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50 YEARS

After 50 years, family-run seed business continues to thrive Add to ...

Every business faces obstacles, but there are some that only family businesses can appreciate. In this new series 50 years, we scour the country in search of family businesses that have stood the test of time and ask them to share the keys to their success.

Maria and William Dam Sr. in 1960 in Dahlia trial garden

When William and Maria Dam came to Canada from Holland in 1947, they found other Dutch immigrants were yearning for traditional vegetables from their homeland. European vegetable seeds weren’t available in Canada, and gardening was a way of life for many Dutch people to feed their large families.

The Dams had worked at a large seed company in Holland and through their connections, started importing seeds for vegetables such as endive, borekole (kale) and schwartzwurzel (a thin, parsnip-like vegetable). The business started at the kitchen table of their rented farmhouse in Sarnia, Ont. and the first deliveries were made on bicycle.

By the 1950s, the Dams were using agents to collect orders, offering school fundraisers and selling tulip bulbs. In 1957, they moved to Ancaster to take advantage of better shipping routes. When that property became part of a ramp to Highway 403, William Dam Seeds moved to its present location in West Flamborough (Hamilton) in 1959.

William Dam Sr. in his office

The Dams’ son, Rene, started working with the company in 1963 (his four sisters also worked there at some point), and bought the business from his parents in 1977. He served as president until 2005, when one of his nine children, William Jr., who had worked at the seed company since 1990 and studied agribusiness at the University of Guelph, took the helm. As many as four generations of Dams have worked at the business at one time, including matriarch Maria, who helped out until her death in 2013 at age 100.

The late William Dam Sr. wanted the seed company to stay as a small business – and it still is, with eight full-time employees and up to 30 from January to June when the company is shipping seeds. While the first customers were in the Dams’ local area, their seeds are now sold to customers across Canada – due to export regulations, they can’t ship outside of the country. Vegetable seeds are still the main business, but they also sell herbs and flower seeds. Canada’s climate is not conducive to successfully producing seeds, nor it is cost effective, which is why they continue to import from other countries, with Holland still a main source.

“Our vision has changed as we’ve grown and we do a lot more product testing,” says current president William Dam Jr. “Originally we had half an acre for testing and now we have 13 acres.”

William Dam Seeds company sign

The company added online ordering to keep in step with the Internet shopping trend, but “we mail out more catalogues than ever,” says Mr. Dam. “People still want to see the printed product.” They send out 50,000 colour catalogues a year and have a downloadable version on their website.

“We like to anticipate where were are going and we try to be proactive, not reactive,” says Mr. Dam. “Our business has changed a lot in 15 years with the switch from home gardens to small market growers. We still have a lot of home gardeners, but our main business is small market growers.”

Mr. Dam says one of the biggest challenges the business faces is government red tape and outdated seed import regulations – issues his U.S. competitors don’t have.

“Our population is smaller and our overhead is the same as our competitors in the States, who have a larger customer base,” says Mr. Dam. He also notes that while his business is regulated, smaller microseed companies in Canada are not.

In the late 1960s, Dam Seeds switched to untreated seeds, even though they were difficult to source. William Dam Sr. suffered from skin rashes that he linked to the chemicals used in seed storage. Untreated seeds are not necessarily the same as organic seeds, explains Mr. Dam. Some seeds have a coating, usually a clay-based product made of non-toxic food grade materials, for visibility and to keep seeds intact.

Rene Dam, receiving the first certified organic seed in 1999

As William Dam Seeds will only supply seeds that meets or exceeds Canada No. 1 requirements, it’s a challenge to source enough organic seeds of acceptable quality. Mr. Dam says inferior seeds can result in crop failure and also introduce new diseases into the soil.

“We get some flack from organic growers, but quality of the seed is more important than organic,” he says.

Dam’s does stock more than 100 organic vegetable, herb and flower seed products, as well as fertilizers, and pesticides that can be used in organic growing. It introduced organic seeds in 2000 and was the first registered company in Canada to feature a line of certified organically grown seeds.

“The green movement has been good for us, along with the Eat Local movement,” says Mr. Dam.

Another plus is that the company has always had a European flair and carried seeds for vegetables such as kale, now popular in North American diets.

“There’s a big interest in different colours of vegetables and we’ve gone multicultural with Asian greens, mustard greens, okra, tropical vegetables,” says Connie Dam-Byl, Mr. Dam’s sister, who is in charge of flower seeds. “And people are interested in flowers that will bring butterflies and bees back.”

Plants at William Dam Seeds

Mr. Dam says the next project for the company is a live vigour seed testing project that will be the first in Canada, to test seeds from planting to full grow-out. “We will be looking at what a seed does in reality in the field, rather than in the lab, similar to what some companies are doing in Europe.” (Seed vigor is a measure of the quality of seed, involving the viability, the germination percentage, germination rate and the strength of the seedlings produced).

The trial gardens are a crucial part of the business, says Mr. Dam as it allows them to test new vegetable, flower, grass, and herb seed varieties and experiment with various farming methods.

The research from the trial gardens is used to select new items for Dam’s annual catalogue; customers also visit for a sneak preview of what will be available in the coming year.

Four generations of Dams: (standing left to right) Christine Dam and current company president William Dam Jr., Annette and Rene Dam, Connie Dam-Byl; and seated, the late Maria Dam and great granddaughter Nadine Dam

Family is still a major part of William Dam Seeds and the staff includes Ms. Dam-Byl, another sister, Michelle, William Jr.’s daughter Nadine, his wife Christine, and while allegedly retired, Mr. Dam’s parents are on site 40 hours most weeks. Two other of his daughters work there in the summer.

The transition in ownership from Rene to William Jr. started about 15 years ago and it went smoothly, says the younger Dam. “Dad said ‘I’ve taken the business where I’ve wanted and done my 45 years. It’s up to you now.’ I like to solve problems and work with ideas, while Dad’s always been a seed person inside and out.”

Mr. Dam says they hired a consultant to help with the transition planning and he says that was money well spent. “That’s when a lot of businesses fall apart, but the consultant spoke to me, my dad and other family members and offered advice. It’s helpful to have someone who can see things from an outside perspective.”

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