It takes some people most of their lives to find a career that is right for them. It took Pete Schouten considerably less time.
“Apparently when I was seven I told my parents I was going to be a farmer,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know what it was. There was just a satisfaction in watching something grow I guess. I had some cousins who farmed and I thought that was kind of cool.”
Schouten made good on his promise. Today he is co-owner and CEO of Heppell’s Potato Corp., one of the largest potato and squash farms in the Fraser Valley region of British Columbia.
Based in Surrey, B.C., Heppell’s has been a mainstay of the province’s Lower Mainland since it was established in 1920. In 1963, it was purchased by brothers Ron and Dave Heppell, who embraced automation and were constantly looking for ways to improve and expand the business.
In 1993, Schouten purchased the farm along with partner Wes Heppell, whose dad was one of the original owners. It has since grown from a 200-acre operation to more than 1,000 acres, and now employs nearly 70 full and part-time employees who handle everything from growing and harvesting to packaging and shipping.
While Heppell’s has continued to grow, its guiding philosophy has remained the same, according to Schouten.
“I think it’s a combination of the way Wes and I think,” he says. “We were taught by Wes’s uncle Dave that there’s always a better way [of doing things], so we’ve kind of taken that mentality on and just gone with it.”
That desire to find new and better ways of doing business was what prompted them to get into the potato chip business three years ago. They purchased Naturally Homegrown Foods Ltd. in 2012 from a vendor who was struggling with it.
The business has grown by leaps and bounds and its Hardbite handcrafted potato chips, as well as its new line of vegetable chips, are now available across the country, including at major retailers such as Real Canadian Superstore and Safeway. Although he declined to discuss specifics, Schouten says business has quadrupled since Naturally Homegrown was established and he expects that trend to continue.
“I think the main reason it’s been so successful is the product is fantastic,” Schouten says. “I’m a potato farmer so I really want to make sure I can taste the potato in it. The spices aren’t overwhelming. [And] I know with the cooking process we take a little more care than the other guys and we’ve come up with a premium chip.”
A ‘West Coast’ Chip
Schouten and Heppell have worked with CREW Marketing to promote the Hardbite brand. Each bag of chips features images of some of B.C.’s most beautiful landmarks and information about the company’s emphasis on being eco-friendly.
“It’s a West Coast chip,” Schouten says of the Hardbite marketing strategy. “The feedback has been really good. Everybody likes the feel of it.”
Although potato chips will continue to be a big part of Hardbite’s future, Schouten says the company has begun branching out. It now offers a parsnip chip and recently launched beat and carrot chips. Several other new products are already in the pipeline.
“We’re really excited about the vegetable chip area. But we’re not saying we’re getting out of the potato chip business. That’s what keeps the wheels churning every day,” Schouten says.
In addition to venturing into the biogas production business (see page XX for our feature story on Heppell-owned Fraser Valley Biogas), Heppell’s is also continuing to expand the potato and squash side of its farm operation. It’s in the process of building a new, state-of-the-art squash storage facility that will provide longer-term storage. It’s also preparing for a major update of its potato processing plant.
“There’s a lot of new technology out there and we want to tap into some of that on the washing, packing and sorting side,” Schouten says.