TwoBlokes lineup of product bottles and cans

culture and tourism is ramping back up.

You might assume that culture and tourism couldn’t possibly be a trend when we haven’t been able to go anywhere for the better part of two years, but that doesn’t mean the industry is stagnant. We’ve all heard (and are so tired of) the term “pivot,” but if anyone had to figure out new offerings and revenue streams, it was this sector. That’s why we’re especially excited to see what this industry has in store, with companies like Two Blokes Cider and Willowtree Farms leading the way in Durham Region.

Think about how quickly business in tourism and culture screeched to a halt in March 2020: Museums and art galleries quickly built online programs and tours, tourism boards created virtual events, food destinations packaged up at-home experiences, and more. So, while there’s no denying that the past two years have been tumultuous, it has also been a time of tremendous innovation.

Now that we’re slowly coming to the other side of the public health crisis, culture and tourism is ramping back up. The safety protocols remain in place (and likely will for a long time to come) but people are able to travel, to gather and to explore new locations again. Durham Region is a gem in Eastern Ontario, with so many interesting and beautiful destinations to visit, from sprawling trails to incredible eating.

Two Blokes Cider

For Two Blokes co-owner Matthew Somerville, the boutique cidery in Seagrave, Ont., was a long time coming. You might even argue it was four generations in the making. Two Blokes operates on Somerville’s family farm (Somerville is the fifth generation to farm the land) with approximately 4,000 trees producing apple varieties unique to cider-making, on more than six acres of heritage land. Somerville co-owns the cidery with his partner, Andrew Paul.

Cider has been having a moment for more than five years now, but for Somerville and Paul, Two Blokes wasn’t about getting in on a trend. Somerville had always been interested in sustainable farming practices, and a desire to return to the farm drove him to develop a strategy of what crops to plant there; at the same time, he had always been interested in craft beer and other craft beverages. Cider was an opportunity to marry the two. The urban planner (who coincidentally focused on heritage land in his job) took a leave of absence from his private-sector work to travel to the UK to study cider-making, returning with the beginnings of a plan to cultivate an orchard and build a cider line from the farm on which he grew up. He then met Paul, a mechanical engineer, who had also just returned from the UK, and the two bonded over their travels and their love of cider.

But cider-making is a long game: The Two Blokes orchard was planted in 2015, coming into production a few years later. While they began producing cider in 2017, using imported apples, the cider line created with produce from their own farm launched this past summer, more than a decade after Somerville visited the United Kingdom.

For Somerville, the farm offers more opportunity than just cider-making, too. He sees a future for agri-tourism, where people would be invited to book an overnight stay in a tiny home on the land, to see first-hand how the product is created. He believes Durham Region is positioned well for this type of travel: “I’m really interested in trying to help raise up the area and develop it as an agri-tourist destination,” says Somerville. “People have a desire to connect with living systems. And the idea that you don’t have to drive two hours [from Toronto] to Prince Edward County, that you can drive 45 minutes to Port Perry for a day trip instead…we need more of a focus on that.” Somerville and Paul have already converted the implement shed on the property into a light and airy venue for tastings, but they also intend to host weddings, to open up an Air BnB on-site and to offer self-contained RVing in exchange for purchasing product at the farm.

Somerville also talks about the importance of helping others get into farming, as a emphasis for the future. Somerville and Paul are partnering with Clearwater Farms, who operate an agri-preneur program to teach people farming practices, with an aim to share their land with those who want to get into farming but don’t have access to acreage the way Somerville and Paul did. “We need to maintain the heritage landscape of the area, including buildings like barns and silos. We need to find new uses for these century-old structures. One way to do that is to turn century farms into community hubs, to share expertise, knowledge, equipment and more,” says Somerville. Because without it? We won’t have the Matt Somervilles and Andrew Pauls to tend to farming legacies for years to come.

We need to maintain the heritage landscape of the area and one way to do that is to turn century farms into community hubs, to share expertise, knowledge, equipment and more.

TwoBlokes lineup of product bottles and cans

Willowtree Farms

Ask anyone in Port Perry to name an important community business — a business that means something to the people who live in the area — and you’re bound to hear mention of Willowtree Farms. The farm, founded in 1969 by Rod McKay (who wasn’t even 20 years old at the time!), has been a fixture in the region for more than 50 years.

When McKay first began farming at Willowtree, cash crops and dairy cows were his bread and butter (and he remained a dairy farmer for more than 20 years). But once he met his wife, Marlene, who had grown up on a strawberry farm, all bets were off. He planted four acres of strawberry plants as a surprise for her one year, the fruits of which Marlene tended and sold at a roadside wagon. Eventually those acres of strawberries expanded to include other fruits and vegetables, and the McKays began selling their produce at farmers’ markets across the GTA. In 1990, the McKays opened a seasonal market on the farm, which became a mainstay in
the community.

Rod and Marlene’s sons Jordan and Alex became critical to the success of the farm as the brand continued to grow. With their help, Willowtree was able to attend more farmers’ markets, add more crops, implement a CSA farm share program, begin raising sheep and more. The original market was also replaced with a larger, all-weather farm store in 2015, with added amenities, like a butcher shop.

Marlene and Rod have both since passed away, in 2015 and 2016 respectively, but the McKay brothers and their families have taken up the Willowtree mantle. Jordan and Alex, and their wives, Alyson and Kelty, work full-time on the farm. While they still farm the land as their parents did, and are committed to providing the freshest products possible, they have also expanded in many other ways to serve the community: They maintain a CSA program for more than 300 families; open their fields for free public tours and school field trips; organize healthy basket food fundraisers; and organize special events on the farm, like visits with Santa. They also engage in sustainable farming practices, in order to preserve the land for generations to come. It’s safe to say the farming dream of 19-year-old Rod McKay has become a pretty remarkable reality.

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