Kevin Howe is a scrambler, much like the watermelon, pumpkin and squash vines that he tends. Along with his two older brothers, Ryan and Rick, he’s a reliable supplier to major retailers of interesting cucurbits: super small-seeded watermelon, canary melon and Caribbean pumpkin.
Located near Aylmer, Ontario, the family farm has evolved since the 1960s when his grandfather received a pittance for watermelon at Oktoberfest time. The late-maturing Jubilee varieties were no match against beer! Climb the family tree even further, and his great-grandfather was growing strawberries in 1916, shipping as far east as Montreal.
Today, the Howe family farms 450 acres of which 220 acres are in pumpkin and squash, 70 acres in watermelon, 30 acres in strawberries, 30 acres in sweet corn and four acres in market garden vegetables. Besides the demands of meeting retailer specifications and timelines, the family has operated an on-farm market. After just 13 years, it’s become a busy hub although it’s located 40 minutes from the urban center of London.
In mid-2019, an opportunity arose to rehabilitate a market structure on a major highway closer to London. The family scurried to open their second location: Howe’s Farm Market and Country Bakery.
“We see this as a way to diversify from our reliance on the wholesale market,” explains Kevin Howe, operations manager, revealing that 60 per cent of the business is wholesale. That business is valued, but it’s also at the whims of North American prices. On-farm markets are not without huge demands on management and marketing. Here are some of the lessons shared by Kevin Howe.
Grow unique varieties. As a specialist in melons,the Howe family grows seedless watermelon (i.e. Troubadour, Traveller, Warrior), orange-seeded watermelon and canary melons. “We enjoy sharing something new that has a very enjoyable flavour,” says Howe. “The canary melons, sometimes known as piel de sapo, are the sweetest melons out there with a brix level of about 17°. Normally, melons test about 11°Bx.
While mature melons are sold as fruit, they belong to the Cucurbitaceaefamily. Seed is bought from vegetable seed companies, sown in an on-farm greenhouse and set out as transplants in spring. Pollinators are needed for every three transplants. On-farm trials continue every year with about 120 different types of melons under the microscope.
Stay authentic. Early June,the first of the market season is always toughest in terms of meeting consumer demand for fresh produce. Strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus and locally-grown greenhouse vegetables start the season.No shelf space is given toout-of-province produce. “We wouldn’t stock Washington cherries, for example, to fill the gaps,” says Howe. “We do bring in tender fruit from Niagara when it’s in season.”
Invest in signage to tell the story. “There’s no easy solution to signage,” says Howe. Attractive handwriting is essential to communicate the farm market vibe. He has hired a display specialist to look after this need. And he’s empowered staff to make changes to signage on a day-to-day basis. What’s fresh? What’s new? What’s coming? Where was it grown?
Group products together in terms of how they’ll be moved and stored overnight. One of the unique displays is an old-spool electrical reel that is set on casters. This display can be positioned at the front of the market as first-of-season produce, and for those items which need to be stored overnight, it can be rolled into a refrigerator. Tender fruits are a good example of what works well in this display.
Attract more traffic with a flower garden. It sounds simple,but planting a flower garden has more than one benefit. Not only does a rainbow-coloured plot attract traffic, but it attracts bees and butterflies. Of many varieties of flowers, the Howe’s plant a butterfly milkweed that hosts Monarch butterflies in abundance. The entire life cycle – from eggs, larvae (caterpillar), pupae to adults – is completed in 30 days. That means constant summer-long activity.
What used to be called a “teachable” moment for kids is now an “Instagrammable” moment for adults. This is story-telling at its best. The subtle message is that the farmer is attuned to growing practices for fruit and vegetables that aren’t harmful to the environment.
One more hint: plant the tallest rows of flowers at the back of your plot, parallel to the road.
Keep social media fresh. The Facebook page of Howe Family Farm Market has 3,229 followers. It is current, sharing valuable day-to-day information of when crops are ready, hours of operation and pricing. The page is populated with several videos of how produce is grown. The messaging underlines authenticity and transparency.
The Howe family has instinctively catered to consumer cravings, whether that’s country neighbours or urbanites. According to the 2020 Nourish Network Trend Report, many currents are propelling consumers in their relationship to food. For some, food purchases are based on environmental ethics. For others, it’s a desire to make food shopping a pleasure rather than a chore. It’s no surprise that on-farm markets are enjoying unprecedented success. Everyone is craving authenticity, a link to the origin story.
Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes 'Behind the Scenes' of this cover story and speaks with Kevin Howe, Howe Family Farm Market near Aylmer, Ontario. Click here to listen to the podcast.