A Catch-up Conversation with Howie Herrema

Howie, I think when the municipal election of 2010 was on the horizon, the people of Uxbridge expected that you would either succeed Gerri-Lynn O’Connor and Bob Shepherd as the mayor, or follow in your father’s footsteps as the chair of Durham Region. Instead, you retired from politics altogether. What happened?

The dairy farm happened. Municipal politics is supposed to be a part-time job, but anyone who’s done it will tell you that it’s your other job that gets shoved aside. It was bad enough when I was a ward councillor, but when I got the regional position, my share of duties at the farm got really neglected. Finally, my older brother sat me down and said he wanted to move on from farming. My wife Lizzie and I had to decide if we would sell the milking operation and just keep cropping. But we both love the cows. What was most important to me and my family? As soon as Gerri-Lynn told me she was prepared to run again, I knew I was coming back to the dairy farm.

You’ve been on this farm you whole life, right? You were born here?

Well, not exactly. I was born at the Cottage Hospital in 1961. My son Gerrit was one of the last born there, 30 years later. But yes, this farm is the only home I’ve ever known. My dad came to Canada with my grandparents after the war, he was only nine then. My grandfather was Wyben, my grandmother Ymjke, but I guess your average Canadian couldn’t handle pronunciation of Dutch names back then, so they became Wilbur and Yvonne. My dad was Gerrit, so he became Gary. Grand-dad had a lot of dairy experience back in Holland, so there was plenty of opportunity for him here in Ontario. They actually got their first work on Don St. John’s farm just east of Uxbridge, then they leased a farm in King Township for a few years. This place came up for sale in 1960, and they’d saved up enough by then, and they really liked this community. So they bought it.

Your father Gary was a legendary politician in this area, he was chair of Durham Region for 14 years. How did that career come about?

Well, around the kitchen table in our house, the conversation pretty much only focussed on two things: farming and politics. Dad could get pretty fired up about that stuff. I think it was the way garbage disposal was being handled one time that pushed him over the edge. He served one term in Uxbridge as regional councillor, another as mayor. By then, Durham Region had been around for only a few years, and he enjoyed being a big part of how it became what it is now.

Then he died of cancer when he was still very young, only 57. Ironically, we think it started when he got kicked by a cow. He was so busy, he neglected the injury. My mom, Helen, took over things, and my brother and I were at an age when we could be more of a help. Mom’s really been a rock, she’s why the farm is still here. I went to Ridgetown College near Guelph to learn everything I could about the business; the technology of it was really beginning to change about then. Ridgetown is where I met my wife, Lizzie.

So Herralea has really changed in the decades you’ve lived here? What still fascinates you about dairy farming?

The farm has slowly grown over the years. We now have 575 acres spread between Concessions 6 and 7. In addition to more than 200 Holsteins, we have a lot of acreage dedicated to crops both for the cows and the cash market: corn, soybeans, different grains. And that makes for a great variety in the challenges here. There’s no routine. Some days you’re a mechanic, some days you’re a vet. And of course you’re running a complicated business, with employees and government regulations everywhere you turn. Never boring, that’s for sure.

Are you and Lizzie ever tempted to retire to a little house on a lake somewhere?

Are you kidding? We have four houses to maintain here, why would we add another one? And the farm still needs us. Our son, Gerrit, is really strong on the IT side of the business – computers are part of everything here, even when we’re out in the fields – and he and his wife, Sarah, just brought the fifth generation onto the farm, little Wyatt. So he’s got a lot on his plate. And although our daughter, Brigette, is involved in agriculture, she’s not part of the day-to-day operation of Herralea.

How about a return to politics someday?

I think I’m about 90 per cent sure that won’t happen. But I did enjoy my time on council, especially all the people you meet, and every now and again I’ll drive by a park or a building and think, “I’m proud of that, we did a good job there.” And you never know, I might get mad like my dad did… if Mayor Dave doesn’t fix my road…

So you’re saying there’s a chance. For now, what gets Howie Herrema up in the morning?

Debt! And the cows. They’re always up before me.

Conrad Boyce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Uxbridge Cosmos