In the Netherlands, 5 July 2020
Whenever I find myself free, I look for something meaningful that I can do with my time. In the past I have taken up studies for personal development. But this time, I decided to volunteer at a farm. Not just any farm, but one that believes in regenerating the soils, biodiversity and other environmental assets. This way I help advance what I really care about, while also learning from some of the best farmers in the world.
In the Netherlands it can be hard to find the right connections especially if you don’t speak Dutch. But thanks to Yvo who I never met in person but only on a Facebook group for expats. He connected me to Corneel of the Buitenverwachting farm. A farm in Dutch is called boerderij. This was after close to seven months of writing to farms directly and getting no replies.
The day I started was like a test of my resolve. That Saturday was so rainy and windy that as I unlocked my bicycle to set off, a flush of doubt tempted me to go back into the comfort of my apartment. But knowing what this opportunity means for me, I forcefully pushed the bike off the veranda and into the rain. The boerderij was some six something kilometres out of Leiden city where I stay. I was determined to get there on time to give the right impressions. But a delay at a bridge that was is also a crossing point for boats plus stops to check googlemap for directions. I kept pedaling like a mad man, until my thighs were numb.
Corneel, his father and mother were there when I arrived, three minutes off the mark. They were all very warm people. They received me very well. We sat in what looked like a kitchen table. Corneel’s father sat across the table from me, in a dark orange jersey with a big hole, or torn on the side. His long hair looked like dry grass flattened by strong winds of summertime. He told me he was a 5th generation farmer on the boerderij, a venture which started in the 1800s. His sons had already picked-up the boerderij business. In the same way, knowledge has been passed between generations, while each generation has sought to improve from the one before. Continuous improvement is perhaps one of the reasons why the Dutch have the second largest (from the USA) agriculture exports, worth $100 billion per year of late. Now farmers like Corneel and his father are championing what I believe is agriculture of the future – regenerative farming. This is because the future is about rebuilding our natural environment to ensure that it continues to sustain us, and not degrading and depleting it.
A few years ago, Boerderij Buitenverwachting decided to take up regenerative farming. The farm mainly specializes in dairy, producing organic or biologische milk which they sell through their cooperative of organic farmers. They also produce small livestock like goats, sheep, pigs, chickens (kippen) and turkeys (hans) closer to their house. Also close to the house is a food forest where various fruits and vegetables grow, all mixed-up in a fashion that mimics a natural forest, which thrives on diversity and replenishing the ecosystem. Being regenerative at Buitenverwachting also means no use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics or GMOs. For example if a cow falls sick, they can save it by using chemicals but they separate it from the rest and once it is healthy again they sell it to conventional boerderijs.
As Corneel says, their Boerderij is not for supplying more of the same, but a diversity of products – milk, fruits, grass-fed meats, vegetables and others. And to ensure that they diversify income streams and remain viable, they also have a farm shop and a camping site on the farm. They also host events on some Saturdays where people buy lunch, and products from their shop. I liked the milk vending machine which stood there by the roadside as if abandoned. Yet that is where any passerby can just throw one euro cent in and get a litre of organic milk. Wonderful isn’t it?
This was only the start of what I see as a long journey of learning and searching for meaning. My vision is to set up a regenerative farming school at a small 10ha plot that I am leasing-to-buy in Zimbabwe. Some day, that plot of land shall become a center of excellence, where farmers from Zimbabwe and beyond can learn how to bring back the abundance of our mother earth.