Jun 29, 2007
Hard Work, Imagination Make On-farm Business Flourish

In 1984, Harold and Janice Wagner started with an old farmhouse, a drive shed and 50 acres of untilled ground just outside of Windsor, Ontario. They’ve put money and sweat equity into the property, but just as important has been the couple’s considerable creative energy.

The farm – now Wagner’s Orchards & Estate Winery – has been transformed.

The Wagners operate an estate fruit winery and on-farm bakery, sell pork, beef and pick-your-own produce and are building an event room with seating for 100. There are now year-round sales from the bakery and winery and more than 15,000 customers make the trek to the gravel-road location during the busy fall season.

“The big food chains are consistent but unimaginative and unexciting,” Harold said. “We’re not, and it’s this that’s going to make us successful.”

The Wagners began with an attempt to “commodity farm.” Over the years, this included cash cropping on rented ground and running a low-tech, farrow-to-finish hog operation.

This approach began to change when they planted apple trees on 10 acres of ground and started growing sweet corn that Harold distributed himself, driving on a route to Ontario communities a few hours away.

Then came the drought of 1988 in Essex County. While the apples were not yet producing, there was plenty of sweet corn, thanks to a large irrigation pond on the farm.

“People began giving me more for the corn here on the farm than what I was getting up there for delivering it,” Harold said.

And so the idea of selling from the farm-gate was born.

Mother Nature had a role, as well, in getting the pick-your-own apple business started. The first substantial crop was hail-damaged, so Harold advertised to have people harvest the fruit themselves at $8 a bushel, and the people came in droves.

Then came the Wagners’ two-year experience during the 1990s with restaurant ownership at nearby Emeryville. The business – which offered higher-end home cooking – was a success, but even the couple’s energy level wasn’t enough to operate a restaurant, farm and vet business simultaneously, so the restaurant was sold.

Yet Harold, who has a knack in the kitchen, gained valuable experience that proved useful for the on-farm bakery. Meanwhile, the pick-your-own business had grown to include on-farm cider sales, pony rides and horse-drawn wagon rides.

“All of a sudden, the yuppies and their children were showing up . . . and we were making more money,” Harold said.

It was an important realization. People want a connection to the farm and to foods that are not part of an assembly line. From offering fresh produce, it was a natural progression to add the bakery in 2001 and the winery, which has entered its third year of operation.

Gross income at Wagner Orchards & Estate Winery is now roughly split between the bakery, winery and fresh produce and meats. Harold feels the winery and event room, still under construction, have considerable growth potential.

Wine sales have tripled from a few hundred cases in the first year. The dryer wines sell for just over $10 (U.S.), while a selection of half-bottle dessert wines sell for about $15.

Harold takes care to produce quality wines. For instance, the Saddlenotch fruit wine is made from 100 percent apple juice with no sugar added. The juice is frozen, with a portion of the water removed as ice to concentrate the natural sugars before fermentation.

Iced apple, a sweet dessert wine, is made using a similar process. The Wagners have released other fruit wines and two grape wines.

In the bakery, there are a variety of pies and other desserts available, including their signature fruit strudel. The strudel sells for about $3 in U.S. funds, while pies are priced around $10.

There also are meat specials such as smoked ham glazed with iced apple wine.

Apples, peaches and pumpkins are available in season.

While much of the meat and produce is grown right on the farm, the Wagners work with other farmers in Essex and neighbouring Chatham-Kent.

There’s an overall emphasis at the operation to produce “natural” produce and meats.

Harold and Janice met at the University of Guelph. They farmed near Dundalk in Dufferin County before moving to the Windsor area.

Harold focuses on the farm business. Janice is a veterinarian with a practice at nearby Essex and also helps with the farm.

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