Rustica family farm visits
Last week, we welcomed Guillermo Pena in Leuven. Guillermo is researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Since 2021, we work together on the H2020 project RUSTICA, which aims at developing biofertilizers based on waste streams from fruit and vegetables. We wanted to show Guillermo some farms in Flanders. Recognizing that it is impossible to show the diversity of Flanders agricultural sector in just one afternoon, we choose to visit some family farms in Tienen, 20 km away from Leuven. Tienen is known for its sugar factory (Tiense Suikerraffinaderij), which is part of Südzucker.
In the early ‘50s, Remi Avermaete and Simonne Goossens moved from (Evergem) Ghent to Tienen. They managed a farm and a household of seven children. Over 70 years later, we find the second, third and fourth generation on the land (while a fifth generation is crawling around as well). It concerns now three different farms, on just walking distance from one another. In Belgium standards, these are all large farms, with each over 400 hectares of land that is worked on. They face the same challenges, experience similar bottlenecks, yet there are also interesting differences in the strategies on each of the farms.
Stijn Avermaete combines arable crops with fruit production. He has invested heavily in precision farming. He uses GPS technology and advanced software to monitor his land. This way, he is able to reduce inputs and at the same time maintain high yields. He applies no tillage practices. He shows us several prints of data on soil health and explains us the administrative burden that is put on farmers. If you want to stay competitive in the sector, you need to invest in innovation and technology.
For his apple orchard, Stijn recently made the conversion from conventional to organic. He has mechanized most of the work in the orchard, from pruning to harvesting. His production is sold for processing. Furthermore, Stijn invested in a vineyard and has processing facilities on his farm.
Next stop was just 300 meters away, at the farm where Philippe Avermaete works with his father on the farm. On this farm, four generation live together. Philippe’s wife Nele also takes care of the communication and developed a website https://beenshoeve.wordpress.com. She regularly posts the activities on the farm on Instagram. It is an arable farm producing among others sugar beets, potatoes and wheat. And although Philippe’s father used to participate – some decades ago – in the international plowing championship, Philippe has successfully introduced no tillage practices on the farm. They invest in modern machinery which has a significant return on investment, both economically and from an ecologic perspective. Also, they have a large shelter to store manure. Philippe hopes to have, someday, animals on the farm as well making the entire farm more circular.
A last stop took us again no more than ten minutes walking, where the two brothers Ludo and Wim Avermaete, as well as their parents Etienne and Flora welcomed us. They run a farm with mainly arable crops and a smaller fruit orchard. They grow a considerable amount of potatoes, but also carrots and onions. Also here, we see the investment in modern machinery, though some skepticism towards no tillage practices of their neighbors.
All farmers clearly belief in the need to modernize and invest in precision farming. This is the only way to be able to manage a large-scaled arable farm. Moreover, it also helps to become more sustainable. The increase in sustainability is tangible. It allows for example a reduction in the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Both Stijn and Philippe are very enthusiastic about the no tillage practices, which has increased the soil health significantly.
Another topic on the table was labor. Especially for fruit harvesting, labor is an issue. Cost of labor in agriculture has increased dramatically over the last decades, while the productivity of the workers in the orchard has gone down. Loans for the work is very competitive to student jobs, though youngsters are not very keen to do the work in the fields. Stijn explains us that in peak moments, he needed almost 100 people for the harvest. They often come from Eastern Europe, and you need to offer them accommodation as well. Wim and Ludo acknowledge the challenge of finding motivated work force in the orchard. Having seasonal labor from abroad is not evident, and it brings a lot of worries and administration. That is one of the reasons for Stijn to mechanize.
We also discussed access to land. In this region, land prices go up to 60.000€ for one hectare. If land is sold, competition is high, not just from farmers but also from people outside the sector. This is an issue we see all across Flanders. Tienen is just a couple of kilometers from the Wallonia, the French speaking part of the country. However, as explained by the farmers, buying or working on that land, implies getting familiar with a completely other administration.
Among many other topics raised, we also talked about education. There is an urgent need to improve education for farmers. There are so many opportunities, but farmers are hesitant to apply them. If education already integrates these practices, at least the young generation would get familiar with them and will more easily apply them once taking over the farm.
Future proof ?
On all three farms, we talked about the future. How do they look ahead? Stijn understands that Flemish farmers move away from Flanders, starting farms elsewhere in Europe. His younger brother moved to Germany where he runs an organic sheep farm https://hofhubertusblick.com . Stijn also mentions the enormous differences in the land market. Even in France, you can easily find plots for less than 10.000€/ha. Wim and Ludo leave the question on the future in the middle. We see two young girls – Wim’s daughters – playing on the farm. Maybe they will one day take over, maybe not. Philippe, the youngest one, is hopeful. Sure, there are many hurdles and challenges for the sector and climate change will certainly continue to impact farming, yet he beliefs that there is a future for farmers in Flanders.
We closed the day in De Hoorn, in Leuven, which allowed us to show Guillermo something of the beer culture of our University town.
Participants to the visit
Tessa Avermaete, KU Leuven and indeed, also granddaughter of Remi and Simonne
Philippe Avermaete and Nele Kempeneers, farmers
Ludo and Wim Avermaete, farmers
Stijn Avermaete, farmer
Clara Gambart, KU Leuven, Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement
Theresa Gerber, KU Leuven, division bioeconomics
Margo Heremans, KU Leuven, division bioeconomics
Erika De Keyser, KU Leuven, division bioeconomics
Mertijn Moeyersons, KU Leuven, division bioeconomics
Riet Nijs, photographer
Guillermo Pena, CIAT
Lisa Van den Bossche, ILVO