By Lisa McLean and Kelly Daynard
London – It’s been a long journey from their homeland in Holland to a successful three-generation family farming business in London for the Heemans.
That journey started more than 50 years ago for Bill and Susan Heeman. Bill said that he was looking for new opportunities. “I was in love. I wanted to get married,” he recalls with a smile. Both Bill and Susan had family that had already moved to Canada so when a recruiter offered to sell them tickets to Canada, they decided that the time was right.
They weren’t sure where in Canada they wanted to live. They lived first in the Chatham area where Bill found work picking sugar beets and welding. They visited Susan’s brother who had settled in eastern Ontario, near the Quebec border but didn’t feel like that was home. It took five years before they decided upon Middlesex County, buying a small farm just outside of Thorndale.
At the time, the farm included a half acre strawberry patch. Today, the 400-acre Heeman farm grows more than 1,800 varieties of garden plants as well as raspberries, black turtle beans, corn, beans, wheat and strawberries. It also now includes a well-established garden centre. The business recently celebrated 50 years in the London area with an open house celebration where more than 2,000 customers and friends came to congratulate them on their milestone.
The Heeman family can sell as many as 8,000 quarts of strawberries from their farm in London, Ontario, which provides opportunities for pick-your-own and pre-picked berries, and also sells other produce from nearby farms. The farm – operating under the name “Heeman’s” – also supplies select grocery stores in the London area.
It was Susan’s family history in the greenhouse industry in Holland that prompted the family to expand from strawberries and begin greenhouse production of tomatoes and then bedding plants. Featuring eco-friendly pest control and a unique design that cleans and recirculates grey-water, the 120,000 square foot facility also showcase Heeman’s as a leader in environmental responsibility.
Heeman’s now includes the next two generations of the farm family. Bill and Susan’s children, Rita and Rudy, also now work full time on the farm as does Rudy’s wife Florence. Grandchildren Will, Bridget, Tom and Katie are also involved in the business. Will handles marketing and customer service while Tom serves as field manager. Bridget and Katie also help when they’re not in school.
“Our strawberries are picked today and sold today,” says Rudy Heeman. “If we’ve done our job right, a customer will have eaten half the container in the car on the way home.”
“We did local before it was cool,” Rudy’s son Will says. “We have a lot of customers who like to come to the farm to buy pre-picked berries, and shake the hand that feeds them.”
Another change to the business has been in the length of the growing season. The Heemans incorporated floating row covers into their fields. The row covers are light-transparent blankets that warm the soil enough to ripen fruit earlier, and protect it from cooler temperatures that dip below freezing. The Heemans carefully stagger the use of floating row covers to ensure some strawberries ripen early while others produce fruit later in the season, allowing them to extend the growing season over additional weeks.
Most notably, new innovations have led to the development of “everbearing” strawberry plants, which produce fruit well beyond the traditional early July cut-off. Rudy notes everbearing plants produce fruit from mid-July until late fall, providing a much longer window for local strawberries.
The extended growing season has an effect on consumer behavior. “When the season was only a few weeks long customers bought larger amounts of berries to freeze at home,” Rudy says. “Today we’re selling about the same volume of strawberries, but to a much larger customer base.”
Rita added that once their customers used to be “serious jam people”, buying large quantities of strawberries to take home and make preserves. Today, the majority are families looking for a way to spend time together and have a great outdoor experience.
All the Heemans believe in investing in their community. Each year, they are host to several charity barbecues on the farm, raising more $10,000 annually for youth and nutrition programs. Rudy is a past-president of the North American Strawberry Growers’ Association and Ontario Berry Growers’ Association. Will is current president of Ontario Berry Growers. Florence is a founding partner of the Middlesex County local producers map and a past 4H leader.
In 2014, the family will appear in the ninth edition of the Faces of Farming calendar, published by Farm & Food Care Ontario. This is the second year of a contest launched to select one farm family to appear in the calendar. The family’s entry was unanimously chosen from 21 entries by a panel of urban judges and participated in a photo shoot in July on their farm.
In the application, Will Heeman wrote, “The Heeman family embodies the pride, passion and growing tradition of an Ontario farm. With innovation, customer service and a commitment to excellence in everything they do, the Heeman family is poised to continue serving the community for decades to come.”
To see an interview with the farm family visit: – http://youtu.be/zG-L-M5f5Rg