When the novel coronavirus arrived in Canada last spring, Sandy Holmberg noticed a new trend emerging amongst potential customers.
People weary of isolating indoors were inundating the social media pages for Sunnynook Farms – the acreage she owns and operates with husband, Craig, and their three daughters – with requests to visit the operation.
It’s not something they had typically done in the past, but seeing an opportunity to expand their customer base, they embraced the enthusiasm, welcoming people to tour the farm in a safe, socially distanced manner.
“My plan is to let consumers tell me what it is that they want to see,” Sandy said. “Because if you listen, they’ll let you know.”
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Allowing people on site provided them a chance to educate consumers on how food is grown, and the importance of supporting local producers.
“They’ve been asking about that for a while, getting into their heads where does this come from, how is it grown, who grows it, what do you utilize,” Sandy said. “That trickles down into other things, like clothing. Anything that you bring in your house now, people are questioning how it gets there and if it’s ethically brought in, so it’s the same with food.”
The Holmbergs have been farming on their property in Echo Bay, a community east of Sault Ste. Marie, since 2012, when they purchased the acreage from Craig’s parents, who started the farm as a dairy enterprise in the early 1960s.
Sunnynook’s staple crop is the horse hay they grow on 200 acres every year. But they also produce free-range, pasture-raised beef and pork products, along with a wide variety of produce and preserves that they sell at the farmgate and the local farmers market.
They additionally stock products from other Northern Ontario producers, including Makwa Honey and Mountain Maple Products.
Four years ago, committed to providing transparency about where its products come from, a Sault restaurant, The Breakfast Pig, approached Sunnynook about sourcing their pork. Since then, the farm has begun supplying a number of other local eateries with their products.
“Some people don’t want to put a face to the name of the animals they’re about to eat, but some people do,” Sandy said. “So we try to cater to everybody.”
The farm is run on a no-waste system. Any produce that’s not fit for human consumption is returned to the farm and fed to the pigs.
But high-quality, unsold produce is gathered and distributed to soup kitchens, halfway houses, women’s shelters, and other charitable organizations through Connect the Dots, a non-profit program run by founder Tim Kelly.
“He took the legwork away from the farmers, which is nice,” Sandy said. “He comes and gets what we can give him and divvies it out.”
In the first year alone, Sandy estimated, Sunnynook donated 7,000 pounds of produce through the program.
Both Sandy and Craig maintain off-farm careers – Sandy in law, and Craig as a long-haul trucker – but with the recent success of the on-farm tours, Sandy said, they envision expanding their operation in the future.
That might include processing specialty cuts of meats, or growing the agricultural tourism side of the farm.
However it endures, Sandy said, a thoughtful approach as stewards of the land will remain at the forefront of their business.
“The nice thing about the farm is that we can change directions, as long as we take care of the land and the animals,” Sandy said.
“We can change our minds if we think it’s going to be profitable, or go with the ebbs and flows of how things change.”Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.