Casey Houweling – Houweling’s
When Casey Houweling drives through stretches of farmland, he always stops to look at the crops—be they ripe strawberries, crisp celery stalks or plump tomatoes.
He supplies the latter himself as the owner of Houweling’s, a family-run tomato and cucumber grower. The company produces in California and British Columbia facilities using only third-party verified, 100 percent non-GMO seeds, and grows according to the principles founder Cornelius Houweling passed down to his son, Casey.
“I was always interested in plants and growing,” says the younger Houweling, who took over from his father in 1979. “It’s a joy, actually, walking through a greenhouse with a good-looking crop, a well-produced crop. And that’s always been the case, ever since I was a kid. I never thought of doing anything different.”
Lately, Houweling has been helping to multiply propagation startup plants across the rest of the greenhouse industry. Houweling’s also has a new, patented greenhouse technology called Ultra Clima that’s been licensed to other greenhouse builders and is being used across the world.
But his main mission is still to grow vegetables, and Houweling is happy to school the uninitiated in the core tenets of his business. For instance, he can tell you where produce is in season across the world at any given time. When he spoke with Terra Firma in February, blueberries were coming from Peru, citrus was coming from South Africa and everything from apples to onions was coming from Mexico.
Another lesson: the biggest sin someone can commit in the produce industry is shorting the customer. People aren’t about to go back to eating potatoes all winter, Houweling says. They walk into a Walmart, Costco or Sam’s Club and expect fresh tomatoes in February.
“Everyone takes it for granted when they walk into a store that produce will be in there,” Houweling says. “But it’s quite a feat to keep that up. You must source from a lot of different places to be able to fill gaps.”
Finding and motivating labor
Like many employers, Houweling has been struggling to find good labor since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He says the labor situation was one of the biggest surprises he had to contend with when he took over the company.
“The U.S. doesn’t have a good foreign worker program, and they desperately need it for agriculture,” Houweling says. “There’s just not enough manual field labor.”
He notes that Mexico is “our largest competitor.” Because the cost of labor there is cheaper than in the U.S., companies in Mexico have different profit margins and a major competitive advantage over companies like Houweling’s. Mexico also has a different regulatory environment than the U.S. or Canada.
While field laborers comprise the bulk of what he needs, Houweling is also looking for labor managers and growers. Good labor management can help control a company’s biggest cost, by maximizing quality and productivity, he explains. And Houweling has been pursuing that goal by gathering data on workers’ output.
“Performance in what would be looked at as unskilled labor, it varies by 100 percent or more between your lowest-productivity employee compared to your highest,” he says. “So that’s what your big job is, is how do you get in there and manage to incentivize the employees?”
By using data-driven metrics, including kilograms picked per hour and lowering units per hour, Houweling has seen a lot of progress on the labor front. But the labor shortage continues to bedevil him—you can’t hold your breath waiting for the U.S. to change its foreign worker policies, he says, and robot field workers are a long way off.
Strategic energy minimization
Houweling has also been working on energy minimization, employing two strategies. One is cogeneration, a way of producing electricity and thermal energy in tandem using natural gas-fired internal combustion engines that operate at close to 100 percent efficiency the heat extracted and the electricity produced is combined, along with solar. When the internal combustion engines generate electricity, it produces the byproducts of heat and CO2, which Houweling’s uses.
The other strategy involves moveable screens, which can be closed at night or during certain times of the day to minimize heat loss. In this way, Houweling manages to keep his greenhouses heated using less energy.
But even with those strategies, Houweling is concerned about broader macroeconomic trends and the effects of the pandemic—inflation, supply chain disruptions—on his business. So, he’s contemplating strategic crop moves, or clearing certain fields of crops based on costs of producing in winter with supplemental lighting and extra heating to further minimize his company’s energy use.
“What you’re seeing happening in Europe right now is guys are just staying empty through December and January,” he says, referring to European farmers’ greenhouses. “So that’s a possibility. Not one we want to have, but it’s on the table.”
Houweling also plans to buy forward so his company is not buffeted by spikes in the price of gas. In other words, he’ll negotiate a purchase of fuel at the present price and agree to have it delivered later.
From bouquets to tomatoes
Houweling didn’t always grow tomatoes and cucumbers. He started out in the floral industry, growing bedding plants, poinsettias, Easter lilies and tropical plants for Houweling’s. But in 1985, while living in British Columbia, he made the switch to vegetables. And he hasn’t looked back.
“That was a big change—probably the most monumental shift in direction,” Houweling says. “Sold off the floral side of the company later. And then basically just stuck with tomatoes and propagation and what we’re doing today.”
Over the years, he’s presented at many industry conferences, but more recently, Houweling has come to feel his globetrotting days are behind him. As he nears retirement age, all he really wants to do is spend more time with his family; he has three daughters—one in California and two in British Columbia—and now, three grandsons.
“Those are big life-changers,” he says. “I think I’m going to ease down and yes, you know, there comes a moment when it’s time to quit.”
For now, he’s just looking forward to a summer vacation with his brood. They’ve rented a large house overlooking the ocean about three hours north of Vancouver.
“Our kids have actually gone there before us,” Houweling says. “So, we’ll spend a week together, and that’ll be nice to have.”
View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol. II 2023 Edition here.
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