Dahlia operation niche farming at its finest
Creekside Growers aims to dominate market
Thousands of brides in Canada and the United States can thank Nick and Hilary VanderHeide of Hartford for making their special day extra beautiful.
In seven short years, the couple has established themselves as one of the top producers of dahlias in Ontario. By 2020, the owners of Creekside Growers on Norfolk Road 19 hope to be the largest producers in Canada.
Creekside Growers stole a march on the competition recently when VanderHeide revolutionized the way he plants his crop. He modified a cultivator so that it digs a trench, loosens the soil, hills over the tuber root when planted, and applies driptape irrigation.
By doing all this in one pass, Creekside Growers has greatly reduced its costs while boosting productivity.
“We save a ton of money on labour,” VanderHeide says. “That part of planting and putting out drip line – I bet it cut our labour costs two-thirds.
“And we have a 20 per cent increase in production due to correct bulb depth and the accuracy of nutrient and water placement. There is no wasted water and no wasted fertilizer.”
Innovation like this attracts the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs. For these insights and results, the ministry recently recognized Creekside Growers with a 2016 Premier’s Award for Agri- Food Innovation Excellence.
Nick and Hilary VanderHeide are proof that you don’t need a background in agriculture to succeed at farming. What counts is a love of the land, a desire to grow things, a good plan and the smarts to execute it.
For her part, Hilary is a university graduate with a bachelor of education degree. She grew up on a hobby farm in Niagara-onthe-Lake.
Nick grew up in Sarnia and was running a home renovation business when the couple decided to try their hand at farming. They acquired a 5.5-acre parcel near Hartford and haven’t looked back.
When Creekside Growers began in 2009, it was just Nick and Hilary. Today, the couple employ 13 people during peak season and supply dahlias and peonies to a market area that includes most of eastern Canada and the eastern United States south to Kentucky.
At the outset, Creekside Growers tried growing many types of flowers. However, the VanderHeides soon realized that the eclectic approach was too diverse and required too many different growing techniques and marketing strategies.
They settled on dahlias – which comprise 65 per cent of their operation – and peonies. They chose these flowers because they do best in moderate climates and need cold winters.
Dahlias and peonies are premium flowers. They pay well if you grow them properly. Because they’ve symbolized bonds of love and friendship since Victorian times, dahlias are in high demand at weddings and wedding receptions.
Growing dahlias and peonies is not easy. They require a lot of attention. Dahlias in particular are highly susceptible to insects and must be sprayed twice a week.
As it stands, Creekside Growers and another grower in Flamborough are the two largest producers of dahlias in Ontario. Both have a hard time keeping up with demand.
The industry is expanding. In 2016, Creekside Growers had 18 kilometres of drip tape. In 2017, this will grow to 30 kilometres.
A Premier’s Award at this point will help the VanderHeides secure market share. Creekside Growers does a lot of business on- line. Flashing a Premier’s Award is a seal of good house-keeping.
“It’s nice to have something like this that lends legitimacy to your business,” VanderHeide said. “Now, we’re just not another online store. When you’ve been recognized by the Ontario government, that gives you a lot of credibility.”
In seven short years, Nick and Hilary VanderHeide have grown their floral operation near Wilsonville into one of Ontario’s largest producers of cut dahlias. With the VanderHeides are their children Lydia, Elijah, Josiah, and Asher.