Dutch organic farmers join to cut out the middleman

Dutch farmer Gerjan Snippe sells products directly to British grocery retailer Tesco from his organic company near Zeewolde, Netherlands. Photo: Ashley Robinson

By sharing land, farmers increase their rotation options and produce enough 
to supply a major U.K. retailer

By Ashley Robinson
Glacier FarmMedia staff

When Gerjan Snippe looked at how farmers were marketing their organic crops, he felt something was wrong. The Dutch commodity trader found himself importing organic products from Austria, even though the same products were grown in the Netherlands.

It was the early 2000s and Snippe was working as a trader while his family farmed. He had grown up on a dairy farm but found he wasn’t interested in the business and instead went to university where he received a degree in agricultural economics.

At around the same time, Snippe’s parents were approached to sell their farm. The nearby town needed the land for development. With land prices expensive in Holland, some of Snippe’s siblings moved to Canada to farm, while Snippe had a different idea.

One of his brothers was still interested in dairy farming and another in crop production. Snippe gave them a proposition — why not go into organics, a niche sector where they could grow their farming businesses?

The brothers took the money from the sale of their parents’ farm and bought three farms that had almost gone bankrupt.

“So one (brother) would do the dairy, one brother doing the more arable farming and I can do the vegetables and we can share the land. Same location and place but you still have one operation,” Snippe told a tour during the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists Annual Congress.

(It) is not very common in agriculture that you start using each other’s land (but) it did make sense because we wanted to create some volume. – Gerjan Snippe

Statistics Netherlands reports that the country has about 1,400 organic farms on approximately 52,000 hectares as of 2016, an increase of nearly 10 per cent from 2011.

Shared rotation

After Snippe and his brothers successfully transitioned to organic, the organic market saw a downturn. At that time the brothers decided they needed to change their approach to marketing.

In 2005, they founded a company called Bio Brass and invited two other farmers to join the operation. Each would focus on different crops and then they would rotate the crops, using each other’s fields.

“(It) is not very common in agriculture that you start using each other’s land (but) it did make sense because we wanted to create some volume,” Snippe said.

The switch was done for two reasons. First they wanted to make production more efficient by having more farmers skilled in different areas of production. Second, they wanted to be able to connect more directly with their customers.

By having a larger crop volume they would be able to skip the traders in the supply chain and work directly with retailers. They saw this as important since they had now expanded into working with fresh produce like broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce, which couldn’t be stored and needed to be sold immediately.

At this time they reached out to Tesco, a major British grocery which had decided to take a different approach to organics marketing by lowering prices. According to Snippe, within one day of trying out the new model Tesco found it sold 54 per cent more organics than before.

Tesco realized at this point it would need to have direct contact with farmers to get organic products faster and at a lower cost than through traders, which is where Bio Brass came in to the equation. By selling directly, Bio Brass was able to plan its production ahead of time based on what Tesco needed and wanted. Bio Brass also started packaging its own products on farm to cut down costs.

Snippe said that at that point Bio Brass had cut out 60 to 70 per cent of costs from the supply chain through direct marketing and on-farm packaging.

For Snippe, his new business model operated on the idea of working from the store shelf back to the farm, not from the tractor to the store shelf.

He said that by thinking as a customer, you start to think of more products to develop.

Bio Brass now operates on a land base of approximately 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres), with a crop rotation that includes broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, wheat, corn, pumpkins and other crops. The business also includes a dairy farm.