Armstrong’s population is only about 5000 strong, but when it comes to agritourism, they know how to pack a punch. Carol Patterson visited to check out the Bloom Flower Festivals, farmers’ markets, as well as shops and cideries. Read all about how you can embrace this growing city, where they clearly know how to grow.
As I watched a Savannah Sparrow flit over a field of half a million tulips and someone pose their dogs for a photo, I realized agritourism in Armstrong, British Columbia was blooming.
The City of Armstrong located between the Shuswap and Okanagan valleys is tiny, not even three- square kilometres, but it’s surrounded by the Township of Spallumcheen and an abundance of farms and agribusinesses.
I’d come to see one of the region’s flagship attractions, The Bloom Flower Festivals, and learn how a return to the land made a cool adventure.
Armstrong, and Agritourism
The focus on agritourism in Armstrong and area isn’t an accident.
Patti Noonan, Executive Director, Armstrong Spallumcheen Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Centre, explained:
“We only have two, three streets (in Armstrong) that are dedicated to business. It makes sense when we have so much agricultural surrounding us that we capitalize on that. Some of our members are third and fourth generation (landowners) and they have to figure out how to hire and pay staff and not rely on family labour. Agritourism allows the smaller land holders, to keep their properties and live on them and still be able to make a living for their families.”
The Bloom Flower Festivals
Bloom Flower Festivals, a large display of tulips in May and sunflowers in autumn, came to the North Okanagan in 2022. Founder Alexis Szarek learned the flower business from her father, and inspired by her grandfather, an immigrant from the Netherlands, she hosted the successful Abbotsford Tulip Festival for four years, winning the Abbotsford Business Excellence Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2016.
Now she’s tackling the challenge of establishing a new festival in a different climatic zone amidst climate change.
“We’ve had two tulip festivals and two sunflower festivals here and it’s always something (climate related). The first sunflower festival was held under a wildfire evacuation alert. A few weeks ago, we still had snow,” Alexis lamented.
Now she scanned the clear blue sky and contemplated the extreme heat forecast for several days. “The tulips like cool temperatures,” she said, “I’d like the flowers to last another couple of weeks. But with the hot weather forecast….” She trailed off looking across four acres of flowers.
Two days later, she would close the festival early but I wasn’t going to waste a moment of my time tiptoeing among the tulips. I’d paid extra for the “Magic Hour,” an early morning admission that coincided with sunrise. Golden light bathed the 25 tulip varietals, strips of red, yellow and purple flowers wrapped around old chairs, saddles and other photo props.
Fresh Produce and Farmers’ Markets
After the festival I headed to one of the asparagus stands along the country roads. I’d seen unmanned farm stands, handprinted signs advertising “eggs” propped against small coolers, buyers trusted to leave payment for purchases.
Noonan had explained how farming is evolving in the area, “I’ve been here 20 years and I would say we have probably 10 times as many agritourism businesses as we did when I started. There were a lot of farmers who did farmers’ markets but they didn’t do the tourism part of it. And if they had a bad season, they didn’t have anything to fall back on.”
Now rural entrepreneurs are diversifying with new products and activities.
At the Armstrong Farmers’ Market, the longest continuously running farmers’ market in British Columbia, I wandered around the fairgrounds admiring a charming display of crafts, some spectacularly detailed birdhouses, and early-season harvests.
At one table radishes as big as apples lay in neat bundles. Grown by Daniel and Kat Saxton of Pilgrims’ Produce, the shopkeeper handed me my purchase and invited me to visit the farm where visitors can pick their own fruit. The certified organic farm had been started by one family and sold to the Saxton’s in 2021 who are growing their community supported agriculture program where customers pay upfront for their share of the season’s harvest.
Sipping on Cider
Next, I headed to Farmstrong Cider Company, seven kilometers from Armstrong, a property Jeff and Halee Fried have transitioned from mixed farming into a much-loved cidery. A few minutes before the noon opening, I pulled my truck into the vehicle line-up along the gravel road and waited. By the time the gates swung open, a long parade of cars wound its way past the farm building into the parking lot.
The cidery has a few rules that reward teamwork. They don’t accept reservations. You order before you’re shown to your table and your whole party has to be there before you’re seated. This prevents you from dropping off your fastest friend to sprint to the front of the line while you park. Or dawdling over menu choices.
I selected the margarita pizza and dry cider before being shown to a table overlooking a fruit orchard and more cars arriving. When asked if it’s always busy my server nodded her head and confirmed it’s usually an hour wait unless you arrive at opening.
After a generous pizza serving, I indulged in a moist, sweet chocolate cake and then headed back to town looking for barn quilts as I drove.
Barn Quilts Galore
The North Okanagan Shuswap Barn Quilt Trail includes more than 50 quilts, many of them around Spallumcheen and Armstrong. Barn quilts are quilt patterns that reflect the farm or organization’s history or story, and are painted onto buildings. They can be helpful for navigation on rural roads or can be part of the tourism experience.
Noonan recalled the reaction to the quilt trail since the launch in 2016, “the first two, three years that we did it, it was more people happened upon (the trail). They would see them and when they came in the visitor center, they’d ask us for information, but now we actually have people that seek them out.”
Spending the Night After a Lovely Day in Armstrong
Armstrong still has the friendliness of a place where people work the land and help their neighbors.
At the Armstrong Kin RV Park, a small campground perched above the fairgrounds, profits go to their Kin Club and community projects.
From my campsite I watched a Northern Rough-winged Swallow colony nesting in the cement-block retaining wall of the city pool. A short walk away, were ball diamonds and the town’s sewage ponds and to my birdwatching delight, bleachers facing a settling pond where swallows and blackbirds skimmed above the water.
“People like to sit by the ponds to relax,” explained Dave, the genial host of the campground before adding the RV Park won a tourism award the night before. I wasn’t surprised. The bathrooms were spotless and Dave’s wife Cheryl presented me with a rose, a gift for all the female campers on Mother’s Day. They also planned to cook up halibut the next day to share among the campers.
I was tempted to stay a day longer for the fish fry, but although I could feel myself growing attached to this agricultural community, it was time to move on.
Carol Patterson is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and an award-winning journalist seeking out North America’s best wildlife viewing experiences. You’ll often find her and her camera following the seasons and the birds that come with them. She’s been a pilot, an accountant, a university professor, and an avian tourism consultant, but says her best gig is writing stories for curious travelers.