For this article, we interview our colleague Sanne Smeets, who is responsible for Marketing&Communications @D/DOCK. Alongside her job, she is in the startup phase of a so called ‘agrihood’. A small scaled farm, owned by a cooperative and only producing food for its own members. Sanne likes to see her project as a leading example on making a positive impact on our current systems (ecological, social and financial). By now she has gathered a strong team of likeminded people, and is discussing with local property-owners to set up a lease-contract. “Think local, act global” says Francesco Messori about this project.
“Even before Covid-19 hit, often the discussion is going through our studio, about all these webinars, seminars, conferences….all these organizations talking about what they think is wise to do. Why do people actually participate in these webinars?,” Sanne questions.
“How many webinars did you participate in and made you change your behaviour? Made you act differently? It’s easy to talk about change. It’s not easy to really change. So, let’s act, that’s the only way to find out if we’re going in the right direction. Let’s really do something, create something and see if it works. Let’s experiment, let’s create, let’s fail and start over again.”
Sanne thinks our food system in The Netherlands, in Europe, in the world, is not functioning anymore, the ecosystem is completely out of balance. Why are we exporting so many products all over the world? Why are we importing so many products into our country? How come we exploit our land to such a level that it’s only suitable for grass for live-stock here in the Netherlands? Why did intensive agriculture production become so important that we forgot about nature?
How did you put these thoughts into practice?
“All these thoughts were dormant at the back of my mind when I decided I wanted to take part in a local farm, some place close to my house so my kids could go there by bike. A place where I could see our own food grow. Half a year ago the documentary The Biggest Little Farm opened my eyes. I searched for an initiative to join here in my area east of Amsterdam: Weesp. No one had started anything here yet…So, I decided I had to do it myself.
These days there are several initiatives in which a community owns its own farm, produces its own food. Community Supported Agricultures, Agrihoods….all with the same drive: to keep it local and do it yourself. Sanne chose to start researching a collaboration with the Dutch organization Herenboeren Nederland.
(Vimeo explaining the concept)
This concept, already running 7 farms throughout The Netherlands now, consists of a small scale mixed extensive farm, owned by the cooperative, only producing food for its members. The cooperative employs a farmer who runs the business in good consultation with the board of the cooperative. The beauty of this concept: it’s all about a circle. A circle because you only produce food for yourself. Because the nutrients that flow into the chain, are not supposed to go out of that chain (at least it’s the pursuit). A circle because everything is managed with your own local group of people, your community. A farm that is handed down through generations and remains within the community.
Sanne: “I think this current pandemic opened our eyes, it gave us a reality check. More and more people now see the relevance of local products, of short or even closed production-chains…more people value well-being and sustainability and it means more people are willing to collaborate to such a lifestyle with a farm.”
So, how do you set up such a farm?
Herenboeren Nederland is the umbrella-organization founded 5 years ago by Geert van de Veer. He started the first farm in Boxtel in the south of the country and Geert’s team is working like crazy to support those 7 farms and around 30 initiatives which are in the start-up phase.
“To start up, one needs to gather a team of likeminded people, this team is called the ‘kartrekkersteam’. Once the team is working on the set up, has direct leads for land to lease, the team of Herenboeren Nederland will start supporting them through the next steps. The local team has two main action points: find land to lease and make the community of participants grow. Once you have land and the community is at least 150 households strong, the farm can start.”
Why do members have to pay 2000 euros to join?
“In the concept of a Herenboerderij, the cooperative is independent. This once-off fee paid by members is needed to start the farm, buying materials, seeds and to pay the salary of the farmer. Once the production is started, members pay around 10 euros per person per week. Every Saturday the members come to the farm and pick up their package of harvest produce (fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat if wanted). Members do not have to work on the farm, that’s why we have a farmer, but if you want to stand in the mud and harvest your own food, you can always enjoy the fruits of your labour.”
What’s the situation now in Weesp?
“Within a month I managed to set up a strong ‘kartrekkersteam’. It feels incredible to find likeminded people who all want the same thing. My team now consists of 13 people with different backgrounds and skills. We’ve divided the team in sub-teams, each with its own specific tasks. Just before the Covid19 crisis we organized a meeting for the locals in the atrium of a big high school. Within days the number of subscribers for this event reached its maximum. Then we had to cancel it unfortunately due to the crisis and instead we organized a webinar. The amount of enthusiastic reactions, and of motivated people is rapidly growing, which means our community here in Weesp is ready to take off.
On the other side, the search for available hectares is extraordinarily difficult. In the Herenboerderij concept, a team needs 20 hectares. 10 for the cow herd, 10 for the fruits, vegetables, pigs, and chickens. This is ideal, to keep the circle as closed as possible. But this amount is not available here, we are now looking for 10 hectares, which means we are discussing other formats, collaborating with livestock farmers. Every square meter of agricultural grounds in the Netherlands is in hot demand, because supply is limited, everybody wants to earn money with what limited amounts are available. The system for farmers who are leasing land from other farmers or from the government is completely out of balance. Especially close to Amsterdam, prices are high, it’s frustrating that these prices per hectare are actually holding back initiatives like mine.”
What does your ideal agrihood look like?
“On my ideal farm, education is highly valued. With our agrihood we produce local food for the members of the co-op, but we reach a larger community by giving guided tours, workshops, having school classes visit regularly. We’re even talking about setting up a school connected to the farm. Elderly people are welcome to teach the younger generations their forgotten skills, like how to preserve vegetables. People with a healthindication are welcome to work on the farm.
People with lower budgets are welcome to participate also (with the support of the municipality). All kinds of cultures are welcome to join events or organize workshops. Yes, I think the word ‘inclusivity’ is in place here. We hope we are able to develop a building where we can come together with the members, with a professional kitchen where we can arrange cooking-classes. I’d like to create an environment where companies can meet and work, with each other and with the farmer and the members. I think businesses can take part in such an agrihood by thinking locally, supporting with their entrepreneur-experiences and by inspiring and also learning from the locals.”
What if you exceed the number of members? Do you need more land then?
“I’d like to set up a second agrihood. I mean, it doesn’t stop with this one location once we reach capacity. Why not go further? We need to start and be a leading example”
What role does D/DOCK play?
“D/DOCK is supporting my plans and inspires me to continually think bigger. We are in constant conversation on what the D/DOCKers might contribute to the agrihood in Weesp because it’s so close to Amsterdam. Or how this project can inspire D/DOCKers and its community to also start acting.”