The Saskatoon Advantage: How Paul and Karen Hamer Built a Thriving Agrotourism Business
When you first step onto The Saskatoon Farm, your senses are greeted by the wide expanse of treed landscapes, gorgeous vistas, and, of course, the smell of freshly baked Saskatoon berry pies.
The farm features market gardens; greenhouses; an old-fashioned street full of eclectic gift shops; a restaurant with an outdoor patio; a seasonal farmer’s market; and an annual u-pick for Saskatoon berries and cherries. It’s a one-of-a-kind place in which you can easily (and enjoyably) lose yourself for a day.
Located at the junction of the Highwood and Sheep rivers, the 700-acre property is nestled in the heart of the southern Alberta’s foothills, just 20 minutes south of Calgary. Once an empty barley field, owner Paul Hamer fell in love with the land when he chanced upon it 36 years ago.
“I was tubing down the river right here and I stopped at this beautiful property. We picked some Saskatoons, and then, we continued on our way,” said Paul, who always dreamed of living a country lifestyle.
A couple of years later, when the property came up for sale, he jumped at the chance to purchase it, even if it meant over-extending himself at the time. In those early days, he worked from dawn to beyond dusk – alternating between long days as a high-end landscaper and even longer nights implementing his creative vision for the farm.
“It’s not a matter of if you build it, they will come,” he said, referring to how he’s augmented the farm over the years. “Creativity is the thing that’s put it all together. Doing things with style and pizzaz and a little bit of input makes it different, special.”
Initially, the farm’s operations were focussed on straight agriculture, specifically setting up other farms to grow Saskatoon berries. He estimates that over the years they have shipped millions of Saskatoon bushes to other growers across Canada and as far away as Romania and South Korea. With no one else producing this type of commodity, Paul believes this is their competitive market advantage.
“It’s the Saskatoon advantage,” he chuckled, “Everything’s better with Saskatoons on it or in it!”
With the u-pick season lasting only a few weeks, diversifying operations has been critical for the long-term financial health of the farm. In recent years, this has meant shifting farm operations away from straight agriculture to becoming more of an agrotourism destination for locals and tourists.
Paul calls this the “ice cream cone effect.”
“We’re relying on people coming here and being delighted: having lunch in the café; buying a lamp in the gift shop; buying an ice cream cone for the whole family; sitting and relaxing,” he said.
This love for the Saskatoon Farm has translated into a 30 per cent increase of new visitors each year. While they have welcomed growth, this increased demand has taken a toll on the farm’s infrastructure. Scaling the farm has required a significant financial investment to upgrade everything from bathrooms and sewers to electrical panels and breakers. Catching up with operational costs, however, remains the biggest struggle.
“Our electrical bill was $17,000 last month – half of that is carbon tax and line charges. It’s crippling,” he said, adding that in recent years, his annual energy costs have jumped from $60,000 to $170,000.
“Making enough money is getting harder and harder.”
Still, the farm has always been about more than just dollars and cents for Paul.
“I'm working for lifestyle, and I've got the greatest lifestyle ever,” he said. “That’s what I’m here for – to enjoy myself, my freedom, and to delight others.”
Seeing others delight in the farm is the pat on the back that keeps him motivated to continue working alongside his wife Karen, and his children, Seann, Austin, and Johanna.
“I really enjoy making people happy and people who come here all day long are people going, ‘Wow, this place is great. I love this place.’ For me, that's the win,” he said.
While Paul is still at the farm every day, he admittedly acts more in supervisory capacity these days.
“Now at age 66, I realize there are other people that can do just as good a job as me,” he said, speaking of his staff. “I’m supervising them and making sure they’re going the direction I want the farm to go to. It doesn’t run itself, but we have good staff and a good direction now.”
Part of this comfort in the farm’s business direction has come from their long-standing relationship with FBC. As Tax Members for more than 20 years, they’ve come to depend on their local tax consultant for sound tax advice and answers to the day-to-day questions that pop up.
“I like the fact that I know they’ve got our back and if something happened or a situation was to occur, they would be there to represent us,” he said, adding that they take comfort knowing they can tap FBC for other services, like succession planning.
“I think we can rely on FBC and that is what gives us the impetus to move forward without having to worry about the financial side of things.”
Looking toward the future, Paul says he’s exploring solutions for generating more passive income for the farm, such as a modest admission to help offset rising costs. Creative by nature, he’s also playing with the idea of establishing a Prairie botanical garden for the farm – something that’s been a lifelong dream.