Heeman’s Strawberry Farm recently won a regional Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for advancement of a traceability system that’s been in place on the operation since the beginning of berry picking at the farm. Photo by Contributed
Innovation goes a long way back at Heeman’s Strawberry Farm of Thorndale, Ont. – back more than five decades.
Newlyweds Bill and Susan Heeman emigrated from Holland to Canada in the late 1950s and it wasn’t long after they arrived that they purchased a farm near London. The automotive industry wasn’t booming and it was hard for Bill to find work as a mechanic, so the couple concentrated on the farm. As they grew their strawberry acreage, Bill invented a machine that saved staff from back pain and sped up berry harvesting – by allowing up to 20 people at a time to pick berries while lying on their stomachs.
We’re happy to report that innovation is still going strong at Heeman’s Strawberry Farm to this day, with the family business having achieved not one, but two Premier’s Awards for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence over the past few years. The first was for their renowned customer plant storage service. After building their first greenhouse in 1975 and expanding greenhouse space at a steady rate over the years, the Heemans built a storage greenhouse of almost 20,000 square feet in 2010 specifically for taking care of customers’ prized plants.
“Before this designated greenhouse was built, we had been ‘babysitting’ plants over the winter in empty areas of other greenhouses basically as a favour for friends with tropical plants,” explains Will Heeman, Bill’s grandson. “It slowly grew by word of mouth and now we store over 2000 plants a year for customers from as far away as Niagara, Peterborough, Collingwood and Sarnia.”
The plants that enjoy a winter getaway at Heeman’s range from smallish pots of hibiscus and mandevilla to towering palms, citrus and other exotics.
“We’ve recently added in-floor and perimeter heat, energy and shade curtains and computer automation to our storage greenhouse,” Will explains. “We also wrote a computer program involving barcodes for efficient plant care, and to track the locations of all plants for each customer.”
Today, the operation has 57 acres of berries and more than 100,000 square feet of greenhouse. Three generations of the family work on site. Bill is head grower and the conscience of Heeman’s Greenhouse. His son, Rudy, wears many hats as “the berry boss,” co-owner, chief mechanic, builder and fixer for Heeman’s Strawberry Farm and Heeman’s Greenhouse (two separate businesses). Rudy’s wife, Florence, is a co-owner of Heeman’s Strawberry Farm and manages the pick-your-own operation. Bill’s daughter, Rita, is co-owner and general manager of Heeman’s Greenhouse. Will serves as “chief day-maker” (a person who makes your day) and head of marketing and customer relations for both businesses.
The Heemans’ second regional Premier’s Award is for advancement of a traceability system that’s been in place since the beginning of berry picking at the farm.
“Before we ever had a barcode system, we tracked our picking with paper and pen and wrote their number on the flat with marker,” Will says. “While we couldn’t tell what day or where it was picked, we still knew who picked those flats. If people ever called in, we could make sure any issues were fixed and turn it until a teaching moment.”
However, tracing berries just down to the flat and not the quart was limiting.
“The majority of our customers buy less than a flat and those purchases weren’t traceable,” Will says. “While tracing to the flat level meets industry standard, it doesn’t help us track all berries and protect our reputation, which rides on the quality of our product. Now, we can track by the quart to the specific farm, field, picker and harvest time and recall or handling issues is easy. Our customers can also provide us with online feedback, rating the quality of their berries.”
All customers have to do is visit www.freshqc.com, type in the 16-digit code from the bottom of their quart and follow the easy instructions.
Implementation of the system was not difficult, just involving things like training pickers to put a sticker on each quart and the flat before picking, versus having the foreman apply the barcode afterwards.
“Our pickers appreciate hearing that people thought they did a good job,” he says. “Good report or bad, they receive the feedback. It’s great for them to get the credit and if a teachable moment comes from it, it’s more meaningful because the feedback comes from the person who bought the berries.”
If the customer purchased Heeman’s berries in a store and the score is less than perfect, that feedback is shared with both the picker and the retailer, to find out what went wrong, and fix it. The Heemans provide anyone who is not 100 per cent satisfied with a replacement quart or flat, no matter where they bought them.
“Of all the farms in North America using a similar system to ours – and most farms using the system are five to ten times our size – we have the highest amount of feedback. We attribute this to our encouraging people to provide feedback, and the changes we made to the reporting tool to truly make it two-way communication.”
The online feedback has also allowed the Heemans to find out some interesting things.
“Someone provided us with a score of 10/10 for our berries that they bought at a market in St. Thomas and we don’t knowingly sell to anyone at that market,” says Will. “All we know in that case is that the berries were picked the same day this person purchased them. In other cases, if we get a customer saying the berries are poor quality and she purchased them on a Monday but they were picked on a Saturday, we can work with retailers to see how they can get berries to customers closer to picking, or how to keep them fresher along the way.”
Having a traceability system that goes down to the quart also makes payroll far easier to do, saving time and money.
“It also helps as an added factor to the overall differentiation of our berries to others, especially imports,” says Will. “There will always be an added cost to it, mostly for more labels, but overall it’s been wonderful and we are very happy we made the switch.”
In terms of recent challenges for the Heemans, Will lists boosting consumer awareness of the everbearing strawberry as one of the biggest. However, it’s one they welcome as they believe it will have great benefits for them and for the entire strawberry industry.
“We’re also trying to find strong new strawberry cultivars that are bred for growing in our region as existing varieties get older and less productive. Our plans right now for the greenhouse operation are largely focused on making improvements to the facilities and the business layout as well.”
To the Heemans, the Premier’s Awards they’ve received are very meaningful.
“To be selected by a panel of our peers and approved by the government, and to be included with a list of amazing innovators that are leading the way forward for our sector in the province is very rewarding,” Will says. “To be a double-winner is just ‘berry’ sweet!”
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