September 13, 2017
This post is the seventh in a series – Letters from the Low Country – about food and agriculture in the Netherlands, written by Laura Genello as she studies organic agriculture at Wageningen University.
When I first met Pieter Lammerts he told me something I have never heard a farmer say: he had a lot of free time. Most vegetable farmers I know who farm on a similar scale work long hours in the fields before making deliveries, working a market stand, and managing the paperwork of running a small business. So what’s his secret?
Pieter, along with Klaas Nijhof, are two entrepreneurs who together form the Nieuwe Ronde CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), farming organic vegetables in Wageningen in the Netherlands.Like many CSAs in the U.S., the concept is simple. Customers, or members, join the farm at the beginning of the season, and pay up front for a share of the year’s harvest. Every week, in return, they receive a portion of the farm’s product. The farmer receives funds at the beginning of the year that can be used to pay for supplies, and the customer shares the risks and rewards of the season. However, the Nieuwe Ronde puts a twist on the traditional CSA model: instead of the farmers harvesting the produce, members of the Nieuwe Ronde can stop by the farm anytime they like (24/7) to harvest what and how much they want. There are only three rules:
- Memberships are based on the number of adult eaters, and members can only harvest for the people they paid for.
- Members can only harvest for fresh consumption.
- Members can only harvest items that are on the harvest list for that week.
These rules operate on an honor system, and there are no additional quantity or frequency limits on what and when members can harvest. Pieter says the system works surprisingly well, and that the trust the farmers give creates a sense of responsibility in members. Klaas and Pieter have found that providing a sense of abundance reduces the natural scarcity impulse people may feel to harvest more than they need. Unlike a traditional CSA, the customer has the flexibility to prioritize their favorite items, and ignore the ones they would not eat. For the farmer, the system saves considerably on labor, eliminating long days harvesting, washing, packaging, marketing and delivering produce. Thus, the price is lower than many other sources of local, organic vegetables for the customer.
In addition to the more obvious benefits, Pieter says the self-harvest system has some surprising advantages. Members enjoy coming to the farm for the sense of community and form a stronger connection with the food that they eat. In addition, Pieter has also observed that the system can reduce food waste and increase the efficiency of the farm. Because members feel more invested in the farm, they are more likely to harvest and take home imperfect or aesthetically strange vegetables. (By contrast, many farmers who harvest for their customers feel compelled to cull out the oddly shaped squash or flea beetle-perforated greens.) This has the net effect of increasing the farm’s yield per hectare. In fact, between Pieter and Klaas’s farms, the Nieuwe Ronde feeds 450 members on just 2 hectares (approximately five acres) of land under vegetable cultivation.
There are drawbacks, of course. While the system reduces food waste for many crops, some crops are trickier to harvest for members with little experience. On the day I visited the farm, Pieter and two volunteers were removing potatoes from the field that had been missed by members. There are other management challenges as well, as it can be difficult to encourage members to harvest a planting as systematically as a farmer harvesting for market. This can make it challenging to orchestrate a quick succession of plantings on the same bed.
While eliminating harvesting from the farmer’s to-do list saves considerable labor, Ger, an experienced Nieuwe Ronde volunteer, is quick to point out that farming is still a lot of work, and that Pieter relies on volunteers and interns to keep the farm weed-free and looking beautiful. Pieter contends that without volunteers the work would still be manageable, but he agrees he would make different choices, perhaps adding mechanization and scaling up, or focusing less on achieving weed control perfection. In either case, the Nieuwe Ronde has struck a balance that seems to work: the farmers have a work-life balance, interns gain experience, and members get access to affordable, fresh, organic produce.
The Nieuwe Ronde is not the only self-harvest CSA in the Netherlands, but Pieter believes it may have been the first. Klaas founded the farm nearly 20 years ago, after the dissolution of a community garden. The Nieuwe Ronde literally translates as “new round” in English, but in Dutch it has connotations of a “second chance.” Initially, Klaas experimented with traditional marketing outlets such as supermarkets, but over time the self-harvest CSA model just seemed to evolve out of convenience, providing much needed funds at the beginning of the season and reducing labor. Pieter joined the enterprise seven years ago, after an unlikely career path that began in the fashion technology industry. However, after deciding he wanted to be a farmer in his late twenties, Pieter discovered the Nieuwe Ronde and the pieces fell into place. He approached Klaas about replicating his business model. Today, the two farmers operate individual businesses, but share the name and the 450 members under an umbrella organization.
While the Nieuwe Ronde’s model might not work for every farmer, consumer or market, labor demands remain one of the biggest challenges facing small-scale, organic growers. In the right setting, the Nieuwe Ronde offers an innovative solution for supporting small-scale farming.
Images: Laura Genello, 2017.