Herenboeren Rotterdam: Farming for the Future
Consumers are encouraged to think of food production and consumption as amoral activities – Michiel Korthals in his book Goed Eten: Filosofie van voeding en landbouw (2019, 353)
Envisioning the future
‘’And here will be the fruit orchard and mobile chicken coop’’, says tour guide Margot to a group of ten potential Herenboeren farm owners. We are looking at a meadow, flanked by a line of trees on one side and a railway on the other. We are in the natural reserve ‘Vlinderstrik’ in Berkel and Rodenrijs, just within the borders of the Rotterdam municipality in the Netherlands. ‘’Here we will grow pears, apples, plums and nut trees, like hazelnut’’, Margot tempts us with the future farming plans. ‘’What about cherries? I am a cherry fan!’’ I hear someone commenting from behind me. Leaning on our bikes we listen to Margot as she explains how the chickens will take care of the orchard by picking worms and insects from the soil. This form of maintenance simultaneously provides the chickens with a spacious habitat, feeds them, protects the trees and churns the soil.
This is one of the five checkpoints of our bike tour around the future twenty-hectare Herenboeren farm. The idea is that two-hundred households, in collaboration with a hired professional farmer who does the work, will run the farm as a cooperative. Through vivid descriptions, Margot helps us envision how within a year a farmland will arise behind the decayed gate in front of us. ‘’Here you will be able to harvest your own zucchini‘’, she excites two children chilling in their mother’s cargo bike. She enthuses another attendee when we talk about lemons: ‘’to make your limoncello’’.
Reconnecting citizens with food
The nationwide Herenboeren organization use the slogan ‘Samen Duurzaam Voedsel Produceren’ [Sustainably producing food together]. During a ‘living room’ information meeting later that night, Pieter explains the meaning of this slogan. The Herenboeren farm is obviously about ‘producing food’, but the ideology of the project manifests itself in the concepts ‘together’ and ‘sustainably’. Working as a cooperative and distributing the harvest equally (except for the choice between vegetarian or meat consumption) should enhance the formation of a non-hierarchical community of two hundred participating households. Furthermore, Herenboeren builds on agricultural principles that safeguard nature and biodiversity. This is demonstrated by the budgeted ‘predatory costs’, for example. Having learned from the experiences of the pioneer-Herenboeren farm in Boxtel, Herenboeren Rotterdam anticipate foxes stealing a chicken every now and then. In Boxtel they thought of a solution to include the fox in their farming system. They found out that foxes live in individual territories. In other words, if the chickens would live in the territory of one fox, this would protect them from others. The predatory costs therefore are the inclusion of the fox as an extra ‘mouth’ consuming the chickens. Another possible solution would be to keep geese, which are such strong animals that the fox would not dare to come near the chickens.
To understand the innovative character of this project we need to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Contemporary agriculture is dominated by multinationals that make use of a globally distributed food system for their pursuit of profit maximalization. Nowadays, the consequential exploitation of farmers and natural resources is becoming mainstream knowledge. However, people are less aware of the fact that this industrial system enhances the loss of knowledge about food procurement and the concentration of agricultural land to a handful of powerful corporations. The quote at the beginning of this blog cites philosopher Michiel Korthals. He writes about the challenges of our contemporary food system. One of his conclusions is that in the Netherlands (and in other Western countries) we have become estranged from food. Where does it come from? How is it made? How does it taste? Who makes it? When people lose the skill of food procurement, and lack land to produce it autonomously, they become dependent upon others. As long as the owners of the food system share a common interest with people and the environment, there is no issue. But what if they do not? This is the topic of food sovereignty, a recurring theme amongst today’s attendees. One of the cyclists, Paul, tells me that he is already autonomous in his energy supply, and sees Herenboeren as an opportunity to make his own choices in food procurement as well.
Cultural transition: We instead of me
The supermarket supplies us with sustainability labels like Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Animal Welfare and whatnot. It gives the consumer the impression that they can influence the food system, which might be true to a certain extent. At the same time, the existence of these labels is controversial. The citizen has to pay extra to purchase food containing qualities that should be self-evident. It hurts to say, but in the contemporary food system these citizens are the exception rather than the rule. Herenboeren wants to offer the conscious but powerless consumer the opportunity to develop itself to an autonomous citizen. Instead of having to choose for the best (or least bad?) option from the supermarket shelves, these citizens take matters into their own hands and decide what they eat based on their own moral principles. Herenboeren is a societal experiment in its collaboration between nature conservation organizations, citizens and government institutions. But maybe more important, it is a sociocultural experiment: What happens when two hundred households are given the responsibility over their shared food system? Above all, Herenboeren is an experiment confronting the consumer with the reality of having to compromise for the benefit of the community and to live by the laws of nature. How will they deal with the umpteenth cabbage appearing in their weekly harvest? In other words: How far does solidarity reach when the individual needs to compromise for the sake of the community or nature?
During the living room meeting the likely situation of a product surplus is mentioned and immediately the first creative solution is put forward: ‘’I could dry them so we can preserve them’’. If you want an alternative future, you have to create it yourself.