Interview with Geert van der Veer, founder of Herenboeren.
What inspired you to start Herenboeren?
The inspiration came from the realisation that very many consumers know very little about their food. Most of us in the supermarket see Brussels sprouts simply as little balls in a plastic bag. But how many of us know that those sprouts grew on a stem?
The Herenboeren concept brings people in direct contact with their food production. And at the same time, with our nature-driven mixed community farms, we are working every day to increase biodiversity, restore farmland to health, and preserve nature for generations to come. We see that the current agricultural crisis is also linked to our biodiversity crisis, water challenges in the Netherlands, environmental and climate issues, and even our health crisis. We need to work together to tackle this holistically, and it starts at the bottom.
What is Herenboeren's approach and what makes it innovative?
A community farm according to the concept1 that we started developing in 2013 is a mixed farm owned by a cooperative of 200-270 households2. These households are the direct buyers of the produce and, through the cooperative, jointly employ a farmer (m/f), who runs the farm as an agricultural foreman. This foreman often works alongside a part-time supporting farmer and also with the necessary voluntary work of active cooperative members.
A community farm is nature-driven, with organic being the base line. However, we are not officially Skal-certified because we do not produce for the market. They are mixed farms: the emphasis is on vegetable cultivation, but they also grow fruit, and keep small-scale livestock. As of January 2023, there are now 15 Herenboeren community farms in the Netherlands, each covering about 20 hectares, of which an average of 4 hectares is vegetable cultivation and 2 hectares is fruit cultivation. The farms also usually have around 12 pigs, 200 chickens and some cattle. Besides these 15 running farms, more than 40 citizens' initiative groups, spread across the country, are already starting their own community farms. As a 'Herenboeren' farmer, you are therefore an owner, entrepreneur, producer and consumer rolled into one!
The Herenboeren Nederland foundation supports citizens in developing their community farms. The national team of process directors works closely with agricultural experts such as (organic) crop consultants and stewards. But to make a real success of this is actually much bigger, deeper and broader task. We see Herenboeren and other similar initiatives as a growing alternative to the current food system.
What impact has Triodos Regenerative Money Centre had on Herenboeren?
The impact of the funding that Herenboeren has received from Triodos Regenerative Money Centre allows us to increase the support for the existing 15 farms, enabling them to grow to their full potential. We can also now build out the digital infrastructure and staffing to properly support all newly planned Herenboeren community farms. This will bring us ever closer to our ambition of 350 farms by 2030!
What impact does Herenboeren have on the sector in which you operate?
Herenboeren Nederland, with all its 'community farmers', is a growing group within the relatively small niche of 'green' and CSA farmers. Herenboeren Nederland is actively engaged in building an ecosystem of partner organisations to accelerate the transition of the Dutch food chain. Initiatives co-initiated by Herenboeren Nederland:
Land fund Aardpeer, for affordable access to (rental) land.
Boerenraad and Caring Farmers, networks of farmers and gardeners working together on system change in agriculture. Note: Caring Farmers was last year’s winner of the Trouw Sustainable Top 100.
De Plaatsen and the first physical 'Place' De Kleine Aarde in Boxtel: a knowledge and innovation centre that for example, will provide communities and farmers with tools for a (personal) transition to a regenerative food system.
Together with its partner initiatives, Herenboeren Nederland brings sustainable food production closer. We initiate and conduct research, train farmers and propose amendments to laws and regulations. Through Caring Farmers and Boerenraad, Herenboeren Nederland also actively engages with the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality about the sustainable transition of the food chain. It is important to stress that we do not do this alone, but we work together with numerous partners.
What impact does Herenboeren have on the community?
The Herenboeren community farm is fundamentally a close-knit membership of a cooperative. The members don’t actually live on the farm, but they do all visit it at least once a week to collect their share of the harvest and help out on the farm in various ways. The farm also has the explicit goal of connecting with the local environment. For example, schools, entrepreneurs, researchers, NGOs and the voluntary sector can also contribute to and collaborate with our socially connected communities. One of the Herenboeren community farms near Apeldoorn, for example, won the 2022 Apeldoorn Business Awards in the 'start-ups' category. A great example of how our community farms are being recognised in the local business community.
Joining a local Herenboeren community farm also ensures that communities become more aware of food production, thanks to their active participation in decisions affecting the farm and seeing what happens there. For example, during a summer heat wave with peaks to 40 degrees, in some places the red cabbage literally burned in the fields. This startled many members, and was the catalyst for new conversations about climate, soil and the environment at home around the kitchen table. Some members, after joining a community farm, even started looking for more sustainable work, because they also wanted to make a greater contribution to these issues in society via this route. Cooking at home with seasonal farm produce is also something people are experimenting with and gaining a new understanding of. Consequently, recipes are exchanged in abundance on many Herenboeren community farms. Finally, people meet on the farm, at (cookery) workshops, (harvest) celebrations, excursions and children's activities, creating new connections and friendships based on shared ideals and motivations.
How does Triodos Regenerative Money Centre share the vision of Herenboeren?
There is a strong match between the mission of Herenboeren and TRMC. We want to encourage responsible use of (agricultural) land and also to bring farmers and communities closer together to reconnect with our food (and a healthy earth).
- A Herenboerderij (community farm) is based on the 3 principles and 7 pillars that are explained here.
- These 200-270 households represent a total of 500 'mouths to feed’.