“One thing led to another,” Danielle French tells me. You wouldn’t guess it from meeting her. French has transformed a rundown 60-acre property into a highly acclaimed events venue hosting weddings, workshops and farm-to-table dinners. She’s super-organized, super-efficient and bursting with great ideas, and it seems impossible that anyone could have achieved all that without knowing exactly where they were headed every step along the way.
But, as with many businesses, French’s path to success wasn’t exactly straight.
French had only a vague idea of how she would generate enough income from the South Pond Farm when she moved from Toronto to the farm 90 minutes to the east with her four daughters to give them “a different lifestyle.”
It took guts, imagination, determination, stamina and a little luck, to turn her dream for the picturesque property into a reality.
In the early days, French made preserves and prepared food-to-go from the produce she grew in the large farm garden. As this venture grew, she started eyeing the dilapidated 1860s barn, wondering if it could be renovated to provide more space for the business. Seeking an opinion from a contractor neighbour turned out to be a fortuitous move as the pair are now “partners in both love and life,” says French.
The barn renovation turned into a three-year process that required a zoning change. “There are a lot of approvals you have to go through to transition from farm use to people,” says French. “It was a big leap, a big financial commitment” with “a hefty price tag.” With the addition of a commercial kitchen, washrooms, plumbing, electrical, a new roof, new cladding, and reinforcing the floor, it turned out to be a much bigger project than French anticipated. Everything had to meet municipal and provincial approvals, she says.
Once the barn was ready, it was the ideal setting for serving monthly farm-to-table dinners at long communal tables. These dinners were familiar to French as they were common in rural Vermont where she grew up. “It’s a food-focused experience,” says French who uses vegetables and herbs she grows on the farm for the made-from-scratch dinners. What she doesn’t grow, she buys from neighbouring farmers. (With more than 80 per cent of the food sourced locally, South Pond Farms has become an accredited by Feast On, a certification program that recognizes businesses committed to sourcing Ontario grown and made food and drink.)
At South Pond Farms, French aims to share a traditional life and way of cooking, and to also share the history and the beauty of the land. This appeals to people who want to get back to the land, to experience local food, to get away from their fast-paced lives and reconnect with their roots.
The heritage barn with its mismatched chairs, wooden harvest tables, vintage china and farm-grown flowers sets a rustic tone. And while French is masterful at creating an inviting atmosphere, it’s her attention to detail and hard work that allows events to unfold smoothly and with apparent ease.
Access to the adjoining Ballyduff Trails is another asset for South Pond Farms. Neighbours Ralph McKim and Jean Garsonnin graciously allow them to use the trails, says French. These private trails, protected through a conservation agreement with the Kawartha Land Trust, provide opportunities for nature walks, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on 260 acres of the scenic Oak Ridges Moraine.
French is not one to shy away from a challenge. Prior to owning South Pond Farms, she didn’t have any previous experience with event management or catering. “I had never cooked for more than 20 people. Sometimes I just jump in and say ‘I can do that.’”
Being a “people person” is essential in this business, says French, who exudes warmth. “You need to be willing to be engaged with everyone,” she says. Followup interviews with customers help her continuously improve.
The business has been largely seasonal with about 20 weddings between June and September. South Pond Farms is a full-service wedding destination offering the food, the flowers (from her own garden) and wedding décor. French has only two full-time staff: a chef and an event planner. In summer the staff balloons to 35, and she is quick to commend her staff, saying they make it all possible.
French continues to increase her offerings. Corporate events make up more than 20 per cent of her income and is a growing segment. Lunch is now available from Wednesday to Sunday, three seasons of the year and there’s an on-farm store where baked goods and preserves may be purchased. The number of farmhouse suppers has been doubled to two per month. They have also added wine tastings, music concerts, culinary workshops and more winter events.
French has also brought a second location online. Iron Horse Ranch, the farm belonging to her partner Shawn, is billed as a “majestic rural event venue perfect for weddings, corporate retreats, overnight stays and private functions” and is available for booking through Airbnb.
Most people find South Pond Farms by word of mouth although social media also plays a significant role, says French. Those attending events frequently share their photos on social media and South Pond Farms is active on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
Being featured in a Netflix reality series also helped South Pond Farms gain recognition. (French was approached by Blue Ant Media to film the series which was then sold to Netflix.)
“Taste of the Country” showed the behind-the-scenes planning and work that goes into staging the events that garner French top ratings. Although the episodes are no longer available on Netflix, some of the trailers will be available at southpondfarms.ca.
Frequently approached with questions about how she developed her business, last year French began sharing her knowledge and experience in a two-day workshop at South Pond Farms on how to build an event-based business. The workshops, which cover topics like “How to write a business plan,” “How to tell your story to others,” and “How to navigate municipal rules” were so popular they sold out in just a few days.
“There are so many people interested in trying out a new way of life in the country and wanting to start their own event-based business,” says French, who plans to offer the workshops again this fall and winter. French limits the number of participants to no more than a dozen people “so we can have as much individual time together as possible.”
French has also set out to share her culinary knowledge through a series of self-published cookbooks. So far, the first three in a series of five are available. In these little books with beautiful colour photography, French shares not only her favourite recipes but also her approach to entertaining including menu planning, table settings and creating a relaxing ambience, along with her personal reflections.
I ask French about the lessons she has learned, and about the risks that anyone else needs to look out for if they want to follow her path. It’s a subject she has thought a lot about.
It’s important to know all the rules and talk to a lot of people before starting a farm-based business, she says.
Sometimes, too, you have to try many things to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Having a good accountant is essential, she adds. You need to have a good handle on costs, including the labour, and you have to price accordingly.
You can learn from others and also by doing it yourself.
And also be prepared for the tough parts. Weather isn’t always kind, and hosting events on the farm can feel like living in a fishbowl.
But there’s another essential that’s at least as important, she tells me. “Believe in yourself,” she says. “Then you can get others to believe in you too.”
New England Baked Beans
In an introduction, Danielle French writes: “Our meals originate from what is fresh, and growing in season, which means no asparagus in October and no squash in May. If not grown on our own farm, the food we serve is local to our community.”
Baked beans is a classic side dish that you can serve along with so many things: with eggs for breakfast, with sausages and coleslaw for an easy dinner, and with pretty much grilled anything! It’s hard to go wrong. Make a lot — the extra work is worth it. You can make this either in the oven or in the slow cooker (see Variation). French cooks hers in a bean pot her grandmother gave her.
- 2 cups cooked Great Northern white beans or canned beans (see Tip below)
- 2 cups reserved cooking liquid (see Tip below)
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
- ⅓ cup blackstrap molasses
- ½ cup pure maple syrup
- ½ to 1 cup ketchup
- 2 tsp. dry mustard
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- Several dashes of Worcestershire sauce (optional)
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
In a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, combine all of the ingredients. Stir well and cover with the lid. Bake in a preheated oven for about 6 hours, checking occasionally to ensure the beans don’t dry out (simply add more water if they begin to look dry). Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed. The baked beans should be tender, and most of the liquid should have been absorbed by the beans. Serves 8 to 10.
Tip: You can cook this in a slow cooker on medium for 6 to 8 hours.
French likes to use dried beans, but you can jump-start this recipe by substituting about four 16-ounce cans of beans, if you prefer.
To prepare dried beans for cooking, rinse them under running water, then place in a bowl and cover with 2 to 3 inches of cool water. Set aside and let soak overnight. The next morning, drain beans, then transfer to a large heavy-bottomed pot and cover with at least 4 inches of water. Bring to a boil and cook beans until tender, about 2 hours. They are now ready to use in this recipe.
This article was originally published as ‘Got it together’ in the March 3, 2020 issue of Country Guide.