Ontario’s Huron County hopes an influx of purposeful business will stimulate growth, tackle social issues and stop the exodus of youth to the city.
By Craig and Marc Kielburger
New York has no shortage of beer. So why did a busload of New Yorkers cross the border to visit a tiny brewery in the town of Bayfield, Ontario? It wasn’t just for the superior suds. They came to see its zero-waste brewing process.
River Road Brewing opened in April, but word of mouth is already drawing visitors from across Ontario, Quebec, and the northeastern US. The innovative brewery is just one of the socially conscious businesses springing up in Ontario’s Huron County. The region has become an unexpected nexus for social enterprise, a business model that makes the world better.
Although rural areas generate almost one third of Canada’s GDP, times are tough in many agrarian communities. Small towns face economic challenges. And populations are shrinking as young people leave for education and jobs in cities.
Huron County is betting on social enterprise to spark a rural renaissance, igniting growth and enticing the younger generation.
“As we continue to see an increase in local social enterprises, our goal is to arm them with the tools and resources to grow and thrive in our community,” says Cody Joudry, Huron County Director of Economic Development.
In December, the county hosted a “Meaningful Market” in the town of Brussels. River Road Brewing was joined by a barn full of other social enterprises like Homegrown Land Bank, and Cowbell Brewing. These three companies could be the future of rural Ontario.
River Road owners David and Nikki Andrew drew crowds with their sustainable business model. The couple grows most of the brew’s ingredients right on the farm. They built the brewing equipment by hand out of recycled and repurposed materials. Organic waste from the process fertilizes the Andrews’ crops and feeds their livestock. They also have a customer recycling program.
Another innovative enterprise, Homegrown Land Bank, runs an online farmers market that helps local growers sell their produce, and creates revenue to support training, mentorship and access to low-cost land for new farmers. Homegrown also runs an international program offering microfinance loans to farmers in developing communities.
Cowbell Brewing, based in Blyth, is also a microbrewery that’s serving up social good. Profits are invested in Cowbell’s Greener Pastures Community Fund, which supports local hospitals and helped establish the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity, an incubator hub for the arts in rural communities. Environmentally, Cowbell introduced new technologies to reduce water usage by five million litres in 2018, and the company supports reforestation projects as a carbon offset.
Enterprises like these stimulate the local economy, while tackling environmental and social issues—and, perhaps, stopping the exodus of rural youth. Socially conscious companies feed the desire of the millennial generation to find careers with purpose.
Cowbell is living proof. Founded by millennials, over half of the company’s 160-person workforce are under 30.
“I could have had a great government job in Ottawa. But I came home, because this provides more fulfillment,” says Katey Potter, Cowbell’s Manager of Community Relations.
We’ve witnessed the power of social enterprise to address urban challenges, like homelessness and unemployment. From what we’re seeing in Huron County, do-gooding business also holds great potential to breathe new life into rural communities.