Dahlia op­er­a­tion niche farm­ing at its finest

Creek­side Grow­ers aims to dom­i­nate mar­ket

The Delhi News-Record - - NEWS - MONTE SONNENBERG

MSon­nen­berg@post­media.com

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.”

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

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.

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