Just two days after their April 1958 wedding, Bill and Susan Heeman boarded the cruise ship the Ryndham and set sail from their homeland, Holland, to an exciting new life in Canada. After landing in Halifax, the couple caught a train to London, Ontario where Bill, a mechanic by trade, anticipated employment with GM Diesel. However, due to employee lay-offs, Bill’s job opportunity vanished and he and Susan soon departed to live first in Blenheim, then Toronto, Lochiel, and Lancaster. Drawn back to the London area by the appealing countryside, Bill and Susan, in August 1963, purchased 25 acres of property in West Nissouri Township (known now as Thames Centre) on Nissouri Road. Included in the acquisition were a cow and a half-acre patch of strawberries. From this modest beginning Heeman Greenhouses and Strawberry Farm evolved.
In the first year, with the help of some local students, Susan picked strawberries from their half-acre patch while Bill worked at International Harvester. With the installation of a strawberry stand on the property and a gradual but steady expansion, the original half-acre plot blossomed into an additional five acres of strawberry fields in 1968. And, as the growth continued at the rate of an acre per year, Bill’s mechanical aptitude expressed itself in new and ingenious ways. To facilitate the picking process Bill designed and built a revolutionary picking machine that allowed 20 people to lie on their stomachs while picking rather than enduring the discomfort and inefficiency of the traditional back-breaking method. Before long, Bill began working days on the farm and nights at International Harvester, though this situation was not to last. Eventually, a prudent request from Susan would change the course of events.
Remembering the greenhouse her family owned in Holland, Susan persuaded Bill to erect a greenhouse of their own. Growing hothouse tomatoes followed, and by 1974 Bill left International Harvester to concentrate solely on the farm. As time passed it became increasingly difficult to compete with the cost of imported tomatoes. Consequently, in 1977, the Heeman's decided to grow bedding plants instead. They never looked back. Starting with petunias and marigolds, they learned the business through trial and error. Every year Bill expanded or updated the greenhouse using innovative technology and equipment. In 1981 he discarded the customary wooden growing benches used in most greenhouse settings and replaced them with the ebb and flow benches he had seen in Holland. Always forward-thinking and environmentally conscious, Bill recognized the benefits of such an improvement. Not only could the plants be flooded with water that would then collect in a reservoir for reuse, but the system also eliminated overhead watering and fertilizer run-off. A year later, a second renovation proved equally advantageous. Finding the cost of fuel too expensive and the air quality in the greenhouse affected by burning oil, Bill installed ground source heat pumps. In fact, he was the first person in Canada to use hot water furnaces in a commercial greenhouse.
Successive greenhouses were added over the years with the biggest expansion, completed in late 1997, incorporating 11,000 square feet of growing space. A setback experienced in the year 2000 – a twister ran a path through the property blowing out the back bays of the original greenhouse and causing damage to a newly built greenhouse – required extensive repairs and rebuilding. But this inconvenience did not slow the march of progress. Today the operation consists of 190,000 square feet of greenhouses featuring 900 varieties of annuals, 500 varieties of perennials, 80 varieties of vegetable plants and 30 varieties of herbs. There is also a section specializing in shrubs, evergreens and potted roses, and a separate area for water plants. As a special consideration for customers, a display garden complete with waterfall was created in 2002 to provide patrons with the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely stroll and perhaps discover ideas for their own gardens. Heeman Greenhouses currently employs 15 full-time employees, including Rita, Bill and Susan’s youngest daughter, year-round. In the month of May the employee count in the greenhouse swells to upwards of 70.
As the business prospered another family member embraced full-time employment on the farm. In 1985 Bill and Susan’s son, Rudy, who was then working full-time off farm as a diesel mechanic, took over production and management of the strawberry business. The following year he married Florence Ryan, whose family has farmed in Stephen Township since the 1840’s. With strong farming backgrounds and indomitable work ethics, they formed an impressive team. Together they increased the strawberry acreage from 14 acres in 1985 to the current 50 plus acres of production.
In earlier years the strawberry crop was predominantly pick-your-own with a lesser amount being pre-picked. While pick-your-own remains an integral part of the business, pre-picked berries have gained popularity with today’s time-strapped society. Rudy and Florence are deeply dedicated to providing their customers with a consistently high quality fruit, picked fresh from the fields. To this end, they continue to implement the most current industry based research and innovative techniques. Earlier plant growth and in turn, earlier fruit production became possible in 1995 with the incorporation of floating row covers (light-transparent blankets) that warm the soil. This practice has lengthened the strawberry season at Heeman’s from the standard four week span to five or six weeks, depending on the weather. In the same year, the addition of three acres of raspberries extended fruit availability into July. Though all fields are irrigated, a cutting-edge improvement in 2000 saw new plantings converted to drip irrigation allowing for the most effective use of water management. This system ensures all moisture is delivered directly to the plants through a small hose buried beneath the strawberry plants at the time of planting. Pro-active and responsible in their approach to business, Rudy and Florence include Integrated Pest Management practices as well as government research testing into production each year.
Rudy and Florence’s dedication is not limited to their operation alone. They are active members of the community and are valued participants in industry organizations. Rudy is the Past President of the North American Strawberry Growers Association (NASGA) and has been a member of their research committee since 1992. He was the 1993-95 Ontario Berry Growers Association (OBGA) President and their son Will is now the sitting President of the OBGA. Florence works closely with local growers through the London – St. Thomas Berry Growers Association.
Ontario is the largest consumer of fresh produce in North America with local produce being the favoured purchase due to freshness and flavour. Known in London and surrounding areas for the consistently high quality of their produce Heeman Strawberry Farm is proud to play a role – as both consumer and supplier – in this gratifying statistic. Rudy and Florence are prouder still of their four children: Will, Tom, Katie, and the youngest, Bridget, who assist their parents in the running of the farm. From first generation to second and now third, this family business has come a long way from their half-acre strawberry patch.