Casey Houweling’s Tomatoes: Propagating The Faith Worldwide

Casey Houweling is Chairman, Houweling’s Group, Delta, BC, an innovative industry leader in the propagation and greenhouse industry worldwide.  Houweling’s has grown over 35 years to more than 1,100 employees and approximately 200 acres of greenhouses in BC, California and Utah.  Casey will be sharing his faith and entrepreneurial journey at this year’s ELO Forum in Vancouver on Nov 7th.

Where did this all start?  Casey brings the entrepreneurial spirit and extensive greenhouse experience that was first learned in his father’s floral and vegetable business.  This led eventually to his own present and more specialized operations.  

Casey’s focus is on greenhouse tomatoes, rather than an array of fruits and vegetables.  He believes that this is critical to enhancing one’s expertise and to providing value in the marketplace. 

While Casey specializes in greenhouse tomatoes, he also provides two other ancillary services.  He provides “propagation” services, which means taking a vegetable from seed to small size, and then selling to other companies that then grow the crop to full size.  In addition, Casey provides consulting services to other greenhouse growers located around the world which is an outgrowth of his patented industry advancing proprietary, sustainable growing technologies. 

Casey is widely regarded as heading one of the most technically-advanced and environmentally-friendly greenhouse operations in the world.  His patented technologies are an outgrowth of his ongoing innovation in the greenhouse industry. Casey’s significant entrepreneurial achievements include the following:

  • The first large-scale commercial greenhouse in the lower mainland of British Columbia.
  • The first large-scale vegetable greenhouse in California
  • The development, design and construction of the Ultra-Clima® greenhouse, a "pressurized closed greenhouse" structure for use in hot and arid climates.
  • The first USA installation of a cogeneration power system, a new 8.8-megawatt combined-heat-and-power technology.
  • Commercialization of tomato plant grafting used in large-scale commercial plant propagation

I had an opportunity to interview Casey on August 31st, 2018 at his Delta location in advance of his participation at the ELO Forum in Vancouver on Nov 7th.  Here are some excerpts from that interview.

How did you develop your focus on growing tomatoes?  

I was formerly in partnership with my brother after buying the business from our father. I ran the floral side of the business and I started the tomato one.  I went on a trip to Holland and seeing the tomato production greenhouses and saying why on earth are we not doing this in B.C.?  

When I went to Holland in 1984 the industry was a lot different than it is today.  I saw all the greenhouses over there and what really intrigued me was that you could walk into what in those days was a big facility with a 3- or 4-acre greenhouse (today this would be considered very small) and it would be all one type of tomato.  

I just looked at the operations and thought the synergies of production.  When we were in the floral industry we had 1,200 SKUs [stock keeping units], huge amounts of different things and then you’ve got poinsettias for Christmas and for spring the bedding plants.  It is a hugely complex business.  I liked the simplicity of the vegetable business and trying to hone down on trying to become efficient at what you’re doing.  If you’ve got 1,200 SKUs you could never be efficient at any of them.

We built a 6-acre greenhouse in 1985 which was the largest greenhouse built in B.C. up to that time and going with tomatoes.  I didn’t know anything about tomatoes.  I was going from the floral industry to tomatoes which is like a night and day difference but the first year of operation we made money. 

Our Delta facility is now today 50 acres and California is 125 acres.  California is 6 blocks and Delta is 2 blocks.  So roughly 20 acres a block, but it’s all on one site and everything gets shipped out of one facility. 

What was your most satisfying accomplishment or event?  

Two things.  First, I would say the development of the Ultra-Clima© patent for greenhouses.  We were able to actually do something outside of the centre of the greenhouse industry which is Holland, where everything comes from.  To actually have something that impacts the industry as that one did is quite rewarding.  

Second, there is our “Seeds of Tomorrow” project in Guatemala.  Being able to do something, not profit-oriented at all, obviously, but being able to do something that had so much impact in the lives of people, in businesses through Impact Ministries, is great. 

How did you (or do you) integrate your business/entrepreneurship expertise with your Christian commitment (and how are they complementary)? 

I think that the Impact Ministries project in Guatemala is a good example.  My oldest daughter had gone to Guatemala 3 or 4 times and spent a bunch of time there.  She kept bugging me, ‘Dad, dad, you’ve got to go!’  So, I’m thinking what am I going to do as a high-tech farmer going into a third world county?  How could I ever help these guys?  But, finally, I went, after I had turned her down enough times.  It changed my life.  It wasn’t really something that I went to do because I was convinced that I would be able to do something.  

I would look at it from this perspective:  always be ready to say yes, even when you don’t know what’s coming.  I think sometimes we look for things with too much effort; instead, they can come our way—and then you take it. It would have been very, very easy for me not to have gotten involved in the Seeds of Tomorrow project.  

The goal is to change the cycle of child hunger, by increasing access to a variety of nutritious vegetables and educating on nutrition and growing practices.  

I started out by looking for a used greenhouse to build, I laid out the vision and this one guy said to me, ‘let’s go out and do it!’  I first met with all the staff [at Impact Ministries in Guatemala] and I said we can go out to do this project, but if we do it, I’m not going to be here to run it after it’s set up.  You guys need to be committed to this initiative—you have to use it. 

The initial greenhouse project is functioning at full capacity and crops in the ground. Since the official greenhouse opening on September 30, 2013, an abundance of vegetables has been added to the meal plans in all of the schools where the children attend.  An agriculture program has grown out of the greenhouse project as the children are now taught about basic farming practices.  Along with this, nutrition and home economics are taught in order to educate the children to become leaders for the future. 

As a result of being a Christian entrepreneur, how has your approach to entrepreneurship changed?

Primarily it’s how do you treat people.  There is a difference between being concerned for individuals as fellow human beings or just as employees.  I don’t like to use the word “bodies.”  Often times the word is used to refer to as how many ‘bodies do you have on this job?’

Another way I act differently is, if you have an employee, try and put yourself in their shoes.  If so, you will treat them differently.  How would I want to be treated if I was in their shoes?  And this includes foreign workers, of which we have many.  How do you treat your foreign workers? 

What are the most important lessons you have learned that you believe are important for Christians pursuing entrepreneurship?

There are always opportunities to have an impact. There are lots of people that watch business owners.  I think the things you do, how you act, how you treat people is always watched.  There are a lot of people watching you that you don’t know.  You never realize it.  I would say in our organization everyone knows I go to church and that I’m a Christian.  We have 1100 employees – that’s 1100 pairs of eyes on me in way or the other.

What do you believe are appropriate means to share your faith in your company?

I would say it varies in the different places in which our company does business. Probably the biggest one is just how you act.  How you treat people and how you treat other businesses.  I think when you have a conversation with somebody you don’t know, or somebody perhaps from work but outside of the work environment, issues of faith inevitably come up.  Are they deliberately brought up?  I would say no because when you’re talking to somebody you can tell where they are at.  Our lives are intertwined with our faith.  I would say of all the conversations I’ve had with people I would say it’s rare for it to come up deliberately.

FINAL NOTE:  To hear more about Casey’s faith and entrepreneurial journey, join us at the ELO Forum in Vancouver on Nov 7th.  Further, the full-length interview with Casey will be published at a later date.  Please watch our ELO Newsletter for further details.