November 16, 2017

Herenboeren: Gentlemen Farmers Changing the Dutch Food System

Laura Genello

Laura Genello

Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

This post is the ninth 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.

After years of working to support farmers at a Dutch agricultural organization, Geert van der Veer wanted to change the system. Dutch agricultural land prices are some of the highest in the world, and Geert met many farmers who found their businesses squeezed by low prices and increasing costs. He saw many farms disappear, and other farmers forced to take out a mortgage on their property just to survive.

Pig on pastureAt the same time, among urban consumers there is a growing demand for high quality, sustainably produced food and an increasing appreciation of the importance of farming. In 2012 Geert founded Herenboeren (gentleman farmers), a farm that inverted the traditional agricultural business model by allowing consumers to be entrepreneurs.

The Herenboeren system takes inspiration from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), in which consumers purchase a membership in a farm in exchange for a weekly share of produce. Originally, the intent of the CSA model was for consumers to be shareholders of the farm, by making an initial investment and sharing both the risks and rewards of the season. In practice, however, CSAs are often run more as subscription services, where the farmer feels an obligation to provide a certain value and quality of produce, regardless of the whims of climate, soil or pests. In fact, CSA farmers will often go to great lengths, including working extreme hours, and purchasing from neighboring farms, to ensure that their members receive abundant shares[1]. This means that CSA members generally experience the rewards, such as abundant kale harvests or a bumper sweet potato crop, but that the farmer shoulders the risks of a failed planting or a pest outbreak. At the Herenboeren, instead of just paying up front for a weekly share of fresh vegetables or meat, members pay up front for the entire farm.

After years of watching farmers struggle, Geert went camping with some friends and the seed of an idea in the back of his mind. While chatting with his friends, Geert pitched his idea: to have a group of families interested in local food pool investments in order to purchase a farm, and hire a salaried farmer. His friends were intrigued and enthusiastic about the idea, and offered to help. But despite the enthusiasm, they were all faced with the same problem: how to convince 200 families to each come up with a €2,000 initial investment when they had absolutely nothing to show to investors: no land, no tractor and no farmer.

After years of meetings, questioning, refinement and planning, they had recruited their first 50 families, providing €100,000 in start-up funds. That together with an initial loan, was enough to create the first Herenboeren pilot farm at Wilhemina Park outside of Boxtel in the Netherlands. Today, the Herenboeren farm has been in production since 2015, and has 150 members, enough to hire a full-time farmer at a salary of €45,000/year. In addition to the initial investment, each family pays a monthly fee of €24 or €44 per person (the higher price is for shares that include meat). In exchange, they receive a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, pork and beef all raised on the farm. Geert calculates that the share is roughly enough to provide each family with about 60% of their food needs. The momentum behind the Herenboeren has grown quickly over the last couple of years, and the farm at Wilhemina Park is now part of a larger Herenboeren foundation that works to spread the concept to other communities in the Netherlands.

There are four guiding principles of the Herenboeren: sovereignty, diversity, transparency and circularity. These principles are the core of the change that Geert wants to bring to agriculture: independence for farmers from loans and subsidies; biodiversity and practices that nurture the life of the soil; a transparent business structure that allows consumers to share in the knowledge, joys and challenges of farming; and, finally, an approach that honors the cycles of nature. These principles are evident both in the business structure and the farming practices. The farm design takes inspiration from agroecology and permaculture to reduce inputs and labor whenever possible. Their pigs are raised outside and forage most of their diet, with supplemental nutrition from maize and sunflowers grown on the farm. Their limousin cattle spend their lives on pasture, and their vegetable production rotation is designed to nurture the soil with cover crops. Each year, they experiment with new techniques and have plans to add functional tree plantings to provide nuts for pig forage, or attract birds to reduce insect pests. All members are also invited to spend time and work on the farm, and the farmer manages a Whatsapp group of potential volunteers, who are only a text message away when needed.

As I listened to Geert tell me about how at the Herenboeren the members were owners of the farm guiding the decisions and management, I had nightmare visions of lengthy meetings with people who don’t understand agriculture trying to determine how to run a farm. I couldn’t help but wonder how can this possibly work? Geert says that the key to success was the organization of a board of members from among the 200 families. This board works together with the farmer each year to establish the farm plan, and in that plan is an outline of decisions that the farmer will make himself and items that should be brought before the board. The board then seeks input from the other members, in the form of an annual meeting and periodic questionnaires. Thus, each party feels they have input and autonomy. This process is part of the knowledge exchange that makes the Herenboeren so attractive both for the farmer and for the members.

The Herenboeren at Wilhemina Park is only the beginning. Currently four other communities in the Netherlands are in the process of starting a Herenboeren project. It’s true that the Herenboeren doesn’t solve all food system problems. It is a system that is only available to those who can afford the initial investment, and not every farmer would be interested in working collaboratively with 200 people. But the system is a bold and innovative way to increase engagement between consumers and farmers, protect a sustainable style of farming and ensure that a farmer earns a fair wage regardless of the harvest.

Images: Laura Genello 2017.

[1] See: Galt, R. E. (2013). The moral economy is a double-edged sword: explaining farmers’ earnings and self-exploitation in community-supported agriculture. Economic Geography, 89(4), 341-365.

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