Interviewees: Trevor Herrle-Braun, Joanne Herrle-Braun, James Herrle, Michelle Herrle
Initial interview (Trevor Herrle-Braun only): July 11, 2011 (Erin Nelson)
Site visit (Joanne Herrle-Braun, James Herrle and Michelle Herrle): August 31, 2011 (Erin Nelson)
* Herrle’s family farming since 1858, running farm-gate sales since 1964, and an on-farm store since 1988
* Sell their own produce and goods from their farm and those of their neighbours, even year-round sales out with small amount of imported food but most of what they sell is form 100 miles
* 50 market staff and 30 seasonal workers
* Community-building focus
* Municipal zoning regulation that is prohibitive to on-farm retail, particularly when it comes to larger-scale operations such as theirs
An engraved stone at the entrance to the parking lot of Herrle’s Country Farm Market notes that the Herrle Homestead was originally established in 1858. Since then, generations of Herrles have grown crops – primarily sweet corn – in Waterloo Region. During the first half of the 20th Century, the Herrles brought their production to the Kitchener Farmers’ Market. Then, in 1964, Howard and Elsie Herrle began selling goods at the farm gate. The popularity of the farm gate sales grew quickly and, eventually, the family stopped attending the Kitchener Farmers’ Market and began to focus almost exclusively on farm-based retail, opening their first on-farm store building in 1988.
Today, the farm and market operation is managed by Howard and Elsie, along with their three grown children (Karen, James and Joanne) and their spouses (Michelle and Trevor). The various plots of land they farm total 250 acres, and the primary crop remains sweet corn, though a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables are also produced. In addition to what they grow themselves, the Herrles also source goods from a number of area farmers for sale in their retail space. In order to extend seasonal availability, and the variety of their supply, the family does source from a small number of American growers; however, they place a strong emphasis on promoting local food, grown within a 100 mile radius of their farm. The majority of goods sold are fresh, though they also offer a selection of processed products, including baked goods and preserves. The market is a seasonal business, open from June to October 31 each year.
Since the beginning of their on-farm sales, in 1964, Herrle’s motto has been “Freshness makes the difference”, and that attitude permeates all aspects of the operation, from the family’s own production, to their decisions about what products to source from other producers, and how to store and market the goods they sell. For example, customers are informed by signage throughout the store of the origin of each product. This kind of consumer-friendly information does not end with product labeling, but extends to educational displays on the farm history, the benefits of local production, and nutrition. Indeed, keeping consumers informed, both through displays and personal contact and communication, is an important priority for the Herrles, as is maintaining a family feeling and sense of pride in their work. As Joanne Herrle explains: “We are family owned and operated…We strive to be people of integrity, and to run our business the same way.”
The backbone of Herrle’s Country Farm Market is the human resources provided by the family members involved in the operation. Now 81, Howard Herrle still works 60 hour weeks, and his wife Elsie regularly attends the Elmira Produce Auction, among other activities. Eldest daughter, Karen, manages the company’s accounts, while her brother James holds the position of Farm Director, and sister Joanne runs the bakery and organizes scheduling. James’ wife, Michelle, is primarily responsible for human resources, and Joanne’s husband, Trevor, is involved in production, retailing and promotion. Michelle explains that each family member has carved out a niche role for themselves, engaging in a broad range of activities that are well-suited to their unique personalities and abilities. None of them possess formal training in agriculture or business, but have amassed a wealth of practical experience over their years of work, and have supplemented that experience with extensive reading and participation in courses and workshops.
In addition to family members, Herrle’s employs approximately 50 market staff, and 30 field workers on a seasonal basis. Human resources manager Michelle notes that her family is very proud of its staff return rate of 80%, which she suggests is reflective of Herrle’s emphasis on treating staff well. For example, they organize events, outings and parties for employees – “small incentives to keep them excited about their work, and connecting with one another” – because they recognize that “an organization or business is only as good as the team that supports them.” The Herrles also conduct performance appraisals, and meet with staff members to try and ensure that they are able to grow over their time with the business, and find work that is meaningful to them.
In addition to 250 acres of farmland, and the equipment required to work it, the main physical resource involved in the operation is the market building. First built in 1988, an addition was added in 1996, and another in 2005. All investment in physical resources for the business has been made by re-investing profits, with the Assistance of Farm Credit Corporation (FCC).
In terms of advertising, Herrle’s has a website, which includes a blog, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts. They are also featured on Foodlink’s Buy Local! Buy Fresh! Map. However, word of mouth has been by far their most important marketing and communications strategy. As Joanne puts it, “satisfied customers are what we rely on.”
Herrle’s Country Farm Market is financed by continuous re-investment of the profits made by the business.
When it comes to community and social resources, by far the most important thing for Herrle’s is its loyal customer base. Michelle stresses that “our community has supported us amazingly well”, with families passing on the tradition of shopping at Herrle’s over generations, and promoting the business actively amongst friends and neighbours. Joanne adds that a Herrle family member is almost always available at the market to talk to customers, answer questions, or provide information, and that helps maintain strong relationships. “We know many of our customers” she says, “and are available to them. They appreciate that.”
In addition to loyal customers, Herrle’s has benefited from relationships with the Farm Fresh Marketing Association, which Joanne points out provided the family with “a wealth of knowledge”, particularly in the earlier days of their growth, and with Foodlink Waterloo. With Trevor sitting on the Foodlink board, the entire family agrees that the organization is an active promoter of local foods in the community, which inevitably helps the business.
Finally, Herrle’s has built connections with local area schools, offering fall tours for students, they donate produce to the Waterloo Region Food Bank, and they do a fair amount of business (primarily buying, but also selling) with the Elmira Produce Auction.
Policy and Program Resources
Although government policies and programs have not been a key factor in the development of Herrle’s Country Farm Market, James acknowledges that the work done by Waterloo Region to promote local food has certainly been helpful in terms of encouraging people to seek out options for purchasing from local producers. Herrle’s also takes advantage of the federal AgriInvest program, and in the past, has participated in the Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization Program (CAIS). They have also received funding from the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) and the Environmental Farm Plan for environmental initiatives such as erosion control and tree-planting.
Challenges (and Overcoming)
The Herrles tend to focus much more on successes and opportunities than on challenges, but one thing they do note has constrained development has been municipal zoning regulation that is prohibitive to on-farm retail, particularly when it comes to larger-scale operations such as theirs. James explains that, in the township, “there is a preference for a small-scale, picnic table at the end of the road type of on-farm sale, but you can’t make a living at that.” The issue became particularly important in 2005, when the family built the most recent addition on their market building. At the time, zoning regulations dictated that none of the new space could be used for retail. While the added room for storage has been useful, the business has grown so quickly over the last 10 years that expanding the retail space is becoming increasingly necessary. The main strategy for overcoming this challenge has been maintaining open communication with local officials; however, James notes that, when the time comes to apply for a new addition, “it’s going to get pretty sticky whether or not we’ll get what we’re looking for.”
Another challenge is presented by the cheap produce available at large-scale retailers such as Walmart. While some products sold at Herrle’s are priced comparably, it is impossible to compete with the pricing of so-called loss leaders. For example, James explains that Walmart can sell peaches for $2 per basket, and feature sweet corn at a price three times less than what it sells for at Herrle’s because they can afford to lose money on those items. However, he adds that “there is going to be a huge difference in quality.” Indeed, according to Michelle, customers at Herrle’s rarely – if ever – complain about price, and are instead far more likely to comment on quality. In Michelle’s words: “What we hear most of the time is ‘this is so fresh’. We hear that countless times a day.” Beyond simply providing a good product, taking the time to engage in conversation with customers, and to educate them about local food and its benefits, is key to ensuring long-term loyalty, and to combating the potential problem of higher prices.
In Joanne’s opinion, Herrle’s “big success is reaching a lot of people, educating them about agriculture, and making local food available for them.” Michelle adds that “we’re all about freshness, and being a welcoming place, with a nice atmosphere…and we have really great staff.” The strong feeling of attachment to the market on the part of consumers – that amounts to an almost emotional connection – is a big part of why they have been able to serve an estimated 100 000 customers this year, many of whom might come to buy corn, but end up leaving with a wide variety of other high quality, primarily nutritious goods as well.
James suggests that so many small things have contributed to the overall success of Herrle’s Country Farm Market that it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what factor has been most important. Nevertheless, a number of issues were raised repeatedly. The first, reflected in the business motto, is quality and freshness. Important for maintaining that quality has been focusing attention on production of a niche crop – in the Herrles’ case sweet corn – and supplementing the retail operation by sourcing from farmers who have their own expertise in other crops. In James’ words: “We grow what we grow well, and source from other farmers who grow what they grow well.” Joanne points out that being willing to pay a fair price to get top quality produce from other farmers has also been essential.
The quality of the goods for sale helps contribute to customer loyalty; however, the Herrles do not rely on the produce to speak entirely for itself. Instead, they work actively to cultivate and maintain close relationships with their clients, offering them a number of opportunities to become educated about the benefits of a local food economy. Customers also genuinely appreciate seeing the face of the farmer that produces their food, so maintaining the family-run feel of the business has been highly beneficial. “There is always a family presence in the market” explains James, “from open to close, so there is a connection.”
Another important piece of advice that the family would offer to anyone trying to build a similar operation is to grow slowly. As Joanne puts it, in their case, the business started on a very small scale, and has been built through “years and years of hard work, and taking some small risks, and big risks too. It has just been a very gradual thing.” Expansion has been based on conducting yearly evaluations of what is working and what is not, and assessing market trends. For example, when it became clear that time-saving was a priority – particularly for female consumers – Herrle’s began to offer quick and easy menu planning ideas that were accompanied by prepared shopping lists. They have also gradually built their supply to include all the products that someone would need to make a summer meal, including meat and dairy. That way, they ensure that customers do not have to visit another grocery store after attending the market.
In spite of the importance of everything mentioned above, James acknowledges that “you can’t discount location. We could do all the same things we’re doing, and be 15 minutes farther away, or even 5 minutes farther away on a back road, and we could never do it.” The proximity to a large, relatively affluent, well-educated population has helped allow Herrle’s to grow its client base, and living in a Foodlink region, has only further facilitated that growth.
Finally, it is abundantly clear that the Herrles love what they do, something that Trevor points out is key to their ability to be innovative and successful. “To see the joy and happiness on peoples’ faces when they enjoy something you’ve produced” he says, “that’s why we love what we do.”