“We are just three guys with slightly different interests,” according to one of the brothers, Gerjan. “You could see our differences from an early age,” says Wouter, another brother. “As soon as I could walk, I went exploring in the neighbour's field. But Johan was always more interested in the cows.” The third brother, Johan, explains: “You must have something to offer the other when you each have your own business and you work together. The goodwill factor is essential.”
Three Snippe brothers, one shared principle: circular agriculture. They started to put this into practice in 2001, when, together with their father, they converted their conventional dairy farm into an organic farm. They also added organic arable farming and horticulture. The company was divided up a few years later and taken over by the three sons.
Now Snippe Akkerbouw, Wouter's arable farm, Gerjan's horticulture company Biobrass and Johan's dairy farm work together by collectively rotating the crops on their land. And sister Margriet recently joined them, exchanging her teaching job for farming on Johan’s dairy farm.
Wouter and Johan Snippe
Crop rotation plan
The Snippes have carefully considered how the circular process works. They have one 'crop rotation plan' for the hundreds of hectares of land they jointly manage.
According to the plan, they grow red and white clover and grass on the land for one year, which allows the soil to rest and provides feed for Johan's cows. Then the following year they grow Wouter's green peas and beans. These are only in the field for a brief time and do not take too many nutrients from the soil. In the third year, Gerjan's cauliflower, broccoli and lettuce are planted. The soil has to work hard, but only for a short time. Then onions are grown for a year, followed by a year of barley and wheat - good for the cows and the soil too. And finally, Wouter's potatoes, carrots and beets are grown. These deplete the soil considerably, but then the clover come again to replenish the soil.
“In conventional cultivation, the crops change every four years,” explains Wouter. “We are moving towards an eight-year rotation. With this wider rotation, the soil remains healthy, and good crops grow in healthy soil."
Gerjan explains: “I can work eighty-hour working weeks and keep myself going with Red Bull. But it’ll hit you one day. It is the same with the soil. You can keep it performing well for a while by boosting it with artificial products like as fertilisers and chemical pesticides. But it is better to give the soil time to recover.”
It’s the same with Johan's cows. “The health of the cow must come before the highest possible production. You don’t want your cows to be overmilked and scrawny. I am proud to have cows that are ten or twelve years old.”
What is circular agriculture?
Less impact, more biodiversity
Circular agriculture means using your own raw materials as much as possible and treating the natural environment with respect. It means using as little artificial fertiliser, pesticides and feed from outside as possible, and returning manure to the land. This reduces the ecological impact of a farm and promotes biodiversity.
At the beginning of the century, when the brothers started out, this kind of thinking was still considered a little 'cuckoo', says Wouter. Since then, appreciation for these methods is growing, both in society and among fellow farmers, and the brothers are prospering.
They say they have benefited from the fertile soil in the south of Flevoland, which retains nutrients well, and from the growing market for organic potatoes and onions.
But it is the Snippe brothers' innovative entrepreneurship that has been crucial to their success. Wouter talks about the precision farming he practices with the latest machines equipped with GPS technology. His machines can sow and hoe with centimetre precision. Everything is aimed at protecting the plants, disturbing the soil life as little as possible and preventing weeds.
Their farms may have grown considerably, but the brothers remain connected through the cyclical nature of their land. Gerjan makes the residual waste from his cabbages (leaf waste) and beet productive by feeding it to Johan's cows. It is rich in vitamins and good for fertility. All three brothers are convinced that you should get animal feed from your own land as much as possible, instead of using (mainly) imported soya.
Minister of Agriculture Carola Schouten
Last year, Minister Carola Schouten has embraced circular agriculture, turning it into her vision on circular agriculture. According to this vision, the Netherlands must become a global leader in circular agriculture by 2030.
But that does not mean that all the signals are green. Wouter: “In the Netherlands, we agree that you shouldn't cut down rainforests and haul soya around the world for animal feed. However, home-grown feed will increase the price of meat and dairy products. Are people willing to pay that price when they are used to buying a piece of meat for three euros?”
Organic is getting eroded
Thinking in cyclical terms, paying attention to health, soil and livestock, requires a radical change, argue the brothers. Wouter is in the process of taking an in-depth look at applying for a stricter German certificate. "The organic label is in danger of being eroded. You see farmers using extensive crop protection, but with green products. Then they start growing more intensively again. But that goes against the principles of organic farming. "The organic sector has to think about this trend, you have to keep distinguishing yourself."
The various farming businesses
From the Snippe brothers
Gerjan's Biobrass is a large company with about 40 employees. They supply half of the Dutch organic broccoli and cauliflower and they process the vegetables themselves. In addition to Snippe Akkerbouw, Wouter has his own onion sorting company called WeGrowOrganic. With almost 20 employees, he focuses on markets outside the Netherlands, mainly in Germany. And with the help of his father, wife, sister and brother-in-law, Johan runs a large dairy farm with 160 dairy cows and 90 ‘heads’ of young cattle at two locations. The three brothers' companies are all financed by Triodos Groenfonds.
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