Organic needn’t be ‘so expensive,’ says Dutch farmer

Gerjan Snippe, managing director of Bio Brass, isn’t the stereotypical “grey woolly goat sock” farmer that people in the Netherlands think of when they think of organic farmers. Photo: Jennifer Blair

By Jennifer Blair
Glacier FarmMedia staff

In Canada, we might call them hippies or tree huggers but in Holland, organic farmers are called “grey woolly goat socks.”

Gerjan Snippe, managing director of Bio Brass, doesn’t wear his grey woolly goat socks anymore, but he carries them in his back pocket. They’re a reminder of why he got into organics in the first place — to produce affordable organic vegetables while making a profit, too.

“We brought our business to a different level,” said Snippe, who grows and markets organic vegetables in the central Netherlands. “The way we farm is the way we’re going to feed the world in the future.”

Snippe grew up on a dairy farm, but after deciding he didn’t like milking cows, he went to university to study agribusiness and then got involved in organic trading — a relatively new industry in the Netherlands at the time.

“In 1997, organics wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now, but what I discovered was that there was demand for this product,” he said.

So along with two of his brothers — one who liked milking cows, and another who grew arable crops — Snippe converted the family farm to a mixed organic operation.

As a farmer, you have to think from the shelf back to the farm, instead of from the farm to the shelf. – Gerjan Snippe

In 2005, the brothers realized they needed to scale up if they wanted to remain competitive, especially on the fresh produce side. So they invited two other farmers to join them and created Bio Brass (named for the brassica crops they specialized in).

Their partnership is an unusual one. Instead of each farmer growing a wide variety of crops (the norm in organic vegetable farming), each has a different task. One may look after cauliflower and broccoli; another, the onions and potatoes. And every year, they rotate the crops from farm to farm. That way, they’re able to be more focused — and efficient.

“We started sharing our land,” said Snippe. “Someone else is using my land, and I’m using someone else’s land. And that’s not so easy. It takes a lot of trust.

“It’s a different way of farming, but it’s helped us to grow to a different level.”

Driving down costs

Through this unusual collaboration across 2,000 hectares, Snippe and his partners have been able to grow both Bio Brass’s operations and market share in the Netherlands, Germany, the U.K., and Scandinavia over the past decade.

And as their business grew, so too did their ability to connect directly with their customers.

“Once you have more volume, you’re able to skip the traders and get in contact with retailers yourself, and for us, that was very important,” said Snippe. “What we’re doing isn’t about organics. It’s mainly about connecting — seeing how we can build something new together to create value.”

The Bio Brass team got in touch with Tesco, a major retailer in the U.K. that wanted to position organics differently by making the price point a little more “realistic.”

“In the past, organics were quite expensive because we weren’t so efficient,” said Snippe. “But all of a sudden, they sold 40 per cent more organic produce because they offered it in a different way.”

And because of the volumes the partnership produced, Bio Brass was able to reinvest in the business and improve handling, packaging, and logistics.

“We started doing more and more of the processing of the products on the farms, which creates more value on the farms rather than having someone else in the supply chain making money out of our products,” said Snippe.

It not only shortened their supply chain, but reduced spoilage and cut costs by 60 to 70 per cent.

“It was an eye-opener — organic doesn’t need to be so expensive,” said Snippe. “Theoretically, we should be cheaper than conventional. We don’t have to put in chemicals or fertilizers. There’s still a good income to be made in organics.”

Own the story

But for Snippe, this success required a shift in mindset — from ‘fork to farm,’ rather than from ‘farm to fork.’

“As a farmer, you have to think from the shelf back to the farm, instead of from the farm to the shelf,” he said. “It’s more about thinking about who we’re producing the food for and how we can link that back to our farming practices.”

A key part of that is creating a connection with consumers, he added. Bio Brass has built a $30,000 visitor centre offering locally grown produce and farm-fresh meals. It’s important that people understand the difference between organic and conventional production, he said.

“Farmers have a big asset — an asset that we’ve really underestimated so far. That’s our story,” he said. “Consumers want to know where their food is coming from. They want to know who is behind it. Traders or retailers don’t have that story. We own that story as farmers.”

Because of that connection, Snippe allows customer demand to drive his supply in a much more tangible way, becoming a price-maker, not a price-taker.

“I refuse to sell below the cost price of my product,” he said. “If I don’t make a return on a product for two years, I’m out.”

Snippe said he hopes his philosophy on efficient organic production will help create a sea change in the industry — shaping an organic sector where price isn’t a barrier for retail shoppers and where quality counts for more than the organic label.

“People don’t so much look at the price anymore. They don’t so much look at the word organic anymore. They’re just buying it because it looks nice,” he said.

“So the farmer’s happy. The retailer’s happy. But most importantly, the consumer is happy.”

This article was originally published in the Aug. 13, 2018 issue of the Alberta Farmer Express.