Marc-André Isabelle wants people to come to his farm. Lots of people.
So the fourth-generation dairy farmer in Coteau-du-Lac planted thousands of flowers and invited visitors to come and pick their own bouquets.
Mr. Isabelle, who wanted to be a farmer from a young age, knew for years that his family needed to diversify and add new revenue streams.
In 2010, when he and his brother became equal partners with his parents in the 150-hectare farm southwest of Montreal, they added more cows and doubled their dairy quota. But it still didn’t generate enough income to sustain a family of five adults.
In 2015, they built a small store for selling produce to local residents, along with organic veggies and strawberries grown by his sister.
That venture was such a success that they started growing their own strawberries on five acres of land, selling to local supermarkets. (They have since expanded to 20 acres of strawberries, with most of the fruit now sold in their own store.)
But still, Mr. Isabelle had other ideas.
After attending marketing conventions in 2018 and 2019, he was inspired to build a corn maze for families and planted fields of sunflowers, creating a photo-op he hoped would entice even more visitors.
“A fruit stand will attract people from a certain distance, usually locally,” he said. “The flowers can reach even a greater distance. People will drive from further away, from different cities for an interesting experience.”
The plan was to open it in August, 2020.
Then COVID-19 hit and, like so many other businesses, the farmers were unsure they would be able to open to the public.
Mr. Isabelle put off planting the ornamental sunflowers by two weeks – but decided as an act of faith to go ahead. “The risk of losing the crop was lower than the potential reward if we were going to be able to open.”
Eventually, they were able to proceed with restrictions on the number of visitors, who were required to reserve a spot in advance. Three hundred people arrived on the first weekend, starting Aug. 21, and “then it snowballed as photos began to hit social media,” Mr. Isabelle said. By the end of the season, more than 8,000 people had visited the farm.
One thing he noticed was how much people loved picking and taking the sunflowers home. He thought about expanding again, this time to reach people earlier in the season. FestiFleurs, a pick-your-own bouquet event, was born.
In May, 2021, the farmers planted 13,000 flowers, made up of 80 different varieties, on two acres in a field that was plowed last year for peas.
FestiFleurs opened July 23 and 150 people booked online to visit that day. By the end of the weekend, more than 700 people went home with 465 unique and freshly hand-picked bouquets.
Even the field itself, comprised of small vignettes, is an experience. A white-painted piano edged with corn and a row of white cleome spinosa in front beckons adults and children to test the working keys. An old dresser with a mirror sits between rows, reflecting verbena and gomphrena, zinnias and black-eyed Susans. Wooden swings and rattan chairs provide plenty of places to sit and take it all in.
Cooked corn and strawberry smoothies are for sale, and families can bring their own lunch. Though only two acres, the place seems quite spacious – you hardly notice people around you.
Guests describe feeling like they’re on vacation, Mr. Isabelle says.
He is already preparing to double the size of the ornamental sunflower fields to eight acres and add another two acres of flowers that will open later next month, on Aug. 20.
The early summer blooms may be fading, but his ambition is not.
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