|Introducing Team Kuhlmann: front row, Dietrich and Liz Kuhlmann, Anita McDonald; at back, Dale Kruk, Angela Kruck, Linda McDonald, Curtis McDonald and Doug McDonald.
He looked at me, from top down, and said: “so you want to help us … and you are from the government.”
We now laugh when we talk about that first meeting! What started with a tour of this market garden and greenhouse operation – which included an introduction to his wife Elizabeth and their daughters Angela and Anita (and probably the family dog!) – has grown into a warm friendship. They treat me like family with each visit.
When I moved from Brooks to Edmonton in 1985, my new office was close their business. I frequently joined them for lunch and learned about the business, providing any diagnostic knowledge that they always discussed and adopted if they liked it.
If you walk into the greenhouses you can see the older Quonset type units, along with the two structures that open up at the top. Three years ago, they added a relatively modern greenhouse with flood benches. So, the history of expansion is well preserved!
HUMBLE ROOTS: FARM BEGAN WITH VEGETABLE FARMING
■ Dietrich refers to the start of the business in 1962 as being “the old place” on a parcel of land in the northeast corner of Edmonton. It had especially fertile black soil, ideal for growing vegetables.
|Their open-roof greenhouses were probably the first of their kind in the province when they were added several years ago.
That attitude of being blessed translated into hard work, a wonderful family, a co-operative mentality and ability to get along, all of which has resulted in a successful career. He has come along way from when he was two years old and wondering what the future would bring!
Soon after they started the farm, a lean-to greenhouse was built to grow a few tomatoes.
Liz started a few bedding plants and their farmers’ market customers eagerly bought them all! This is how it started in 1972 and a 21’ by 50’ greenhouse was built, followed by four 21’ by 96’ structures. Thus the bedding plants business expanded alongside the market gardening.
The business continued to grow and expand and greenhouses were moved to a nearby location nearby in 1982.
Today, Kuhlmann’s Market Garden and Greenhouses stands at just under seven acres of greenhouses, including a nursery and sales area with an open roof, role-up sidewalls for ventilation, and flood benches. During summer, over 60 people are employed while in winter the number drops to around 15. Many employees have worked with them for many years.
Market gardening remains an important part of the business.
The open roof greenhouses were probably the first of their kind in Alberta when they were added several years ago.
THREE GENERATIONS GROWING THE BUSINESS
■ Dietrich says the Family Farm Partnership has worked especially well for them. He gets great satisfaction in having his daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren involved in the business.
|The business milestone is captured in this anniversary display.
Now, they love to leave those decisions to their children! (At the time of our interview, Dietrich and Liz were getting ready to go on a cruise and the family was excited to see them take a break!)
It is the clarity of roles and responsibilities of each family member that helps the business run smoothly.
Liz looks after the accounts and payroll. (She also has her own brand of sauerkraut, which customers love. She has a certified kitchen where it is made.)
Anita has the job of head grower, assisted by her daughter Linda. (Mom and daughter get along fine.) Anita’s husband Doug is responsible for all field production, assisted by their son Curtis.
Angie works on the retail side, and ordering is her speciality. Her husband Dale is the all rounder.
Everyone looks forward to the family lunch. It is a home-cooked meal and Janet Grimboldly has been preparing lunch for over 15 years.
(I remember this was also the tradition of the late Lois Hole, of Hole’s Greenhouses, as well.)
I am always welcomed to these lunches and they are a focal point of getting together as a family. I don’t think too many technical things are discussed at lunch.
“We have a very diversified business,” said Dietrich. “Our location in northeast Edmonton, the same location since 1982, has helped us retain our customer base.”
It’s also meant the family is very well known in the community.
“Upgrading the business and the equipment is a continuous process,” Dietrich added.
Three years ago a greenhouse was added with rolling benches, drip irrigation in some areas, and ebb and flow benches. “This helped reduce our labour costs and increased product quality.”
After the bedding plant season, tomatoes and cucumbers are grown.
The well-supplied garden centre and flower shop have blended in nicely with the greenhouse.
The garden centre is quite bright and airy. Having open space for people to browse through is important, said Dietrich, and that is why there are a lot of colourful and well-decorated spaces throughout the retail area.
The rest area is well utilized by customers. They can enjoy a cup of coffee and contemplate what to buy next!
On the question of how much diversification is too much, Dietrich explained that you have to adjust to market realities, and not hang on too long to what you have been growing.
For example, they used to grow large amounts of cabbage, carrots and broccoli for the wholesale market. However, they have since narrowed this down to products suited for their own retail store. They still sell at three farmers markets, which helps them stay connected with this group of consumers.
Over a decade ago, Kuhlmann Market Garden and Greenhouses combined its production capacity with Pik-N-Pak Produce Ltd. and others to lay the foundation of Sunfresh Farms. This company built its own state-of-the-art warehouse and is one of the largest suppliers of fresh produce in Western Canada.
Dietrich noted that “ups and downs” are part of the business. “It used to be a lot easier to make money before, but now it is getting harder.”
They’re increasing their focus on direct-to-consumer sales, and the results have been positive.
The Kuhlmann family has been involved with the community at every level and has received several awards. Dietrich is a founding member of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association and the recipient of several recognition awards.
When I finished my interview, I asked him what the secret was to their success.
“It is the customers who like our locally grown product and produce and we love to develop excellent relationships with them. And of course, the blessings of our Lord in many ways, good weather most of the time, a great family and friends and employees, and constantly learning and upgrading our knowledge so that it is applied wisely.”
I appreciate that Dietrich and Liz shared their time with me.