Retail farming relies upon a diversity of attractions and/or products, quality interaction with loyal customers and a more intensive model of agriculture to succeed. In this model, you have to squeeze more out of every acre than most farmers do and somehow make it all work together.
Michelle and Ron Gietz of Back Forty Enterprises near Brooks know this all too well. On their 52 acre farm they have a corn maze, u-pick raspberry patch, a pumpkin patch, a speciality decorative corn and gourds growing business, a commercial herb garden and a fresh produce, field to table, growing and picking service.
“The main challenge is the volume,” says Michelle Gietz. “The volume of produce you sell is not enough to make a living. It’s supplemental income. It gives you some cashflow to your overall business, and we both have jobs off the farm. On the other hand, you get to meet a lot of people and have a lot of fun. Part of having a business like ours is that customer service element.”
The Gietz family returned to Canada from Memphis in 2009 to take over Michelle’s family farm. While difficult to make a living at, for Michelle it was a dream come true.
“I grew up on this place,” she says, “this was my parents’ house, so this is kind of what’s left of the family farm. And it’s nice to be home!”
Ron and Michelle had five children, and it was from them they drew their first inspiration to open the Brooks Corn Maze.
“We lived in Memphis, Tennessee for a lot of years,” says Michelle. “There was a big corn maze right by the city and our kids loved it when they were little. So when we came back to Canada, we thought why don’t we try a corn maze here and see how it goes?
“We’re close to Brooks so we get quite a few people from there. We also get lots of people from Medicine Hat who come to the corn maze and surrounding communities. So it has turned out to be quite successful.”
It has also helped locals and repeat visitors have embraced the whole concept to keep the maze going strong for the past six years, but the Gietz family is always adding new attractions into the mix to keep it interesting.
“It’s a good fitness activity,” says Michelle. “A lot of seniors come just to walk the maze. There is some games and activities there as well. For example, we have a giant Kerplunk game, giant tic tac toe game and a little putt-putt golf. We have a magnetic fish tank for the little kids… And there is a animals such as goats and bunnies and a train ride as well. It’s all included in the price, and everybody gets to see different sides to agriculture.”
Back Forty Enterprises times all its endeavours to come to fruition at about the same period every fall.
“We have fall-bearing raspberries, not June bearing raspberries,” she explains. “The pumpkins are just ripening now, but we will hold them off because it hasn’t frozen hard enough yet. We will keep them until October, and that’s usually when our pumpkin sales start.”