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Three Annapolis Valley, N.S., community groups are fostering a pilot project in experiential tourism

Wendy Elliott | Posted: April 4, 2023

WOLFVILLE, N.S. — The Wolfville Farmers’ Market was transformed recently into a dining room with evergreen decorations and subtle lighting. Several tables sat down to eat “an inspired local menu” prepared by chef Domenic Padula.

Three appetizers and the main course were all vegetarian and the yummy ingredients all came from nearby farms.

Chef Dom, who has a catering concern called Food Fantastique near Windsor, admitted he was initially daunted at the prospect of cooking with veggies in March. What’s fresh in March after all? But when he saw the offerings at a Saturday market he was convinced.

A number of the diners had toured two of the farms earlier in the day. One woman spoke of the “amazing” oyster mushrooms she’d tasted. We were all part of a pilot project in experiential tourism being fostered by three community groups and a grant from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. The grant was given to the Blomidon Naturalist Society (BNS), the farmers’ market and an experiential tourism organization called Earth Rhythms.

BNS president Soren Bondrup Nielsen says the society takespeople on field trips to learn about the local ecosystems, including flora and fauna, while the market has many vendors who are small-scale farmers running ecologically sustainable farm practices. Earth Rhythms is a private business operated by a BNS member, Celes Dewar, who works across Canada helping tourist operators transition to experiential tourism.

Traditionally, tourism caters to visitors coming from afar to an area to look around and take pictures, said Bondrup Nielsen. “Experiential tourism promotes a connection to an area by participating in activities, hands-on learning, and involvement, leaving with a deep understanding of the local landscape, its people, and nature. This is what got me excited about this project, as I see the BNS contributing in a meaningful way by connecting people to the landscape, the ecology, and where and how the food they eat is grown.”

New experiences

Developing new visitor experiences for travellers and residents will reflect the diverse story of the Annapolis Valley, in collaboration with storytellers who live and work here. A variety of new purchasable experiences will roll out this spring.

Apparently, Tourism Nova Scotia data has confirmed that 60 per cent of non-resident visitors to this region prefer to see themselves as learners. They want to actively learn as part of their travel. This federal funding will fill that gap.

Speaking of experiential, chef Domenic has taken over the unique Burntcoat Head Park-based Dining on the Ocean Floor. He will be serving up dinner during low tide nine times this season.

Back to the dining table.

I could rave about the sauerkraut balls and the vegetarian wellington, but hopefully there will be other opportunities to enjoy this kind of local dining. I was lucky to have guest speaker Elizabeth Peirce across the table. She’s a writer, teacher, and editor living in Halifax.

Peirce has written five books, including the award-winning Grow Organic: A Simple Guide to Nova Scotia Vegetable Gardening. She started out bolstering the reputation of keepers like rutabaga, cabbage and beets. Speaking of these root crops, she said, “they deserve more of a place in our hearts and on our tables.”

These veggies grow well in our climate and keep for six or seven months when the weather is not nice. While also being good for us, Peirce noted that a 99 cent a pound rutabaga should look super when compared to a $10 imported cauliflower.

She says today’s emphasis is on fermented veggies for a happy gut and gear like pressure canners, but nothing beats getting “your hands in the soil. There’s medicine out there in the garden.”

Peirce mentioned her experience with the Community Roots Urban Farm in Dartmouth, where there are community garden plots, immigrant gardens, a market garden stand and clients from the Nova Scotia Hospital who learn how to tend a garden.

“It’s an incredible place, so beautiful. People socialize, share knowledge and grow food,” she said. Peirce even spoke of her love for weeds, like dandelion, purslane and plantain, that was nurtured by gardening.

From the land

Naturalists are well aware that food comes from the land, not a grocery store, and it’s important it is produced as part of a healthy ecosystem. If food production becomes more sustainable, they will have succeeded in promoting the idea of growing food on a smaller scale with mixed crops, as opposed to a large-scale monoculture.

Celes Davar of Earth Rhythms noted that the last couple of years have been very challenging for those in the tourism sector. He says that through COVID-19 the significance of food resilience and security has increased.

“I think that building a whole series of experiences that really champion food, food stories, culinary tourism and a sense of place are well-placed in terms of what visitors want access to as well,” Davar said.

Wolfville Farmers’ Market manager Kelly Marie Redcliffe knows there are stories to tell with important messages about the environment, land, farming and food that they want to share with visitors. It’s going to be fascinating to watch this program roll out with the co-operation of these three groups.

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