It started out 60 years ago as a tree nursery and greenhouse. Today, Prairie Gardens and Adventure Farm is a family-friendly tourist destination that attracts 50,000 visitors a year.
The journey has been one of passion and partnership, lifelong learning and innovation, and a business model that can only be described as relentless.
“Everything we do is about building community and connecting people back to the land,” says owner Tam Andersen, also known as Director of Fun.
Over the past 30 years, Andersen has built a successful agri-tourism operation that offers 50 old-fashioned farm activities, festivals, school tours, weddings, farm-to-fork dinners and more. A new attraction is added every year. The number of awards for Prairie Gardens is also growing, most recently Best Venue and Best Innovative idea from Edmonton Event Awards in March this year.
“I love to grow things. It turns out I’m good at growing more than just plants,” she laughs.
Planting Seeds of Success
Andersen was only 22 years old when she bought Prairie Gardens, 35 acres of Alberta’s best black topsoil near Bon Accord, about 25 kilometres north of Edmonton.
Raised by farm parents who instilled a pioneering spirit, and trained as a horticulturalist, she wanted to build a working farm and started out growing broccoli. “After enough days getting up at 3 a.m. to pick broccoli, I realized this wasn’t for me.”
Andersen added a U-Pick strawberry operation, which turned out to be a ground-breaking move. “It was my introduction to seeing people ‘experience’ a farm. They kept saying, ‘It’s so pretty here, what else can we do?’”
This opened her eyes to the possibility of experiential tourism and new opportunities to ensure profitability for a small family farm – no easy task.
Andersen added a cornfield maze and U-Pick pumpkin patch – the furthest one north in Canada, now offering 50 varieties.
When a bad hail storm punched holes in her pumpkin crop one year, she brought in a cannon so people could shoot pumpkins into the air. This creative response to calamity has grown into the much-loved Halloween Pumpkin Festival with haunted house, scarecrow making and petting farm. And yes, the pumpkin cannon remains a favourite.
Andersen, a 2014 Global Woman of Vision and former head of the Edmonton Regional Tourism Group, has overseen enviable growth since taking over Prairie Gardens.
In 1984, the operation barely had two employees; in 2016, there are 60 people employed during the year, up to 120 in peak seasons. From an average of 5,000 visitors a year, they now welcome 50,000 a year.
Andersen is a firm believer in connecting with the tourism community and learning everything there is to offer about product development, emerging trends and storytelling.
A regular at the Growing Rural Tourism Conference and a 2015 winner of the Entrepreneurial Challenge, Prairie Gardens just completed Travel Alberta’s SHiFT program to learn, among other things, how to move from a seasonal operation to a year-round destination.
“Travel Alberta has been so helpful in showing us how to grow capacity and work with our visitors to enhance their experiences,” she says.
It Takes a Community
Andersen has learned a lot along the way and sums it up in three salient points:
Find your niche, be authentic and always look for ways to partner in your community.
“We are not a glamourous place or polished. We are a working farm, with dirt on our boots. But we are authentic,” she says. “We’ve been able to bridge the disconnect between rural and urban, and people have really responded.”
Prairie Gardens is also immersed in its community, partnering with other farmers, attractions, chefs, artisan potters, moonshiners, songwriters, wine makers and local organizations.
“One farm does not a destination make,” she says. “Our guests need hotels, restaurants, gas stations, service providers and more. That’s why supporting each other’s businesses and working together is so important.”
Prairie Gardens’ next adventure is enhancing its culinary tourism offerings and marketing them to the international travel trade, with the help of Travel Alberta.
Already famous for its Farm to Fork dinners, this year the farm is introducing a Fire Roasters and Long Table Stories Dinner, with Red Seal Chef Terra Slifka.
In addition to enjoying a five-course gourmet meal, featuring food cooked on an open fire, visitors tour the gardens, make their own herb and smoked salt rub, and listen to pioneering stories of sustainable rural agriculture, responsible tourism and social enterprise.
“People are so keen to learn about the history of this place, see how the food is grown and meet the person who grew it,” says Andersen.
Fire Roasters was launched at April’s Rendez-vous Canada, Canada’s international tourism marketplace, with the goal of welcoming international travellers 18 months from now.
“Guests from around the world want to connect with the lost art of growing your own healthy food and we’re hoping these culinary adventures will put us on the map.”
This is the fifth in a 12-part series on Alberta tourism success stories.
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