Cider Saviours: How the Next Generation of Craft Cider-Makers is Saving Family-Run Farms

By: Briana Tomkinson

The agriculture industry is in a period of intense change. Globalized markets are driving com-modity prices down, making it hard for smaller farms to compete. Many mid-sized operations are being snapped up by large conglomerates.

  Additionally, many of the men and women running small and mid-sized North American farms are starting to look forward to retirement. According to Statistics Canada, the average age of the Canadian farmer is 55. Yet, often their children aren’t interested in taking over the family business.

The apple business is no exception. Yet, as many independent growers are discovering, changing consumer tastes are opening up new opportunities for niche producers. For apple orchardists, pivoting from selling apples to launching a craft cider brand can be a lifeline for struggling family-run orchards.

  According to Anelyse Weiler, a college professor of sociology at Okanagan College in Kelowna, British Columbia, and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Toronto, moving into craft cider production opens up new revenue streams and buffers producers from economic volatility in the fresh fruit commodity market—and can be an effective way to entice grown children to consider returning to the family business.

  “Apple farmers face a slew of challenges in their industry, like the toll of the physical labour on their bodies, the increasing consolidation of apple production companies into huge conglom-erates, and the effects of climate change on their crops,” she said. “Moving into cider produc-tion can help farmers maintain their rural lifestyle instead of getting out of it altogether.”

  As part of her dissertation work, Weiler spoke to 100 people working in the Pacific Northwest craft cider industry about the challenges they face. She found most young cider producers she spoke with grew up in the agriculture industry and saw the struggles their parents faced.

  “For a lot of young people who had grown up on farms, they could observe not only the eco-nomic volatility but the emotional stress put on their parents’ generation and, frankly, the phys-ical cost of being a full-time farmer,” Weiler said. “For some of them, there was no romanticism that went into this idea of farming. They went into it with eyes wide open, and in many cases, wanted to maintain some sort of connection to agriculture, but on their own terms.”

  Weiler said mid-sized farms are finding it more difficult than ever to eke out a profit. Yet smaller farms have more opportunities to sell their products directly to consumers through farmer’s markets, farm tourism, local distribution to restaurants and via online marketing. Sales volume may be lower, but customers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for high-quality “arti-sanal” products.

  “A lot of producers face this ultimatum: get big, get out or get niche,” Weiler said. “And craft cider industries are one way for people to get niche.”

  Many young orchardists in the cider business truly value the interactive service components that go into direct marketing and sales, Weiler said. They also enjoy the chance to connect with customers in a direct way that isn’t always possible when just selling fruits to the commodity market.

  “I think it draws on this emerging craft livelihood movement where young people are interested in the creativity, in the sense of being able to put their unique signature on something in ways that farming for the fresh fruit market doesn’t always allow,” she said. 

  Weiler noted that the high cost of farmland in Canada makes it hard for young people without family ties to enter the orchard business. Young people who want to get into orcharding on their own have to get creative, she said. Some have created micro-cideries using windfall fruit or harvesting from abandoned orchards, for example—even using their own labour to pick the fruit.

Cider by the Numbers

  In Canada, cider sales are booming. In 2018, Statistics Canada reported that Canadians quaffed 181 million litres of ciders, coolers or similar beverages per person—the equivalent of 21.5 bottles for every person over the legal drinking age.

  According to research by Euromonitor, the craft beer craze has sparked interest in other small-batch, artisanal food and beverage products, including cider. The amount of cider sold in Canada more than doubled between 2013 and 2018, from 29 million litres to 63 million. Euromoni-tor projects sales could jump to almost 93 million litres by 2022.

  Sales growth in this category over the past 10 years has outpaced wine, spirits and beer in Canada. Cider and cooler beverage sales had an annual average increase of 6.4% over this period, compared to 4.2% growth in wine sales, and 2.8% for spirits and 1% for beer. Sales of imported cider grew faster than Canadian-produced brands, increasing at an annual average rate of 10.2% versus 5.5%.

  Ontario is the largest apple-growing region in Canada, with over 16,000 acres of trees. Accord-ing to the Ontario Craft Cider Association, cider is now the fastest-growing category of alcohol-ic beverages in Canada. Reporting from the government-run Liquor Control Board of Ontario shows that between 2012 and 2019, sales of Ontario craft ciders soared from $1 million to $16.3 million.

  According to Statistics Canada, ciders and coolers represented 4.2% of total alcohol sales in Canada in 2018, with the largest market share in New Brunswick (6.8%) and the lowest in Nu-navut (0.9%).

Key Dates for Canadian Cider Festivals (as of the date of publishing):

•    B.C. Cider Festival ( May 24, 2020: This year’s event will feature over 30 cideries from the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The festival is connected with B.C. Cider Week, May 23-31, which includes tasting events and tap takeovers throughout the province.

• Toronto Cider Festival ( August 28-29, 2020: Fea-tures live music, artisan market, food, an outdoor fire pit, and of course, a cider showcase and tasting events.

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