Geert van der Veer, how Herenboeren is scaling community owned farms in Europe

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This is the second interview with Geert of Herenboeren. We talked to two years ago, we discussed his reasons, soil investment fund and how to channel all that energy of local communities that wanting to start their own farm yesterday and not wait until tomorrow (Here the first interview with Geert!)

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This time we discussed with Geert van der Veer, co-founder of Herenboeren, their international plans and their land investment fund.

Herenboeren helps local communities to buy a farm with 200 families and helps find the right farmer to farm the land in the most productive and regenerative way possible. Producing about 60% of the daily food for the families at prices lower than a supermarket.

Next to the first few farms in The Netherlands, France and Sweden will probably soon have their local version of Herenboeren.

farmingcommunities.org

www.herenboeren.nl

We discussed the new farmland investment fund Geert is working on. It will give investors the opportunity to put money to work by investing in a fund that buy land and leases it to Herenboeren through out The Netherlands.

Geert is also Ashoka Fellow and on his profile page you can read a lot more:
www.ashoka.org/en/fellow/geert-van-der-veer

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TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

farm, netherlands, soil, land, people, caravan, podcast, farmers, invest, manage, france, local communities, biodynamic, moment, concept, buy, community, lettuce, ownership, fund

SPEAKERS

Koen van Seijen, Geert van der Veer

Koen van Seijen 00:00

You're listening to the second interview with Geert of Hereboeren who we talked to two years ago. We discuss his recent soil investment fund and how to channel all that energy of local communities wanting to start their own farm yesterday, and not waiting till tomorrow.

Koen van Seijen 00:17

Welcome to another episode of "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered", a podcast show where I talk to the pioneers in the regenerative food and agriculture space to learn more on how to put our money to work to regenerate soil, people, local communities, and ecosystems while making an appropriate and fair return. Why am I focused on soil and regeneration? Because so many of the pressing issues we face today have their roots in how we treat our land grow our food and what we eat. And it's time that we as investors, big and small, and consumers, start paying much more attention to the dirt / soil underneath our feet.

Koen van Seijen 00:55

In March last year, we launched our Patreon community to make it easy for fans to support our work and so many of you have joined as a member. We've launched different types of benefits exclusive content, Q&A webinars with former guests, ask me anything sessions plus so much more to come in the future. For more information on the different tiers, benefits and how to become a member, check out patreon.com/ regenerative_agriculture or find the link below. Thank you.

Koen van Seijen 01:20

Welcome to check-in interview with Geert van der Veer co-founder of Herenboeren. We recorded the first episode of the podcast in September 2017, when he had one community-owned farm operating in the Netherlands with the audacious goal of opening 1000 community owned farms throughout Europe. I'm very eager to check in with him two years after and how things are going. Welcome back Geert.

Geert van der Veer 01:41

Thank you, hi Koen.

Koen van Seijen 01:43

So we are in September 2019, two years after we recorded and released the first podcast that we get together. I would love to hear, I mean I know more than a billion things have happened, but could you give a very short summary of where you are right now with Hereboeren?

Geert van der Veer 01:58

Okay, let's do it fairly short, but I don't know whether it will work.

Koen van Seijen 02:03

Don't worry, I will have a lot of questions.

Geert van der Veer 02:07

Yeah, let's go. I believe last time, we had one farm open in the Netherlands in Boxtel. At the moment we're working on over 20 projects all over the country from Rotterdam, Harlem, Utrecht, all over the country, from south to north, east to west. Up and running at this moment, as we speak, two farms but would we have this podcast recorded about three months later, we would have at least four or five or six farms because we're running up to deadlines for opening four new farms, at the moment. So next season, we will have five or six farms up and running. So that's just for the concept of the Herenboeren farm.

Geert van der Veer 02:50

But in addition, we have been working on our Soil Fund. The idea is that investors can buy-in and the fund will buy land which will keep it for eternity in the fund. And yes, we have finished the construction, we have already managed to buy land in Weert the city of Weert in the province of Limburg where we can offer a 2.4 percentage return on investment to the investor, and so this farm is also going to be open this year. So I think that are the two major steps, but let me also brief you shortly on this, let me inform you on this. We have been, the concept is going globally. Like there is a dimension from China, we have been in China Daily, we have been in America, in Africa, countries all over Europe, and there is a lot of interest in what we do. We try to manage that as good as possible. What we see right now is that we have a person in France, who wants to copy or who wants to bring Herenboeren to France. So that's I think, a very serious one. Sweden is one, and German. But we are we'll keep it off as long as possible so we can concentrate on improving our concept and do new things in the Netherlands at the moment. But yes, we are, we can go abroad as well. So I think that is status quo at this moment, I think.

Koen van Seijen 04:24

Extremely exciting. I mean, there's so much to unpack there. Just to give a very brief, I will definitely link the earlier interview obviously below where we discuss the concept in great detail. But it's a group of families about 150 to 200 that buys a farm and hires a farmer to operate it. So it's not the families that have to do the farming, it's really a farmer that has then a stable income and is producing as regeneratively as possible. I think it's about 60 70% of the daily needs of those families, when the farm is fully operating and etc. Has that concept changed a lot in the last few years? Or is it still very much the same?

Geert van der Veer 04:58

It's still very much the same. But what we see as we have been concentrating on the on the regenerative aspect of producing. What we have experienced in the last four years is that it's not just the way we produce, which is important, it's also the community. We saw that already in the design of the farm in 2012, but it's very manifest at this moment that there is a lot of spin-off on the social side of our farm. So people who are lonely or something, they get back in a new community, find new friends, find new contacts, getting a total new social life. We also see that in the community, and with the farm in Boxel for example, we are receiving, we are welcoming multiple disabled people at this moment who can come to the farm for one morning in the week to have an experience they cannot have one they stay inside, etc. So we are also in that kind of social aspects working. And what also is very special is that the Koening Willem I College in Hertogenbosch, it's this school to learn how to cook, they became a member of the in coop in Boxel. So you see that all kinds of social aspects are also happening and I think that is something in addition to the concept, as we discussed in the earlier podcast.

Koen van Seijen 06:19

So a lot of additional spin off, when you look at the impact beyond environmental and obviously the fact that people eat much better food. What I really found extremely interesting, I mean when we met the first time but also when we recorded the podcast, is how you tap into and utilize in a good way and facilitate local energy. So this is all the farms are only started when there's a strong local community that does most of the earlier work, and does most of the fundraising and the structure, etc. and you assist in that. It's not that you opened up farms. How is that been going? Snd you have a lot of them starting basically the next week, the next month, until the end of the year, and probably a lot of them in progress as well. How are you managing all these super energetic local communities that probably want to start yesterday?

Geert van der Veer 07:07

Yeah, this is the core of what we do, because if we do not do that and it would be our goal to open the farm, there is a different energy within the corperation. We wanted, we put extremely much energy...

Koen van Seijen 07:18

Just to be clear, you mean the cooperative. To be very clear on term terminology.

Geert van der Veer 07:26

So because the energy would be different when we want the farm or when it's really by the members. So most of the energy is going to facilitate groups, people who want to do this. So what we did, we standardized a process which is never the process, because it's always differs from place to place but it helps us to have a storyline to guide these people towards their farm. And at the moment, we standardized it we were able to manage expectations. Everyone wants to start his farm tomorrow, but you have to have the soil, more important, you have to have at least 135 until 150 households to join before you can start. And the reason that we do that, to keep loans from banks, etc. outside. We want to do it pure on the money people bring. And when we discuss this process at the beginning of the startup, we can manage expectations very well. And what we have right now is a team of nine people working almost on a daily base just on supporting these groups of people. And for these people who are locally working on their own Herenboeren farm, they of course are occupied during the day. So what our team does is spending a lot of times with these people in the evenings and in the weekends. So the effort we have to put is enormous. But on the other hand, what you see right now is that communities are finding each other. So we put a lot of effort up front and right now there is a kind of spin off that the communities are helping each other. They are visiting each other, how far are you, what are your experiences, etc. And in addition to that, to the process, we organize every three months a meeting with all the board members of the local initiative. So we actively stimulate exchange with experienced and knowledge. And that helps a lot. It helps a lot. The core business at this moment for our team is communication, providing services, getting all the legislations etc. So a lot to do.

Koen van Seijen 09:49

And I think that is also the reason that you're trying to hold off a bit from expansion, let's say throughout Europe, because the circumstances change a lot and managing energy and expectation in France is very different than this maybe in the Netherlands. How would you bring it to other places? I mean, it's already been pulled out of you basically, like, "I want to start this in France, I want to start this in Sweden". How are you going to manage to make sure that you're going to be a success?

Geert van der Veer 10:13

Okay, yeah, that's one of my main concerns but we also have a little start for the answer. Because, yes, we want this to happen in other countries in Europe, the goal is still the same as it was two years ago. And we thought, okay, when we in the Netherlands are floating on local energy, why would we have control in how our processes would go in other countries? So we want to have other people in other countries to bring the flow. So we have as much responsibility with people who really want to bring it to the country. Not "I want to have a farm in the country" but "I want to scale up the Herenboeren Netherlands to Herenboeren France". So we found a couple of people, and what we're doing right now is we're negotiating on just a few principles. Like when you work within these principles like a community-based priinciple, its nature-inclusive farming, regenerative farming, it is you're not allowed to sell to open markets because that brings in another incentive, if you can make profit, no, it's not for profitable it's for the best food. We're at this moment, we are formulating a few of these principles. Our belief is that when some people in France, for example, want to bring the farm concept to France and they agree on this principles, and we have a lot of contact in sharing experiences, we don't even think we have to be in France but we can inform each other in modern ways. So people in France, if you do in in France, they should translate our concept into the France context. And when they stick to the principles, I think we have a new initiative born in another European country.

Koen van Seijen 12:02

I think that makes a lot of sense, because you will never be able with these principles to manage 20 countries. I mean, there's no way, you probably wanted and in a way, I think that that would go well if you look at the social side, the cooperative side, and also the ecosystem side.

Geert van der Veer 12:21

You mentioned that to do that, you should know every cultural aspects. It's impossible! So what we what we are looking for are people who want to bring the concept to a certain country, we are going to agree on a few principles, this is what you have to stick to, and please fill it in locally and nationally the way it can fit. The situation in the Netherlands is totally different with this amount of people this little area. It's totally different from other countries. We have a flat country, we don't mountains, we don't have any problems that you face at that moment. You know, there's so many different aspects. Local people should do that on us. So you think this is the way we're going to do it.

Koen van Seijen 13:12

In terms of the farming part of things, you have one older farm operating already for a while, would love to hear how that is going because there were some very challenging summers actually in in the Netherlands with huge droughts and too much rain, etc, etc. Of course, very, very warm if you look at climate change. And then how are you doing things differently with the designing - and because you learned probably a lot from that first farm - in the new firms that are operating now or opening now? So how is the farming going?

Geert van der Veer 13:41

Yeah, well, the beauty of the design is that there are so many different products that when one specific kind of vegetable, for example, is failing, there is no harvest, there is always another piece you can offer your members. Oh, actually we are producing too much. That's on one hand. So yes, there was a lot of drought. Luckily, we have water based in Boxel and in a farm by Appeldoorn is also able to pump up the water from the ground from deeper layers. We gained a license for that and that's the way we... drought is not the problem. The actual problem is the amount of UV light during the day, because that burns really not a lot, but especially certain vegetables are more sensitive than others. And yes, there are failures in the yield, yes. And we learned from that. And one thing we learned, for example, looking at lettuce, for example, we were trying to keep the herbs around the lettuce away. You know we were constantly shuffling etc. And there was insight a couple of years ago that we thought "hey, we are on a sandy soil, we're taking away all the herbes to have just the lettuce growing in the soil." And then what what happens is that sandy soil with the little blow of wind, is also gone. We're losing it! So we should keep in there, so is there a possibility to have other products growing underneath the lettuce? And before we start thinking of an edible plant or something, he started not taking away herbs.

Koen van Seijen 15:26

Beneficial herbs or weeds?

Koen van Seijen 15:29

I mean, weeds!

Koen van Seijen 15:31

Weeds is a very sensitive discussion, because some people say there are no weeds, some others are obviously, very, very against weeds. And it depends on the context, but at anything, something you considered you didn't want.

Geert van der Veer 15:44

Exactly. But what we did is we didn't remove them anymore. And we saw that the microclimate around the lettuce was was improving, because lettuce doesn't need that much sun as they would have in the way we did before. And we see that the lettuce is growing very, very, very nice, within the weeds, in between the weeds. So we are discovering how can we produce in cooperation with weeds etc, instead of having a lot of labor removing it. And that helps a lot, you know, microclimate thinking around product helps us a lot to understand what its needs are, but also how to become more driven by nature, you know. So two things. We are at this moment still able to bring water to the vegetables for example, but that we are also preparing for a long term situation. So one of the goals is that we keep as much water on the farm as possible. Water from rain, etc. we want to buffer it so we can use it for later moments when there is less. And the other hand learning about microclimates around vegetables and the role weeds can play.

Koen van Seijen 17:04

And two things I remember it was very difficult to find farmers that are able to manage all these different circumstances, that are able to manage animals regeneratively and holistically, that are able to manage microclimates of lettuce. How has that been going on because you need a lot of them if you have six or seven farms operating at the end of the year.

Geert van der Veer 17:22

Yeah, about a year ago, we started our own course. So we developed together with University of Applied Science here in the Netherlands, we developed a course. And this course is up and running right now. So we have first group just 10 farmers as a pilot. So they're almost for a year with us. And next October, maybe November, the next group will start so we see a little it's hard to find the best farmers for this concept. It's hard to find them but when we find them we have to train them. That's why this course is being developed. Little by little we can discover.

Koen van Seijen 18:06

You're trading your own farmers. And how's it going with animals on the farm? I remember you being very deliberate about certain types of animals that had to be able to do most of the things themselves and the role within this 20 hectare farm. How has it been so far?

Geert van der Veer 18:21

Well, actually, because there is so much to do in the farm, the development of the real integration of the animal as a co-worker on the farm is going little by little but yes, it looks like our chickens are really good helpers right now in the orchard. But it also brings some challenges, we have the fox still around farm and of course when the chickens are outside it's really easy to get your evening dinner as a fox. So we are looking for other animals for us in defending our chickens from the fox. And what we did, what we would have done right now is for example, introduce gooses? Is that right word?

Koen van Seijen 19:04

Yeah, they're used as as guardian animals, not dogs obviously, guardian animals on farms.

Geert van der Veer 19:11

Exactly. So we introduced them in our system and it seems helpful and seems to work. So what we do is constantly thinking of what can we add to our system, also as animals into our system to cope with the problems we're facing. And this is a beautiful example. We also started developing what we call our caravan, we are going to leave the system of a vast stable place on the farm where the pigs are living, we are really bringing them around with this caravan.

Koen van Seijen 19:48

So moving from a chicken caravan that obviously many people in the regen ag space have to a pig caravan.

Geert van der Veer 19:54

Exactly.

Koen van Seijen 19:55

It'll be a good thing to see.

Geert van der Veer 19:56

And we're building, we hired this group of people who are designing it and what is this caravan needed for? Well actually you want to offer a kind of shelter, not really necessary because they can also live outside, but okay we want to offer some shelter and on the other hand, we have this delivery room needs. Where can they bring little pigs? And we think when we can do that, within the caravan, there is a possibility for our members who also you see how that works, you know. So they can see the little pigs and the mama etc. We want to do that in the caravan. In addition to the caravan, we have this mobile fence to keep the pigs within a certain area of the farm so that they are not running over to fresh vegetables, who needs to be harvested. So this caravan helps us by controlling where the pigs are, but not too much, because they have to live their own life. That's another aspect. So we see that we are constantly thinking and developing. And we also find some inspiration all over the world. Watching YouTube or other media, social media as well, to be informed how other farmers in the world are dealing with it. So it's not just us inventing stuff, we're also translating what we see into our context.

Koen van Seijen 21:21

And let's spend the last few minutes of this podcast, because I know you have a hard stop, and I want to be conscious of your time on the Soil Fund. So you mentioned it briefly at the beginning, but let's dive into that a bit deeper. You've been working on that, one of the key aspects of the Herenboeren is that the land is either bought or secured for a very long time. But if it's bought, it's never going to be sold. So the business model of a traditional farm in many cases, unfortunately, is selling their land at some point and hopefully for more than they bought it and maybe that's their pension etc. but this created a huge amount of issues in terms of inflated land prices, and mainly for young farmers, extremely difficult to get into the space. You are going into a completely different direction, but at the same time you still need land obviously, and long term land because you're building the soil to operate Herenboeren farms on. So can you explain a bit about the rationale behind the Soil Fund, and how it's actually coming to life now?

Geert van der Veer 22:15

Sure, let me remark this to begin with. There is a difference between ownership of land and access to land. And we are really thinking from the test strategy, how can we access land? And how can we improve that land for, in a way, the seventh generation after us still can work on the land and have food from the land. And yes speculation, here in the Netherlands at least, where it's the ownership of land, the consequence is that are really short term access for particular farmers to land because it helps the owner of the land to make short term arrangements. So after every arrangement, you can come up with a new arrangement with a higher price. You can, every time you skip, you can increase the price. So there's a ??? also for us, but also for what you just mentioned, is farmers trying to continue to farm. So, access to land is something else and ownership and ownership of land brings wrong incentives, that's what we think. So this aspect of access, one way or another you have to be able to have land and provide access. When you have land... How do you get it? You have to buy it. So we were thinking of this fund, which would be able to buy land and never resell it again. We started first with our own initiatives, but in the end we found a partner in the Netherlands who, since already fourty years his foundation called ??? but they are for fourty years providing the biodynamic farmers with soil, and their goal is to never sell it again. Okay, so there is a partner already. The big changes that they had to make was we as Herenboeren are not specific biodynamic farmers. Could be, but not specific. Organic, pure organic is what we do and in addition we try to do regenerative. So we are not biodynamic. So they have to make this choice. Are we going to work with Herenboeren Netherlands as a partner, because then we have to make a choice to not be biodynamic specifically anymore. And they made that choice, they were able to make that choice. So at this moment, we have a partner and we have been inviting wealthy families and family funds etc. to invest in the fund. And we have made our first deal. So there is a family investing in the fund, we have bought land, land from farm in Weert, province of Limburg. And the first 12 hectares have been bought, a little farm house is still on there, was also bought. And so the community in Weert is hiring the land from this foundation. And we also have a role at Herenboeren Netherlands in the continuity of the farming. So we have made this triangle agreement, and we can work together with it. So the investor does receive between 1.5% to 2.4% interest. And we can provide land forever to the farmer. And of course, we're looking at our own farms. So actually, after a year, one and a half negotiations, searching, trial and error, this partner was in the end the best option. The most simple way to fill in our needs, our wishes.

Koen van Seijen 26:12

And did they set up a separate fund for you? Are they managing that? Or is it in their normal portfolio?

Geert van der Veer 26:20

Its incorporated in their own business? Yeah, it's incorporated in their own portfolio.

Koen van Seijen 26:24

Okay, and the investor invests specifically in a specific piece of land? Or invest in the overall portfolio?

Geert van der Veer 26:31

Well, at this moment, you can choose both. The beauty of this is that we found investors especially for that piece of soil. So it's beautiful that we can connect people really to the soil. That piece of soil. But yeah, it's also possible to invest just on the principle and know that soil will be bought somewhere with the right treatment.

Koen van Seijen 26:56

And would it be accessible for the local communities as well as they are obviously investing, I think it was 2000 Euros per household to set up the farm, but not to buy it. What's the minimum? Would they be also invited to not only help fund the setup of the farm, but also actually to buy the land of their farm?

Geert van der Veer 27:15

That's exactly the topic we're working on right now. This is the next thing to develop, we really we want to invite them to invest and not only the members of the farm, but also people around the farm, not necessarily being a member of farm. So we want to do work on this dialogue between neighbors and farmers. Like okay, when I own land, you can negotiate on how our land is treated. So farmer, we think this this and this are important, like biodiversity or soil improvement, etc. So the concept we're working on is that households can invest in, not the ownership of soil, but th rights resting on the soil, the ownership is still in the fund, but they have the rights to set up, to choose the farmer, to use the concept etc.. We want to have as much Herenboeren farms on community owned land.

Koen van Seijen 28:17

Yeah, I think it's one of those missing pieces, and one of the things that's hardly ever discussed. I think it's an extremely time consuming and difficult topic, ownership of land, but something we have to work on, we have to look at if we want this movement to succeed. Just as community ownership of farms, which might be a bit faster than land. But yeah, the land the land ownership topic is, is one of those elephants in the room that keeps coming back.

Koen van Seijen 28:39

Exactly.

Koen van Seijen 28:40

I want to be conscious of your time here. I know you have to go. I want to thank you so much for for the check-in interview two years after. I promised not to make it another two years before we're checking in again, because I think it seems like everything is speeding up now which means that in a couple of months or in a year there will be for sure more than half an hour of updates to share. But thank you for your time this morning. And actually something to mention. The king of the Netherlands will visit your farm, or the first one you opened next week. So by the time this is out, we might be able to share some pictures of that for all the Dutch people because, anybody outside I don't think really cares. And but it's quite a big moment in the Netherlands. So congratulations with that.

Koen van Seijen 29:22

Thank you.

Koen van Seijen 29:24

I hope you enjoyed this interview with Geert and learn something about their soil investment plants and how important local energy and ownership is in the regenerative food and agriculture revolution.

Koen van Seijen 29:35

If you found the "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture and Food" podcast valuable, there are a few simple ways you can use to support it. (1) rate and review the podcast on your podcast app. It's the best way for our listeners to find the podcast and it only takes a few seconds. (2) share this podcast on social media or email it to your friends and colleagues. (3) if this podcast has been of value to you, and if you have the means please join my patreon community to help grow this platform and allow me to take it further. You can find all the details on patreon.com/regenerative_agriculture or in the description below. Thank you so much and see you at the next podcast.

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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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