By Lisa McLean
London – It’s strawberry season in Ontario, and that means fresh, locally-grown strawberries are appearing on roadside stands and in grocery stores across the province. And although imported strawberries have become available year-round in recent years, London Ontario strawberry farmer Rudy Heeman says there’s a reason local berries taste best: no flavour gets lost on the truck.
“Our strawberries are picked today and sold today,” says Heeman, who farms with his parents, wife, sister and children. “If we’ve done our job right, a customer will have eaten half the container in the car on the way home.”
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.
Heeman’s first opened for business half a century ago after Rudy’s parents, Bill and Susan Heeman moved from Holland. They bought the farm, which included a half-acre strawberry patch, and has since grown to include more than 50 acres of strawberries and a well-established garden centre. The business recently celebrated 50 years in the London area with an open house celebration.
“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.”
Rudy says much has changed in 50 years – both in growing practices and consumer buying habits. Today, Canadian farmers have access to 30 varieties of strawberry plants, each producing fruit that varies in size, colour and flavour. Farmers make their selection carefully, based on how each variety performs in specific soil types. The Heemans conduct field trials each year in pursuit of optimal flavor and colour for their farm’s growing conditions.
With the addition of Rudy and his wife Florence to the Heeman’s full time team in the 1990s, the Heemans had new opportunities to participate in grower associations and explore new agronomic practices being used in the strawberry industry.
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.
The Heemans have also installed drip irrigation in fields, which ensures all water and fertlizer is delivered directly to the plants through a small hose buried beneath the strawberry plants before they are planted. With drip irrigation, Rudy estimates he has been able to reduce water usage on the farm by 60 per cent.
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.”
Rudy says consumers’ attitudes have changed over the decades too. He notes at one time consumers might have balked at paying a fair price for a container of berries. Today they recognize the value in local produce.
“Our customers seem to have a better appreciation for local strawberries, and they’re willing to pay a fair price. It’s a more pleasurable experience to sell fresh produce these days,” he says.
To learn more about this Ontario farm family business, visit www.heeman.ca/