Organic farmer Nicholas Schaut has launched Hopfarm.ca to promote his new hop business in rural Meaford. Schaut is using cash and advertising space won in the recent Dragons' Den Meaford competition to expand his fledgling business, reach out to craft breweries and promote his adopted community by hosting an annual hop harvest festival at his farm.

Meaford's unique take on popular TV show Dragons' Den
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Up until the turn of the 20th century, craft beer-making was alive and well in the villages and towns dotting Ontario’s vast countryside. But the rise of the temperance movement in the 1920s, along with provincial and municipal Prohibition and “dry” laws, saw the craft brewer virtually disappear by the 1930s. The death of local beer, handcrafted in small batches using the brewmaster’s own special recipes, also brought an end to the local  cultivation of hops — the aromatic flowers that add both flavour and stability to beer.  

Fast-forward to the 1980s, when a thirst for Canadian beer other than the lager and ale produced commercially by the Big Three — Molson, Labatt and Carling-O’Keefe — reintroduced microbreweries and brewpubs to Ontario. The reborn microbrew industry did much to raise the profile of beer, bringing both European flair and home-town pride to Ontario. Even the oft-stodgy LCBO embraced these artisan brews, showcasing them on their shelves with the best of the best, made special because they were brewed locally.  

Today, thanks to craft brewers, beer is the new wine, with tasting notes and special drinking glasses all part of the experience.  

New microbreweries and brewpubs are popping up all over the place, with the Ontario Craft Brewers alone boasting 25 members from the Ottawa Valley to Waterloo and Niagara to Muskoka. But while craft brew is celebrated because it is brewed locally, hops, the ingredient that relates to the artisan beer’s all-important terroir, has yet to catch up with the ever-growing microbrew industry.  

Organic farmer Nicholas Schaut is here to change all that.  

Schaut, whose hop farm proposal was recently named top prize winner in the Dragons’ Den Meaford competition for start-up businesses, wants to bring the craft brew industry back to its roots — the farm. He has plans to hold an annual festival — complete with the unveiling of beer nouveau — celebrating the hop harvest.  

'Respect for the land'

“We want to bring the brewers to the farm and have the community come to taste the byproduct of hops,” says Schaut, who moved his family to rural Meaford from the Shelburne area two years ago to develop an organic farm along the Niagara Escarpment. “It’s a reciprocated respect for the land and the old ways of doing things. An event such as this will embrace the whole community.”  

It’s Schaut’s passion for the land and the community he lives in that fired up the dragons at the recent 2nd annual Meaford competition, modelled after CBC’s popular Dragons’ Den TV show, and winner of a provincial economic development award (more on that later).  

In Meaford’s Dragons’ Den, sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce with the town’s support, would-be entrepreneurs are invited to pitch their ideas to a panel of five businesspeople, who come to the table with $1,000 of their own money to back their favourite entry. Schaut, who brought hops from his farm for the dragons to see and touch, received $4,130 cash, plus advertising and mentoring for a total of $10,930 for his efforts.  

Was it a promise of beer that won the dragons over? Schaut laughs at the thought he would ply the panel with beer to win the competition. What did it, he says, was a business plan that met all four of Meaford’s development strategy pillars — retail, tourism, green and agribusiness — even though he only had to meet one of them.  

Schaut, whose farm has been certified organic, also has a proven track record of building links with the community — he sells his hand-crafted organic hops to several area artisan brewers already — and “there is an absolute commitment to enhance the community.”  

Working together with craft brewers, who would promote the fact that hops for their special brews came from Meaford, Schaut’s business can’t help but shine a positive light on the waterfront town that is often overlooked by tourists on their way to neighbouring Thornbury and Collingwood in search of artisan food, art and antiques. And the annual harvest festival — the inaugural 2011 version will be by invitation-only and include Dragons’ Den organizers, brewers, agri-business owners and economic development officials — will also give visitors and locals another reason to explore the community.  

“This was a thriving brewing area with our own brew house,” Schaut says of the Meaford of a century ago. “There are probably significant pockets of hop vine in the hedgerows of Meaford and Grey County, where they were plowed under when temperance and blight and the wholesale purchase of small breweries put an end to hop cultivation for many years.”  

Taking local beer full circle

Today, only about 20 farms in Ontario grow hops, Schaut estimates, with most of those in the exploration stage. Only a handful grow hops in any significant amount — one to two acres — despite “an ever-increasing market,” thanks to the growing microbrew industry.  

“There are three new breweries starting up in my area alone,” says Schaut, adding that most hops for beer in Canada comes from the U.S. (mostly Washington, Oregon and Idaho), New Zealand and Europe.  

Schaut says his winnings from the 2nd annual Dragons Den Meaford, held in fall 2010, will be used to expand his hop farm, now entering its third season. He plans to develop two acres this year — up from one last year — with five acres under cultivation within three years. “Right now, it’s all hand-crafted, harvested by ladder,” he says of the perennial hop vine, which grows 18 to 30 feet tall in one year and requires a pole structure to support it. An operation larger than five acres would have to be automated, something Schaut will only consider if this can be done gently.  

That Schaut loves the land is undeniable. The farm that lured him, partner Monique and their two young children to rural Meaford is part of an original homestead that was operated by horse before it became a weekend retreat. “It has been gently tenant-farmed, never fully mechanized,” says Schaut, whose land is located along the Niagara Escarpment adjacent to conservation lands near the hamlet of Walter’s Falls. A creek runs through the back of the farm, separating scenic open fields from a forest. “We will mirror the beauty of this land in our stewardship,” he vows.  

Part of the expansion plans involve hop research. The Hop Farm, which also grows garlic and raises chickens, currently cultivates seven hop varieties — with names such as Czech saaz, fuggle and magnum — and another five will be added to the crop roster this year. “That will allow us to determine which are the best for the conditions in this area,” Schaut tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.  

The Dragons’ Den money will also help develop post-harvest infrastructure — hops are pressed into a bale and vacuum-sealed immediately to lock in quality and freshness — and to let more brewmasters know that Schaut has the hops they need to bring their local beer full circle. Relationships with brewers are important, especially since green hop — first off the vine and a key ingredient for the harvest, or nouveau, beer — must be delivered and brewed within 48 hours of picking.  

With a new online presence and expansion plans under way, Schaut is one step closer to quitting his job as a postal worker — both he and Monique hold jobs in Collingwood — to devote his full energies to the farm. Meanwhile, Meaford will gain a full-blown business that not only enhances the town’s reputation as a place where agriculture and heritage are encouraged and celebrated, but that feeds the local craft brew industry and sets the stage for employment for the next generation.  

'Great ideas come from the community'

The local Dragons’ Den competition shows that Meaford “is serious about new ideas,” Schaut says. “And great ideas come from the community.” 

He points to the first Dragons’ Den winner, Meredith Cowan, as an example of a fantastic return for the town “for very little money.” Cowan used her winnings to expand her ginger syrup business — Meredith’s Ginger Syrup is now sold in two dozen locations, including Toronto — and her product line, putting Meaford on the artisan food and drink map in a big way.  

Frank Miele, the town’s chief administrative officer, says Meaford “is one of the few communities that is doing something right” by encouraging entrepreneurs to market their local products. The town is doing its share to help spread the message by buying Meredith’s “Made-in-Meaford” Ginger Syrup — and handing it out to visiting VIPs.  

It’s win-win for all. Much-needed support and promotion for a start-up business, and great publicity for Meaford — and all on a shoestring budget.  

Meaford’s innovative effort to attract entrepreneurs and create local jobs has been recognized by the Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDCO), which awarded Dragons’ Den Meaford top honours in the category of Product Development - Business Retention/Expansion. EDCO also awarded Meaford an honourable mention for the Lieutenant Governor’s Award.  

More than 145 entries were judged. “The competition allows local communities to see just how their economic development initiatives compare to other municipalities when it comes to promoting location, investment and tourism opportunities,” Kathy Weiss, EDCO president, said in a news release.   According to Miele, who was among the local officials on hand to accept the award at a gala dinner on Feb. 3, Meaford achieved the pinnacle of economic development success.  

“Eighty to 90 per cent of new jobs come from existing business and entrepreneurs,” he says in explaining the importance of winning the Product Development - Business Retention/Expansion category. “I treasure it — it’s one of the best awards you’ll ever get.”  

Dragons’ Den Meaford, organized by the Meaford and District Chamber of Commerce, was created as a direct result of the Meaford Economic Development Strategy to help create new start-up businesses. “We feel very proud of what we were able to achieve,” Miele told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It shows what can be accomplished when you work together.”    

Chamber president Geoff Solomon told local media he was pleased Dragons’ Den Meaford was recognized by EDCO. “We thought it was a good and unique event, and we are thrilled to know the municipality agrees ....”  

Others lining up to jump on the bandwagon

While Miele says he has heard other municipalities want to get on the Dragons’ Den bandwagon, he says there may be a problem. “We were the first to think of it and first to approach the CBC. They sanctioned it — but we’re the only community in Canada with permission,” Miele told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.  

So how did Meaford, pop. 11,000, convince the CBC to lend its Dragons’ Den name and logo for a local version? According to Miele, having connections can open doors. It started with Paul Osborn, general manager of the town’s gem, Meaford Hall, where hundreds bought tickets to watch the Dragons’ Den competitions. He pitched the concept to the chamber of commerce, on whose board he sits. The chamber liked the idea. The CBC was approached. It said OK, let’s test this out and see how it goes. The rest is history.  

Back to those connections: Osborn’s wife happens to be an executive at CBC.  

Miele says the town is gearing up for a presentation to CBC executives, “letting them know of our success.” And plans are under way for the 3rd annual Dragons’ Den Meaford. Miele believes future competitions will “see more youngsters coming out,” which fits well with the town’s goal of attracting young people to live and work in Meaford.  

“Success is where it’s at, even if the entrepreneur starts out by employing only his or her self,” says Miele. “The message is out there: the local entrepreneur is alive and well.”  

RELATED READING: See our community profile on Meaford.  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — March 2011