many places in Quebec offer English tours and English information on their websites).
- Some of the government websites are focused primarily on food, so it can be hard to find information on non-food experiences, such as visits to alpaca farms or gardens.
- Many of the agritourism operations are very small, with limited time and money to spend on promotion. It can be hard to find these places unless there is a government-sponsored website that includes them.
It’s taken hours and hours of research to come up with the 200 or so agritourism destinations that I’m currently tracking on an Excel spreadsheet. I watch for stories in my local EMC and West Carleton Review, I pick up brochures anywhere and everywhere, and I keep an eye out for anything that looks remotely interesting when I’m driving our country roads.
I also comb through many government-sponsored websites. I’ve spent a lot of time on sites like Croquez l’Outaouais, Terroir et Saveurs (Agritourism Quebec), Savour Ottawa, Ottawa’s Countryside, Agri-Tour.ca, Prescott-Russell Tourism, Lanark Local Flavour, and the Petite-Nation La Lievre tourism site. This has allowed me to get a good sense for the differences in the way that each region looks at agritourism.
What I find most surprising is that it’s quite difficult to find a list of agritourism destinations within the city of Ottawa. Agritourism has simply not been a focus for the city of Ottawa. If you go to the Ottawa Tourism website, there are no rural listings under “Neighbourhoods”, nor are there any farm experiences under “Itineraries and Activities”. They do have a link to the Ottawa’s Countryside website under the “What to Do” section, but unfortunately, they imply that the site covers only Prescott-Russell, which isn’t even part of Ottawa (Ottawa’s Countryside actually covers areas east, west, and south of Ottawa).
There is some agritourism information hidden away on the main City of Ottawa site under the Rural Connections section. This is where you’ll find the Buy Local Guide and a “Rural events and attractions” listing. It’s also where you’ll find the link to Savour Ottawa, a program whose mandate is to “develop and promote Ottawa and area as a premiere, year-round culinary destination, with robust offerings of local foods and experiences for both locals and visitors to the area.”
I attended the annual Savour Ottawa networking event yesterday, where I learned about the hard work that Savour Ottawa has done over the past few years to connect producers to buyers. For the past few years, Savour Ottawa has focused mostly on building the back-end of this initiative – namely the Savour Ottawa brand and the verification process that goes with it. The result of their work can be seen in the numerous Ottawa restaurants that have joined the program and are proudly serving local food on their menus.
However, by Savour Ottawa’s own admission, they have not put much focus on the general public’s connection with the producers. To remedy this, one of their planned initiatives is to develop self-guided culinary tours similar to what has been developed in other regions (such as the Outaouais). Now, you may be wondering if this will duplicate the work that I’m doing on my own agritourism guide. First off, I would be happy if they did cover the same places as me, since it would mean more people connecting with more rural businesses. But I don’t think there’s likely to be much overlap, for a number of reasons:
- Savour Ottawa is involved only with food. My project covers any kind of agricultural experience, whether it’s food related or not.
- Savour Ottawa is a membership-driven organization. In other words, you must be a member to be listed on their site (and you have to pay a yearly membership fee). Currently only a small percentage of their members are on my own list of places that offer some kind of farm experience beyond the typical farm gate sale.
- Members must pass a verification process to be included in Savour Ottawa and its initiatives. Once you’ve passed and become a member, you can use the logo only for products from your own farm. Savour Ottawa plans to tighten this up so that even farm gate sales must clearly distinguish between the farm’s own products and those of say, the farmer down the road. Rightly or wrongly, this will result in a smaller group of destinations to include in a culinary trail.
- Several of the Savour Ottawa members do not see themselves as a tourist destination, even if they have a store with regular hours. I remember one conversation last summer where a Savour Ottawa member told me he doesn’t actually want to have tourists, nor does he like dealing with first-time visitors because they take too much of his time. In contrast, the places that I’ll be covering in my guidebook actually welcome tourists because this is an important part of their business, and/or they are passionate about sharing their experience and knowledge with others.
Now if we look at Quebec, things are very different. Agritourism is huge there – they even have a special weekend in September when farms across Quebec open their doors to over 100,000 visitors. The Outaouais region does an excellent job of promoting its agritourism destinations. For example, the Outaouais Gourmet Way consists of four circuits that introduce visitors to the food and agricultural experiences of the region. The Croquez l’Outaouais site has a huge list of places to go, and all that’s required of the producers is to be registered with the provincial government (there are no fees for the producers). And there are numerous events throughout the year, including Foire gourmande Outaouais-Est ontarien, a food festival that takes place on both sides of the Ottawa River in Montebello, Quebec and Lefaivre, Ontario.
It’s too bad that Ottawa hasn’t invested in agritourism to the same level as other regions. Considering that 90% of Ottawa’s land area is rural, and 40% of that is farmland, it’s surprising that we aren’t doing more to take advantage of this phenomenal opportunity to strengthen the rural economy. Whether this means more funding is needed for Savour Ottawa, or for a new, broader initiative, it would be great to see the city do more to promote its rich agricultural resources. In the meantime, I will keep working on my book and writing about agritourism on my website, and hopefully others will find the information useful.
If you have any comments about this blog post, please use the comments field below (it won’t show your email address). Or email me at lara<at>agritourismguide<dot>ca. I would love to hear what other people think on this topic!