Winemaking and farming aren’t two things most people associate with Muskoka.
Yet fruit wines and an iconic fall holiday berry are helping farmer Murray Johnston and his wife Wendy Hogarth put their family business on the map.
The couple, with help from their four sons, run Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh and Muskoka Lakes Winery near Bala, where they grow 27 acres of cranberries and produce a range of wines using locally grown fruit.
Most people think they know how cranberries are grown and harvested, says Wendy, but what they’ve seen in television advertising doesn’t paint an accurate picture.
“Cranberries are grown and harvested like no other crop in the world and people have a lot of curiosity about that,” she explains. “They’re harvested in water, and that’s what visitors see when they come to our farm, but throughout the growing season, the vines are high and dry.”
Murray and Wendy’s oldest vine was planted in 1953 when Murray’s father Orville started the farm and it’s still producing a crop. It’s now considered a heritage variety as it is no longer commonly grown.
Cranberries, a perennial and one of few fruits native to North America, grow in sensitive wetland areas, so careful management practices are essential to maintain the safety and viability of the environment.
“We believe very strongly in local, sustainable agriculture and it’s the best part of what we do,” believes Wendy, whose family has set aside some of their wetlands to be part of the Bala bog heritage project. “We are in the midst of incredible wildlife here so we are very careful with what we do. Our management philosophy, for example, is that if anything becomes a pest, like bears or beavers, we change what we do to work around it.”
The farm is open to visitors year-round, offering educational programs and signage about local wildlife, cranberries and why wetlands are important. They don’t charge for farm visits, says Wendy, adding that sharing what they do on their farm is an essential part of who they are.
Their cranberry success has also opened doors to them internationally.
Last year, they shipped 32,000 tonnes of cranberry vines to Latvia to help that country establish a cranberry industry – an undertaking that won Murray and Wendy a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence, given by the Ontario government.
In 2000, they launched their winery with the goal of creating fruit wine that reflects the local harvest. Their initial release sold out in just over 14 days, and they haven’t looked back since.
Today, their wines made from cranberries, blueberries and raspberries are available through the LCBO and are produced to the Quality Certified (QC) standard, a fruit wine certification equivalent to the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) designation for grape wine.
“We can make grape wine but we choose not to because grapes don’t grow in this area,” says Wendy, a certified sommelier. “We’re trying to create styles of wine that are familiar to people but are stamped with our unique growing conditions.”
Their eldest son has expressed an interest in the family business, but Wendy says it remains to be seen what will happen in the future.
In the meantime, she and Murray are continuing to search out new ways to grow and diversify their farming business, which also includes a year-round store, seasonal outdoor adventures like snow shoe rentals and a wine and cheese patio in the summer.
“We’re always trying to reinvent ourselves. We’re a small family farm so we have to always diversify to remain viable,” she says.