In 1858, Peter Herrle built a log cabin and settled on a 80-acre parcel of land on the edge of Wilmot Township in Waterloo County. Five generations later, the Herrle name and family are still farming on the same land.
In the years leading up to 1968, Howard and Elsie Herrle would return home from selling their fruits, vegetables and meats from the Kitchener Market and sell any excess out of their garage on Erbs Road. In the winter of 1988, the land beside their house was used to build a roadside market. After 33 years, five additions to the market, 20,000 square feet, about 100 seasonal employees and 600 acres, our family continues the long-standing tradition of providing Waterloo Region with fresh local fruits, vegetables, meats and fresh baking.
Our seasonal market has always prided itself on providing a rural farm market physical shopping experience. When Covid-19 came upon us, flipped our style of hiring, marketing, pick-your-own, and interrupted all the comforts to which our customers have become accustomed, we were forced to make some quick changes.
We started with our hiring in March, with so many unknowns: how busy will we be? How much extra work will be required? Do we do a curbside option? Do we have to sell everything “pre-packaged”? How many acres do we plant? How many staff will we need? Usually, we like to personally meet each one of our candidates when they return an application, we like to have group interviews… this had to change.
We usually have applicants drop off applications; this year we still offered this, but physically distancing, interviews by way of Zoom, group/staff interviews/meetings via Zoom. Some of us family members even joined in on our cell phones from the tractor. (Farmers don’t tend to sit by their computers much during planting, so we are thankful for technology on the farm.
Changing our customer experience was going to be a difficult challenge for us. We like consistency, routine, familiarity. We knew if we were going to stay relevant in our community, we would have to offer some kind of a curbside option. We applied for the government's Online Marketplace grant to help us with a basic online shopping experience for customers who wanted a curbside option. This was a big venture, with a lot of extra work in a busy and hectic time, but the family pulled it all together.
In the market, many changes needed to be addressed. We continued to get a lot of conflicting information from local and regional public health as to what we needed as far as signage, cleaning protocols, restrictions, and documentation. I get it, it was and still is unprecedented, but it certainly felt that the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. We made the decision to open a couple weeks earlier than usual for the weekends only to get our feet wet. We needed time during the week to work out the kinks, to make changes where necessary. This proved to be a very valuable exercise in experimentation and agility. It also helped staff to acclimatize to surroundings, give suggestions, share feedback and ease into the season.
Pick-your-own strawberry season was an “easy” transition, thanks to the Ontario Berry Growers Association. They clearly laid out guidelines, protocols, distancing options and payment options. They were easily implemented, easily followed and gave us clear direction. We were "berry" thankful for their foresight around pick-your-own operations. It also gave us some options to implement in the coming years, which we have been thinking of implementing. So this is a win for a busy time of the season. Once again, our family came together to make this happen.
Sweet corn is the backbone of our business and for which our business has come to be known. The experience of seeing the corn come into the market, being rotated into our bins while customers stand back and awe at the freshness and excitement – it's part of the experience. Customers would be able to pick out what they wanted, peel their corn, congregate, meet neighbours, friends – it is a real community opportunity. Knowing we would have to change this saddened us, as it’s a highlight to see the joy on faces when we would bring corn into the market. We pivoted, hired a few extra people to pre-bag corn into dozens, half-dozens and twos. People could grab and go. This worked quite well, although it was a big expense as far as labour, extra bags and the stress of having enough of each type bagged. But in those stressful times we rallied as a family and staff to make it happen.
We still felt that something was missing, at one of our weekly family meetings we discussed an idea of using our strawberry shack and renting a tent for outside the market so we could place a bin of corn, where customers could pick their own out. We have a lot of customers who come just for corn, and we wanted to give them an opportunity to not have to stand in line outside, to just be able to get their corn and go. We placed peaches, melons, tomatoes, beans out there as well. We called this venture “The Garage” a throwback to when Howard and Elsie sold their produce out of their garage.
The Garage was very well received by our customers. Weekly family meetings were pivotal, and essential for us. We were able to share ideas, deal with issues before they became problems, and share success of the week. Our biggest takeaway of our 2020 season is the importance of our family, listening to each other, laughing together as much as we could, and realizing… there are just some people that can’t be pleased, and that is OK. But together as family and staff, we can accomplish so much good.