By Jeff Tribe
The Bouchard family had no problem with a photo in front of their travel trailer ... as long as we took one first with a panoramic view of Greener Pastures’ Eco Farm’s rotational grazing field in the background.
“This is why we’re here,” explained Yves Bouchard, indicating a classically bucolic vista with a sweep of his hand.
The emergence of organizations such as Hipcamp, Harvest Hosts and Terego combining camping or alternative accommodation with agricultural and other operations is opening up opportunity for a deeper dive into authentic and educational rural experiences.
And while the Bouchard’s spacious campsite had its own picnic table, fire ring flanked by a pair of comfy wooden recliners and a nightly opportunity for a beautiful sunset, it was the uniquely rural ambiance they were celebrating, roosters crowing at dawn, an on-farm tour, cattle lowing in the gathering dusk.
“Just lovely,” smiled Vicki Bouchard. “I could listen to cattle all day.”
Sharing their regenerative agricultural vision has always been a passion for Greener Pastures owner-operators Carl and Andrea VanRooyen, whose 75-acre pasture-based/humanely raised/heritage breed operation is southeast of Woodstock along Oxford Road 14. Embracing the tenets of pasture-raised proponent Joel Salatin, the VanRooyens sequentially rotate their 40-member mostly-Belted Galloway herd through 45 acres of pasture. They are followed up a half-dozen days later with chickens, capitalizing on concentrated insects and by-products courtesy of the cattle’s passage.
The farm also hosts cold-hardy and disease and sunburn-resistant Tamworth swine, animals essentially living in their natural state. Utilizing or ‘layering’ the same ground in this complementary way effectively expands their acreage through productivity believes VanRooyen, natural processes regenerating rather than simply sustaining soil.
Greener Pastures is not certified organic, rather what Carl terms ‘self-certified ecological’ — an open doors policy allowing consumers to both be educated on and personally view their approach before drawing their own conclusions. Any supplementary feed or minerals fed to cattle and chickens are certified organic, although the pigs are fed local by-products which are not.
Pastured beef does take longer to prepare for slaughter than conventional counterparts, a minimum of 24 months and up to 30. However, the extended growth period and added care and management required are offset through a premium based in part on purported elevated levels of vitamins A, D and E as well as Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.
Starting out at a price point Carl describes as ‘middle to high end’, marketplace evolution compared to their consistency for the past seven or eight years has narrowed the gap considerably between their, for example, $8.50 per pound of ground beef, and that available at box stores. Greener Pasture products are marketed through an onsite retail outlet also featuring Blue Cow Delivery and other local producer products (greenerpastures ecofarm.ca), and Saturday mornings at the Woodstock Farmer’s Market.
The camper hosting concept originated in Europe says Carl, brought to North America by a variety of organizations looking to replicate its success. Initially, he said, it may have been more breweries, golf courses, wineries and even restaurants.
“But farms are becoming more common now.”
His parents Francis and Connie introduced the idea, based on their own experience.
“His mom and dad said ‘You’ve got to do this, you’re already better set up than anyone we’ve been to,’” recalled Andrea.
Greener Pastures is located just off the confluence of Highways 401 and 403. Considerations to farm hosting included the potential for additional revenue from increased onsite retail sales and nightly fees, as well as, not inconsequentially, an opportunity to share their agricultural vision and develop new relationships. In the end, Greener Pastures aligned with Hipcamp and Harvest Hosts (both North American-wide entities, the former based out of Toronto, the latter from the U.S.), which in generalized, broad terms, represent the two basic models Carl is aware of.
Harvest Hosts patrons pay an annual membership fee, which he believes is around $100.
“It’s not an incredible amount,” interjected Andrea.
Members essentially stay on location free of charge, for one night.
“But the expectation is you support the people you are staying at,” says Andrea.
Harvest Host patrons must be self-contained in terms of plumbing, food and power and hosts are expected simply to provide a place to park.
“We try to provide a little more than that, but that’s all we have to do.”
Hipcamp is what Carl describes as a “more traditional” campground model, through which patrons pay a set site fee per evening, or as many evenings as is mutually agreed upon. There is no requirement for hosts to book, should they be planning their own holiday, for example.
Both organizations carry insurance to cover hosts, and both offer online platforms featuring location and host descriptions, rules of conduct for both hosts and guests, booking and two-way communication portals, hosts receiving an emailed reminder on the day guests are scheduled to arrive.
“I still get the odd call, but really, everything is booked online,” says Andrea.
There are also reviews on the site, which the VanRooyens are aware of, but don’t specifically focus on. There is also a members-only portal where hosts are able to review campers prior to accepting bookings.
“Our experience has just been so positive,” says Andrea.
Greener Pastures features three dedicated sites: Cider Patch, Heart of the Forest, and The Fringe. The structured sites tend to be prioritized toward Hipcamp campers in case of conflicting bookings, due to the lesser requirements and expectations of self-sufficient Harvest Host patrons.
Through Hipcamp, their sites cost $40 per evening, which includes access to a port-a-potty. But there is a wide range of options available throughout the organization says Carl, ranging from a basic spot in a field or urban driveway, to glamping or permanent structures, ranging in price from $20 to $200 per evening.
“It’s kind of whatever you’re looking for.”
Their association with both organizations has provided a welcome additional revenue stream, along with additional administration Andrea has assumed responsibility for, and what could be termed shared customer service requirements. The huge majority of Harvest Hosts guests do support the on-site retail outlet, many to a point beyond a campsite fee, although there is a tiny, disappointing minority which take advantage of the relationship.
“The idea is you hope people will value it the same way you do,” says Andrea.
Conversely, many who have paid for a site through Hipcamp, also make food purchases.
“Because we have the store, they tend to shop anyway,” says Carl.
In conjunction with becoming farm hosts, the VanRooyens successfully applied for a tourism and innovation grant offered through Oxford Tourism, Community Futures Oxford and the Rural Oxford Economic Development Corporation, a $3,000 contribution boosted with $7,000 of their own money providing enhanced trail and site enhancements, signage and picnic tables.
“That has been very helpful and appreciated,” credited Andrea.
People can investigate the farm on their own, but value-added opportunities including farm tours, their three daughters’ firewood shack, and picnics featuring Greener Pastures and other local products help contribute to a welcome revenue stream, which tends to be outside previously existing relationships.
“It’s not about the money, but it’s not not about the money,” explained Carl frankly.
Monetizing their agricultural operation through this manner dovetails nicely with their underlying goal of sharing their farm and farming journey, against a backdrop of Carl’s realization that while their names are on the title deed, they are white European settlers operating on historically Indigenous lands.
“I would use the word privileged, we are privileged to have this spot,” says Andrea. “It was always about bringing community into that. This is a way to do that and make it bigger than just ourselves.”
They also, as farmers who struggle to get away on their own vacations, are able to live vicariously through guest experiences.
“We get to meet a lot of wonderful people,” said Carl.
“Just as weird as us, it makes us feel a little more normal,” Andrea laughed.
Carl believes this style of camping lends itself to the more adventurous, and while many of their guests are from ‘concrete jungles looking to simply experience nature’, they’ve also had a Belgian couple closing out a five-month North American sabbatical with their three children, a 22-member intergenerational birthday party, five couples from Quebec who sourced Greener Pastures’ night skies for a star-gazing adventure, and a social media pair who closed out a lengthy tour of Mexico, The United States and Canada with a semi-impromptu formalization of their relationship augmented by staged lighting, conditional on proper weather and setting.
“They were like all giddy,” Carl recalled. “It was like, ‘We might get engaged tomorrow.’
“We came out the next day and they showed us the ring.”
And while some might prefer keeping their private rural settings private, Carl and Andrea speak fondly of sharing their experiences and journey with like-minded individuals who appreciate the opportunity and teach them things in return.
“It brings to fruition exactly what we want to do with this space, share it and allow others to get joy in the way we do,” Andrea summed up.
The Bouchards were looking for all of that and more, after connecting with the VanRooyens at the local farmers market. A manager from a mental health agency highly stressed through COVID, Vicki values the opportunity to relax, sit and embrace nature’s calming effects as their son Bastien rides his bike around the property, or connects with the VanRooyen sisters.
“I don’t sit well anywhere else,” she smiled.
Beyond that, they’re ‘pretty locally committed people’ who are financially able and choose to support that option, where possible.
“We’re showing Bastien where this all comes from,” says Vicki. “We talk about it, but it is different from doing it.”
“There’s a face to a product, a story behind it,” Yves added. “And you know where your money is going.”
They do travel more extensively, including to his native Quebec, but also camp just north of Woodstock at Willow Lake.
“This is our community,” Yves summed up.
“And an investment in the place we live,” Vicki concluded. ◊