Interview with Herbert Wennekes from the "Vijfsprong"

“Urtica de Vijfsprong” is a combined agricultural company with a health facility. Both the functions have more or less the same ‘importance’ in the business. The health company provides healthcare for people with all different indications. They have support and can work on the farm. The farm performs biodynamic agriculture, which is a way of organic farming but with an anthroposophical basis. This results in even more attention for animal well-being (animals are not dehorned for instance), health of the soil, etc. One can see it as an extension of ecological agriculture. The farm has cattle, produces milk and performs horticulture and agriculture. Their products have EKO and DEMETER certificates. Since two years the farm is free of antibiotics. Milan spoke to Herbert Wennekes, who is responsible for the horticulture.


What is the philosophy of “Urtica de Vijfsprong”?
When you have your hands in the earth and work, you will heal. When you do, you will come out of your head and more into your body. The main philosophy is: By connecting, recovering the power. Because we have different clients, with a different request for healthcare, clients are able to help each other on the farm. In this way clients benefit from one another. Considering the agricultural part, the philosophy is to produce for human and animal with preservation of nature. Without charging the air, soil, water and landscape. Not maximising the production.


What is in your opinion sustainable agriculture, and do you consider your business sustainable?
In the first place are closed cycles very important. A sustainable farm grows its own food for the cattle, does not use chemical fertilizers. Milk is processed to cheese, quark and yoghurt on the farm. Whey goes to the pigs, faeces of cows are spread on the field and waste vegetables are fed to the animals. Furthermore the way how you fertilize your land is very important. Your plants grow good on liquid manure but it is quite aggressive for life in the soil. Experiments show good results with a variated way of fertilizing your land. You can variate for example with solid manure or compost. Also, biodiversity is an important aspect considering sustainability. This is one of the reasons our land gets some ‘rest’ from time to time. I do consider our farm sustainable, we have this closed cycle as much as possible and we do not exhaust the earth.


Do you think that every agricultural company can adapt to an ecological or biodynamic management, and is this wise to do?
I think it is possible although I have to say that it is a big step. When a farmer changes to an ecological management it takes two year before he can sell his products as ecological. He invests but for two years he does not have any benefit of it. Subsidies are very important to bridge this gap and they used to be higher in the past. Besides, the farmer needs to be certain that consumers will buy his goods. This is a risk that the farmer takes. When the financial risk is too high to change, it is not attractive for a farmer to change his management. Also cultural aspects are constrains for change. In some way farmers could ‘educate’ consumers in a way but also consumers have to change their behaviour. When you are shopping, you constantly are making the choice to buy ecological/biodynamic products or not. An important change from costumers is eating less meat. I believe that it should be possible to produce all the food within the Netherlands that the Dutch consume.


Do you notice that your method/philosophy and your certificates attracts different costumers?
It differs a lot. People who buy food at our farm want to know where their food comes from and that it is fresh. In general, people who buy deliberately food with EKO or DEMETER certificate choose for it from an idealistic point of view or health reasons. I do not think we should have extra certificates to bridge the gap between ecological and biodynamic. There are already a lot of certificates and more would be confusing.


What is the size of the land you grow food on and which kinds of food do you produce?
We use 100 hectares. Everything of it is used all the time whether there grows a green manure or vegetables. On the farm we produce all basics of what people eat, you can make a complete diet from our production. This also helps to close cycles what I mentioned earlier.


How much people can you approximately feed?
This, I cannot say. I know how much kilo zucchini’s and tomatoes I grow and how much litres milk there is produced but how much people you can feed I do not know. I could calculate it though…


What influence do the seasons have on the production?
In winter we grow less food. With a biodynamical management you are not allowed to heat your greenhouse. We can grow so called ‘winter vegetables’ like sprouts. I could fill all the land with those winter vegetables but the soil needs some rest considering the biodiversity. The soil needs the winter to recover from the harvest from last year. In that sense winter is good for the soil. Do not forget that we store also food like potatoes, carrots, red cabbage and parsnip. Furthermore I have to notice that not every year is the same thus not every winter or spring is comparable with that from another year. For instance this spring was comparable to other years cold, plants kept relatively small so I got less kilos from early beans and carrots from the land.


What is your experience with cooperating with other farmers?
Obviously cooperation is good. When I need some machinery just once a year and I can lend or hire it from a local farmer it always helps. Than I do not need to buy an expensive machine which stands still the whole year expect that one time I need it.


What influence has the soil on Texel regarding the production?
The soil on Texel consists of sea clay and sand from the dunes. Clay is more fertile than the soil we produce on, namely sand from former forest and heath. In theory you can produce more on clay per hectare. However, the sand from the dunes is not very fertile and a salty soil brings down the fertility too.


Which subject needs to be researched more intensely? And which trends regarding new technologies do you know?
Soil fertility is very important. There is some development with green fertilizers. Agriculture is experimenting with it with some good results. In this way you need much less fertilizers from animals. Also there are new machines on the market which can divide liquid manure from solid manure. This can help with divers fertilizing your land.


Is it realistic to make Texel independent of food and is it a correct aim?
To close the food cycle is always a good aim. It is realistic to make Texel independent considering the soil. Consumers and producers need to change both to accomplish it. It is very important that all actors in the cycle have the same goal. But I think when consumers stand up and say: “We want ecological food”, farmers and the government will react. You vote with your wallet. To make a realistic plan you have to investigate the ratio between clay and sand. Also how salty the soil is. Than you know how much you can produce in theory approximately. With this knowledge in combination with the amount of inhabitants can estimate if the total production can be enough for the total consumption.