Ex-chicken farmer Robert Horst and his wife, Louise, left Ontario behind them, moved to the Annapolis Valley, and bought the 200-acre Dempsey Corner Orchards agri-tourism business in April last year for $1.3 million.
The Horsts ended their first full year of operation of Dempsey Corner Orchards in the red. A cold, wet spring prevented fruit from forming on the trees and weeds choked many of the vegetables in the fields.
U-pick operations and visits by tourists to the farm provide it with its highest profit margins. So, the Horsts invested roughly $125,000 on an expansion to their barn to create a kitchen for their café and also added outdoor seating on a deck that doubles the café’s seating capacity.
Deep-red cherries are just waiting to be picked in the fields of this Aylesford farm as the strawberry season draws to a close. Apples, pears, plums, peaches and other fruits will only be ready for harvest later in the season.
Chickens are scratching and pecking away at the ground near the barn. There’s a goat. Ponies. Calves. And a horse.
Welcome to Dempsey Corner Orchards.
This roughly 200-acre farm in the Annapolis Valley has about 50 acres under cultivation with everything from fruit trees to grape vines, berries and vegetables.
Ex-chicken farmer Robert Horst and his wife Louise left their home in Ontario and bought this farm for about $1.3 million in April last year. During that first season, they invested another roughly $40,000 to add about 2,000 fruit trees and boost their production of grapes.
But then, a cold, wet spring led to less fruit on the trees. Weeds grew and choked many of the vegetables in the fields.
And Dempsey Corner Orchards ended its first full year under new management in the red.
“It wasn’t profitable,” admits Robert Horst.
An idea is born
It was, though, educational. As the couple crunched the numbers, one thing became very clear: Dempsey Corner Orchards’ greatest profit margins were not in the production of food as much as in the provision of an agri-tourism experience to visitors.
People from throughout the region visit the farm and pay an entrance fee of $2 per person - except for children three and under who get in for free – every year. Those visitors spend the day breathing in the fresh air, picking fruit or berries, enjoying soups and sandwiches from the café in the barn, petting the animals, and sometimes even take in a little entertainment.
The farm even puts on special events throughout the season for them.
The upcoming Cherry Festival this Friday and Saturday is going to feature a local musician, Bob J. Deveau, who is going to strum his six-string, sing songs, and make balloon animals to entertain visitors before and after they pick cherries in the fields.
Children will be able to ride around the farm in wagons made with barrels that have been cut lengthwise and fitted with wheels and that will be pulled along with a lawn tractor.
Later this year, Dempsey Corner Orchards is going to have its Peachy Pallooza, a similar, peach-harvest themed celebration.
Agri-tourists, many of whom also pick and buy fruit during their stays to the farm, are a big help to Dempsey Corner Orchards’ bottom line.
“Tourism is about 15 per cent of revenues … (but) there’s hardly any cost if a tourist drops by,” says Robert Horst. “Eighty per cent of the tourist revenue is profit.”
Huge customer base
Although agri-tourism accounted for only that small slice of Dempsey Corner Orchards’ revenues in 2019, that aspect of the business produced about half of its profits.
“The more tourists I have coming in and picking fruit and taking it out the door, rather than me shipping it out to brokers, the better off I am,” says Horst.
The brokers, who buy the produce in bulk to resell it to markets and food-processing plants, pay only about half the price for it compared to visitors to the farm, who buy it at a retail price. The Horsts are hoping to double that lucrative agri-tourism revenue this year by enticing Haligonians to spend at least part of their staycations at Dempsey Corner Orchards.
Their strategy to do that is simple: create a better agri-tourism experience and promote it online and through other marketing to the roughly 413,000 people who live in Halifax less than 1.5 hours down the road.
“I’m actually hoping that people will not be able to leave Atlantic Canada (this summer) and they’ll think, ‘What can we do around here?’ and they’ll come here. There’s a huge customer base in Halifax.”
The Horsts’ goal is to double the number of agri-tourists at Dempsey Corner Orchards this year compared to 2019.
Their website designer was putting the finishing touches on a new website for the marketing of the farm’s agri-tourism operations last week. Dempsey Corner Orchards also has its own Facebook page.
It’s not all just marketing, though.
Investments in the business
The Horsts have invested $125,000 to add an 864-square-foot kitchen to the café in their barn and a 25-seat deck to double the café’s capacity. It’s intended to create a homey atmosphere where visitors to the farm will be able to enjoy baked goods, soups and sandwiches with fresh-brewed coffee, and buy canned fruit.
“We had to buy all new, commercial-grade kitchen appliances,” said Horst last week. “We started building in April and we’re nearly finished.”
A family-run operation, Dempsey Corner Orchards employs 11 people, excluding Louise and Robert Horst, and the farm is expected to hire more local people for seasonal work during the harvest. Two of the couple’s six children are among those employees. Alyssa Horst, 23, works in the café while her sister, 25-year-old Corrine Horst, oversees the vegetable patch operations.
It’s hard work. The farm is open to the public six days a week.
But the Horsts are confident – despite COVID-19 and all the issues that have come with it. Once the couple decided to invest in more fruit trees, vines, and the addition to the barn for the café, Robert Horst says they never wavered in their commitment to their business – or their adopted community in Nova Scotia.
“I never hesitated,” he says. “COVID-19 is going to go away and when it does we’ll still be here.”
The Pivot is a regular business feature showcasing an Atlantic Canadian company which is adapting to new market realities with innovative products, services or strategies. To suggest a business which would be a good subject for a future The Pivot story, please e-mail: Pivot@SaltWire.com