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Schuurmans family shows strength and passion as they complete the Canadian Milk Tour

Sharon Grose for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 November 2018
Schuumanses Canadian Milk Tour

A cross-Canada trek with a giant plastic Holstein cow named Mable started conversations with consumers about the Canadian dairy industry.

Henk and Bettina Schuurmans set out on their Canadian Milk Tour from their Floradale, Ontario, dairy farm June 22. Traveling in an open-cab 6430 John Deere tractor, they headed west, aiming for Vancouver Island. Starting out, they had only two deadlines – tickets for Tobermory ferry crossing June 23 and their son’s wedding mid-September.

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They figured the western jog would take four or five weeks to complete before floating the tractor home. They planned to drive the tractor east to explore the East Coast after their son’s wedding. Traveling with a cow gave them an opening to chat with consumers about something they are very passionate about – the dairy industry.

Henk and Bettina Schuumans

The Canadian dairy industry has offered solid career opportunities to Schuurmans family members since they immigrated to Canada in the mid-’80s. Dairy farming is in their genes. Henk’s the ninth generation of dairy farmers – his farming roots can be traced back to the 1700s in Holland.

As the three boys, Jim, Tom and Eric, step in to head up the farming operation in Floradale, they become the 10th generation to carry on in a career choice of dairy farming.

With the boys at the helm of the day-to-day farm operations, Henk and Bettina felt they could finally take an extended holiday and tour Canada. This was a stepping stone to test the waters for retirement. They set out on their journey looking forward to chatting with Canadian consumers and seeing what this great country was really like. The couple’s trip was not sponsored by anyone; they planned and set out on their own.

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They felt they had reached a point in everyone’s careers where they could spend some time away. Being away from the farm would allow the boys to really step into their positions as farm managers and manage the farm without mom and dad hovering in the background, Henk notes. The time was right to see some of the country and share information about the industry they are passionate about.

But the tour came to a sudden standstill when a tractor-trailer collided with their John Deere tractor near Dalmeny, Saskatchewan. The Canadian farming community was shocked to hear the heartbreaking news of Bettina’s passing due to the tragic accident. Henk sustained injuries but, following a time in hospital, was released. While recovering from injuries, Henk – with the support of his children – made plans to finish the Canadian Milk Tour in memory of Bettina.

Bettina had always wanted to see the West Coast, to see the Rockies. Henk did not want her memory to end with the report of the tragic accident. He wanted people to remember the positive stories – a positive legacy of the Canadian Milk Tour. Henk was determined to keep the conversation going about the Canadian dairy industry, family farms and quality Canadian milk – something Bettina was passionate about.

Henk has so many good memories of the first part of the trip, he felt he just couldn’t let it end with the fatal crash. Completing the Canadian Milk Tour was important to the entire Schuurmans family.

“This trip was needed. It was part of the healing process for our family,” Henk says. “And I wanted to revisit all of the farmers we got to know on our first trip and to thank them for their support after the tragic accident.”

So on Thursday, Sept. 13, at 4 a.m., the Schuurmans set out again on the Canadian Milk Tour. This time they travelled in a white pickup truck with a large plastic Holstein cow in the back truck bed and a small plastic calf named Minnie.

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Daughters Emily and Lize joined Henk for the first leg of the trip. Emily was only able to get a short time off from her job as real estate agent; Lize, who works as a nurse, was able to complete the entire Canadian Milk tour with her dad. “I did this for my mom,” Lize says. “I wanted to carry on this journey for her. I also wanted to be there for my dad and to support my siblings.”

Lize Shuurman

It was a bittersweet journey as Henk and Lize revisited some of the farm families to thank them for their support. It was the people who made the journey special for both Henk and Lize.

“Those chance meetings at Tim Hortons or gas stations – we met some really interesting people,” Henk notes. “They would see the cow and ask to take their picture with us, and then they would post it on Twitter. It got people talking [about] our dairy industry,” he adds.

“We had road workers pull us over. They had seen Bettina and I passing through the first time, and they recognized the cow in the back of the truck passing by a couple months later,” Henk recalls. “They wanted to stop and chat again – to share with us where they had seen posts about our trip on Twitter.”

“Engaging with consumers was a lot of fun,” Lize says. “Whenever we stopped, people would approach us right away with a big smile on their faces and ask questions about the cow and truck.” Following the photo sessions with the cow, conversation about the dairy industry would begin, Henk adds.

“We got a lot of honks and a wave from people as they passed us on the highway. They were taking videos from their cars. I guess a cow driving in the back of a pickup truck is a bit unusual,” Henk says. “Folks posted videos and photos as they met up with us along the way, so it gave us lots of exposure with the hashtag Canadian Milk Tour.”

Taking time to have conversations with consumers is important. Henk says, “People were eager to meet with us when we stopped to fill up with gas or stopped at a coffee shop. They saw our sign; they’d honk in support of the dairy industry. They took pictures with us beside the cow. We connected with people, not only across Canada but met several people from around the world.”

When the Schuurmans toted their plastic calf Minnie out on a whale-watching expedition, a couple from Australia recognized it and approached the Schuurmans to chat about the Canadian dairy industry and their tour. They told Henk their family was very inspired by Schuurmans’ cross-Canada tour and their passion for the dairy industry. These were encouraging words for both Lize and Henk.

Lize and Henk set Minnie the calf out for photo ops whenever they stopped at a Canadian landmark along their route. The photos were then posted on Twitter Canadian Milk Tour so folks could follow the trip.

It took four weeks to complete the West Coast tour. They took two days’ rest back at the farm in Floradale, then Henk and Lize headed to eastern Canada. They completed the East Coast portion in a mere two weeks in late October. With the boys back home running the farm, Henk quickened the trip so he could get back to help get the fall work done.

To wrap up the tour, Henk and all five children traveled to Toronto with Maple and Minnie in the white pickup truck. The Schuurmans met with the premiers of Ontario and Saskatchewan to highlight the importance of supply management.

The Canadian Milk Tour is now completed, and Henk is glad to be home. Things are different since the journey first began. Six weeks on the road kept his mind busy planning the trip, but now he has to settle in to a farm and now a family in transition. “It’s quite a change,” he says.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Schuurmans family shows strength and passion as they complete the Canadian Milk Tour

PHOTO 2: Henk and Bettina Schuurmans started the tour on June 22, traveling in an open-cab 6430 John Deere tractor and pulling a large fibreglass cow behind them. Signs hung on the front and back to build support for the Canadian dairy industry.

PHOTO 3: Lize Schuurmans traveled the entire trip with her father Henk to carry on the journey for her mother. Photos by Sharon Grose.

Sharon Grose is a freelance writer from Alma, Ontario.

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