The term local food takes on a different level of meaning at Grotto Gardens Country Market located near Maple Creek, Sask., just a hop, skip and a jump away from Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.
Not only does the award-winning business boast a fantastic edibles experience for those with a taste for the good life, it also pays homage to the innate goodness of one iconic Prairie fruit, Saskatoon berry, picked fresh from the 10 acres of berry shrubs surrounding it.
Grotto Gardens Country Market is the dream of owner Dana Hassett and her husband Dan Sellinger. Founded in 2011, the name was chosen as a tribute to the couple’s 14 year-old son.
“The basis for the whole name, Grotto Gardens, is our son had passed away from cancer when he was 14 years-old,” explains Hassett. “We built a stone grotto out here where his ashes are, and that was where the name had come from. The hard work, and everything else we put into it, has become a tribute to him.”
Hassett and Sellinger were raised in Maple Creek before moving to Chilliwack and then Vernon, BC. After the passing of their son, Hassett, who was a registered nurse, and Sellinger, who worked in construction, wanted a lifestyle change. With their aging parents needing extra help, the timing of their return in 2011 seemed fated. Fated or not, it still wasn’t easy to get started, states Hassett.
“It was huge labour to begin with,” she says. “To find someone who could come out and weed, you couldn’t. It was basically my mom and I crawling across 10 acres of land for the first two or three years. “We didn’t use any chemicals to start with because we wanted our plants to take; so it was a lot of weeding. And then learning what to put on the plants in terms of fungicide and whatnot— many times we wondered what we were doing.”
It was a big help when the couple’s remaining two children decided to come and join them, and become partners in growing the business. Hassett’s daughter is now the head baker for Grotto Gardens, and everyone helps out on the farm, and with the multitude of visitors who now come from Cypress Hills Park to enjoy fresh-baked Saskatoon berry pie, macaroons and other berry-themed tasty treats each summer.
“You can’t make a living with just a Saskatoon orchard so my husband being a builder we decided to put up a building to add value to the berries,” explains Hassett. “We’re right parallel to Hwy. 21 that takes about 325,000 people up to Cypress Hills Park every season. That was the basis of our business plan, and it has been good except for the seasonality, of course.
“You have got a three or four month period to make your money, which is tough to do. We are trying to extend our season somewhat; so we are trying to work on that with our haunted house in October and our Christmas events.”
Grotto Gardens, besides selling its popular baked goods, also allows self-pickers to come during the end of July harvest period to take fresh berries from the trees, but it is only a very small part of the family business, Hassett states. Most coming out just want a relaxing experience for a few hours, she says— not the labour of actually picking the fruit. “Most people tend to want to come into the store to get their fresh berries already picked in the pail.
“I guess they could say they picked them if anyone asks,” she says with a laugh.
Grotto Gardens is constantly having to add new featured menu items and attractions to keep the experience of coming out fresh for visitors. To this end, it has added a miniature animal petting area, full meal service, and it plans to add a miniature train or cart pull in the next few years. One attraction that seems to get people through the doors on a weekly basis, says Hassett, is goat yoga.
“A lot of the farming crowd have learned about it from Agribition,” she explains. “We were invited there two years ago, and they wanted us to come back this November, which we will. “It’s basically just that yoga class and you just add the goats. They are wandering around and they may sit beside you on your mat or jump up on your back when you are in a certain position. It’s just that animal therapy combined with the yoga therapy— and for whatever reason it works. People like it, and they come away from the class smiling.”
But at the heart of Grotto Gardens remains its commitment to growing its own Saskatoon berries.
“It’s just because of the Prairie,” Hassett says, “and knowing Saskatoons and the history behind them— it just seemed like the most viable berry to grow. It’s a berry which is well-known around here, and people love it. We didn’t have an orchard tractor to start. That was the first thing Dan went out and got. He worked the field up, and then we went to get the plants from Calgary. We were talked into the Northline variety, which was the most resistant to disease.
“From there, we needed to get a sand bedder which we used for straw. Then you need to spray the plants (with fungicide) or you are not going to have berries. Then we found a berry picker, a harvester, in Medicine Hat a fellow was selling— well-used, but it worked. It works great for driving along over top of the plants.”
The delicious berries are the foundation of everything they hope to achieve at Grotto Gardens going forward, confirms Hassett.
“We see at as a long-term commitment where our kids and eventually our grandkids might be working in someday,” she says. “We just want to carry on with it and stay here as we get older and let the kids take over. We know we have to keep expanding and dreaming up new experiences people could have.”