How a one-crop farm attracts 40,000 visitors a year

Living and working on a cranberry farm for more than 30 years hasn’t quenched Wendy Hogarth’s thirst for cranberry juice — she drinks her farm’s own brand every day.

As co-owner of Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh in Bala, Ont., with her husband, Murray Johnston, she’s always looking for new ways to bring visitors to their farm — about 40,000 of them each year. Whether it’s touring the 27 acres of cranberry bogs or sampling the cranberry wines made by their Muskoka Lakes Winery, there’s always something to see, do, eat or drink.

P: What do you enjoy most about working on a cranberry farm?

WH: I love living in a rural area. I also believe very strongly in sustainable agriculture. What I do is fulfilling because I feel we’re contributing to that. We’re also contributing to the economic health of our area — Bala has developed its branding around cranberries.

P: The Bala Cranberry Festival is kind of a big deal — it’s one of the top events in Ontario. How are you involved?

WH: Ontario has very few cranberry growers (there are three commercial producers), and two of us are near Bala. When the town started the festival 30 years ago, it wanted to celebrate that uniqueness. We’ve been presenting sponsors of the festival since the beginning, and offer visitors a chance to see and experience a working cranberry farm. We offer wagon tours, wine tasting, helicopter rides, a mini farmers’ market and, of course, fresh cranberries. We also started a “stand in the berries” experience, where people can put on a pair of hip waders and get out in the cranberries.

P: You have an MBA and your husband has a B.Sc. in agriculture, both from Guelph. How do your academic backgrounds complement each other?

WH: Murray has a skill set that I don’t have. His expertise in cranberries and his understanding of plant physiology are pretty amazing, and he does a lot of research and development trying to understand his craft. I took sommelier studies when we started the winery, and the MBA was a way to bring more tools to the business to help us grow and survive. What I love about Guelph’s program is it’s agriculturally based, and hospitality and tourism based. It really hit both of the major aspects of our business.

P: Why did you decide to expand your farm operations to include agritourism?

WH: My undergrad was in recreation and tourism, so the agritourism side of things interested me and I developed them here: the expansion into farm-gate sales, value-added production and tours. We have a pretty small farm, so to stay in business and remain competitive, we’ve had to diversify and create extra value for the fruit that we grow.

P: What’s something people don’t know about cranberries?

WH: Cranberries don’t grow underwater. They grow on a trailing vine that forms a low, dense ground cover that hides the berries. At harvest time, we flood the bogs so the cranberries float to the top of the vine biomass to make them easier to pick. Our harvester combs the berries off the vines and collects them in boats.