‘Start small, see if it fits you and then only you can start to grow’
Wouter van Mil en Marieke Boudewijns are the passionate gardeners of the organic garden ‘Tuinderij Croy’ in Aarle-Rixtel (Netherlands). How did they end up there, what are their passions and how do their dreams for the future look like?
THE ADVENTURE. ‘For me, the adventure started quite some time ago when I studied Biology at the Wageningen University. Nature and everything that had to do with nature was my original interest.’ But soon Wouter found that his passion was to be found in another study, namely Ecological Agriculture. “I had a romantic feeling with that study. Two problems, however: the study was abolished – there was a lot of unrest in Wageningen during that time – and I had never experienced farm life myself! So Wouter decided to pack his bags. He ended up at a litte care farm in Scotland, where he was working in the vegetable garden and managing the livestock. And when he was milking the cows, he felt it: “this is it!”
The moment he returned to the Netherlands, he decided to quit his studies. “It was not for me, university, theory.. I just wanted practical work, preferably combined with care.” Eventually he found a study Musical Therapy, and there he met Marieke. She as well had been working on farms, in France. Marieke: “After high school I wanted to leave home on a horse, without any money, and travel through France. But my mom and dad didn’t like that idea and they told me I should find some work as nanny or something. Nanny…then rather work on farms!” That’s how Marieke ended up at a grumpy Dutchman in France: “Go back to the Netherlands! What do you think you’re doing here, rookie?!” But no one could stop Marieke ad so she went on. She ended up at several farms where she had a great time and she even worked with a shepherd with two thousand sheep. After two years full of wonderful experiences, Marieke thought it was time to get a grade though, and she started Music Therapy in Nijmegen. From the first moment on, Wouter and Marieke shared one dream: to live and work on a farm. And to work towards this dream, Wouter started a study at Kraaybekerhof. The garden followed soon.
THE START OF ‘TUINDERIJ CROY. In the year 2007, Marieke and Wouter came into contact with farmer Piet, the owner of tha land of their current garden Tuinderij Croy. “I wanted to do a project and rent a piece of land to grow vegetables for veggy bags.” Even though many people in the surroundings were negative – “Don’t do it Piet, such a young guy, it will be one big field full of nettles!” – farmer Piet agreed.
They started small with 2000 m2. “I had a shovel and a wheelbarrow. And I found a small greenhouse, second hand, in which I started growing cucumbers and tomatoes. It served also as storage house, the shop and the place where the vegetable packages were made.” Together, they decided to start with those veggy bags in order to get a more stable income. Wouter: “I thought, ‘if we can get 20 members, we can start.’ Well, we got 16 and so we said ‘let’s start anyway!’” At the end of the year they had already grown towards 32 customers. And here already comes the first tip of Marieke for Future Farmers: “Start small, then see if it fits you and then you can start to grow.”
ACCESS TO THE CONSUMERS. In order to find all those customers, Wouter and Marieke were going to several markets with their stand, they placed articles at the local newspapers, held open days and gave many tours. ‘The core group of the veggy bag members arose during that time. Ever since the amount of members has grown quite naturally, especially when I ordered wooden crates with our name on it. Apparently, people liked it to have such a wooden crate with local vegetables in their kitchen and in that way, the crate started to advertise itself. Moreover, people still can come over every Saturday morning for a tour in the garden. Marieke: “I think that’s essential, really. You spend time with your customers, and when people doubt about taking a vegetable bag – that happens quite a lot – I can tell them about it, give them a tour around the garden and that’s how people get enthusiastic about it.” That’s Marieke’s golden tip: ; Make it ‘gezellig’ (the famous Dutch word, meaning ‘a nice, cosy atmosphere’), and make it attractive for the people.’
There is a school close by as well which is closely involved with the garden. Tuinderij Croy has a drop off point and class 5 has a theme ‘working at the farm.’ Marieke: “Last year the students have harvested all our potatoes in two afternoons, it was great! And in return they could eat all raspberries they could find at our garden. Well that’s a nice exchange isn’t it?!” Besides at the school, Tuinderij Croy has 10 more drop off points for their vegetable crates, especially in the bigger villages, most of which are located within 15 km of the garden.
GROWTH. Meanwhile, Wouter took a side job next door in order to be able to invest more in the garden and make it grow step by step. But that side job became boring, while the passion for the garden grew more and more. In 2009 they therefor decided to completely go for it: “Memberships all year round. And we managed that! At that time, we were still doing everything by hand and on our knees – and with a small tractor that Wouter had bought from the first profit.” It was going very good with Tuinderij Croy, the amount of members was still rising and in 2010 the garden expanded from 2000 m2 to one hectare. The year after I was with my knees in the hospital, because of all the weeding and harvesting. Physically it was pretty demanding to do everything by hand. So then I thought yes it’s good to grow, but then we also really need some machines: planting and hoeing with a tractor, which we also used for moving all those vegetable crates.
And that’s how it happened. With the purchase of some basic machines, the garden grew to 1,8 hectares – the current size – and some 80 to 100 memberships for vegetable bags. Farmer Piet got more and more confident in Tuinderij Croy. “He told me he wanted to build a barn and asked me ‘Wouter, could you use a shed for your tools?’ I said: ‘Yes please but how big can it be, because actually I’d also like to make a little shop and a space where we can fill the vegetable crates.’ At that time we were still doing everything at the stall in the middle of the field. So then we could rent a piece of Piet’s barn in which we could place a cold room, and we really needed that.” The farm shops is open from May to October, every Saturday. In winter, we use it as storage house, shed and it’s also the place where we fill the vegetable crates. And the amount of memberships is still growing. “We currently have 200 members – it always goes up and down a bit – but that’s all we can handle right now.
MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK. Due to the rising demand for local vegetables of Tuinderij Croy, the work became quite demanding, physically. That’s why Wouter and Marieke decided to post job vacancies at the website of Warmonderhof (education for Bio-Dynamic agriculture in the Netherlands). Soon they found an employee who now works three days a week. Then – unexpectedly – there were many interns who’d like to gain experience at their garden as well! “All serious people who really want to go forward. For me it’s new to work with interns and employees – people I can really ask something and give tasks. With volunteers I was mainly busy keeping it all ‘gezellig’, but yeah, sometimes you also really need to work.” Wouter and Marieke are very grateful with all those extra helping hands. “They made it possible to work forward in all kinds of ways all of a sudden.”
SETBACKS. The start of the garden was not a problem really because Marieke and Wouter started small. Yet every farmer of gardener experiences setbacks. Integration in the neighbourhood, for example. Marieke: “It’s all very strange what we do and we are just crazy people.” Wouter: “For some people from the village, we’re freaks.” This hurts the family really, especially since they’re living in the village. “It’s really our wish to live on the farm, at the garden, as part of the whole business organism. Now we rent a house in the village, while the garden is here, outside the village. That feels as broken pieces together. But I know very few people in the Netherlands who manage to really live on their garden or farm [as outsider].”
One possibility is that Wouter and Marieke will rent the farm, a part of the land and the shed. Together with Wouter and some others, the owner – farmer Piet – established a foundation with two goals: 1) the land must be used in a sustainable way; and 2) the farm should be open to people who need care. The land, buidlings and maintenance will therefore be transferred to the foundation. And Wouter and Marieke are potential future tenants. “The total area that belongs to the farm is 6 hectares. We now use 1,8 hectare and there’s 2 more hectare that could be added to the garden. Then there’s some fields which currently serve as pasture. We now partly manage those and partly its ‘agrarisch natuurbeheer’ (farmers taking certain measurements to take care or restore the quality of nature and landscape), which also provides earnings or Piet. Another advantage is that Wouter and Marieke could then also receive people at their farm; interns, WWOOFers, people from exchange programs etc. Marieke: “It would be so nice to have those young people here and let them experience how it is to have a garden. And ten people from over the whole world – you will get to know so many cultures!”
WORKING TOWARDS A MORE EXTENSIVE SYSTEM. Currently, Tuiderij Croy is still pretty intensive: manure, seeds and seedlings are imported, and the vegetables leave the garden again. The gardeners both dream to work towards a more extensive agricultural system which can be more self-sustainable in terms of nutrient cycles and seed production. Phosphate and potassium are plenty available, but nitrogen is a challenge for the future. Wouter: “We now get the manure from an organic farm. That’s ok, but I’m looking for more cycles, connections. Tuinderij Croy is too small to also have livestock for the manure, so if we want to use manure from our own garden, we’d have to use green manure. This has multiple advantages: I could grow some fodder for the organic farmer in exchange for manure. In that way, there is some kind of cycle. Meanwhile, the soil can rest for a year and build up the nitrogen content. In that way, I can be more self-sufficient in terms of nitrogen. Financially seen that won’t be rewarding in the beginning. “On this expensive and, we should actually always have cash crops. But I think it will be rewarding in another way: the structure of the soil will improve and the crops will be of better soon. I also hope for a different dynamic with the weeds, since that cycle I also broken for a while when you plant green manure. Eventually that can end up in way less weeds and thus les work, labour – maybe that’s where the advantage can be obtained.
BRING ME THOSE LEASE COWS! While doing some research on how to work with closed nutrient cycles, Wouter got much more ideas. One of those ideas is the ‘lease cow’. “The organic farmer has some suckler cows – what if he would give them to us for a while? We have some pastures, we could do some ‘agrarisch natuurbeheer.’ Bring them on, those suckler cows, and pick them up again when the grass is gone! Those kinds of cooperation is really interesting, it will bring your business more life.
THE BUSINESS AS AN ORGANISM. Wouter explains that working towards a closed cycle on your own farm or garden, will provide many added value. “I believe in that small scale.” Of course there are disadvantages: when you have to do everything yourself, it will take a lot of your time. But whatever is possible is worthwhile trying, and I’d like to put time and effort in that. Striving to healthy, good quality products with a good taste. And the soil is very important then. Wouter: “Manure from your own land, is best for the soil life of that land. Scientifically seen, that’s still nonsense, but I believe in that.’ Wouter also sees this as his calling, regarding the world wide food challenge. If you really want to be an organic farmer, you want to take care of nutrient cycles, be efficient with phosphate, nitrogen, kalium etc. Somewhere it feels wrong to import all that manure from outside and meanwhile say ‘It’s organic’. No, I think that a business should be as self-sufficient as possible and should strive to a natural system from which 200 people can harvest vegetable crates. That’s the wealth of nature. If I can do that – and I believe I can – I can be really proud of my business. Even on the scale in the Netherlands, we can achieve already so much, regarding food, nutrient cycles etc. Tuinderij Croy could then serve as an example: this is how it’s also possible.’
For more info, see tuinderijcroy.nl, or visit the garden and shop on Saturday: Kasteelweg 7, Aarle-Rixtel, the Netherlands