Geert van der Veer
Ashoka Fellow since 2017   |   Netherlands

Geert van der Veer

With his Herenboeren movement Geert is putting the use of farm land back into the hands of local communities, using a model of collective ownership and management, which by restoring people’s…
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This description of Geert van der Veer's work was prepared when Geert van der Veer was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017.


With his Herenboeren movement Geert is putting the use of farm land back into the hands of local communities, using a model of collective ownership and management, which by restoring people’s relationship with that land, serves as the basis of an alternative system for food production, which respects animals, cooperates with nature, and revitalizes the soil all while offering a tangible platform for driving agricultural dialogue and innovation.

The New Idea

Herenboeren builds on the idea that the lack of peoples’ identification with their natural surroundings, especially agricultural land, can be used and transformed to create ownership of this land to become a powerful driver for change. This new-found identification is enabling people to understand their position in the food production system and by gaining that awareness unleashing peoples’ intrinsic motivation to improve, and build a more sustainable and nature inclusive system.

With Herenboeren, Geert does exactly that. He created an innovative and sustainable business model that empowers people to found farms and makes the local communities owner and consumer of those farms.

Geert’s model empowers people to take initiative and join hands to set up a network of collaborative farms in the Netherlands, changing farming, nature conservation and food consumption habits by fostering the power of local communities as well as re-involving them in the production of food in their direct surroundings. The real innovation of Geerts’ Herenboeren movement lies in its power to mobilize and influence the several critically important segments of society involved in the production as well as consumption of food. By being closer to their own food production people realize their position in the current and unsustainable food production system, and as such will understand that we have been industrializing and depleting our soils, leading to nature degradation and an increased “necessity” to use artificial fertilizers to keep production running at scale. Through harnessing this collective understanding, and providing a hands-on model for change, Geert is bringing the decision power over the agricultural land and food production back to the people, so that we as society can take action and contribute to a much more integrated and sustainable approach of interacting with the land that gives us our food.

Geert’s Herenboeren farms, serve as a vehicle to demonstrate how more sustainable and innovative farming practices can be combined and adapted to local context, not claiming that they are the answer but offering an accessible platform from which to explore and innovate together with acclaimed research institutes and experts in the field of agriculture and nature conservation. Herenboeren shows that these more sustainable farming practices can be implemented in a model which is in itself scalable, financially sustainable, largely independent of traditional market forces, while utilizing the power of local communities to restore local land usage. These properties make it a powerful tool to change the current system, by influencing research, farming practices, and policies, as he has shown in his cooperation with leading Dutch universities and by striking a “Green Deal” for nature inclusive land usage, which exempts his first farm from many legal requirements and makes it possible for Herenboeren to truly innovate.

The Problem

When looking at todays’ agricultural landscape we are seeing an immensely complex system. Over the last century, the agricultural landscape has been transformed as
a result of scale enlargement and agricultural intensification, which in turn are ‘protected’
by regulations and driven by market forces. This agricultural system which can roughly be split into the following sub-systems which are interacting with each other:

1) Regulatory (central, regional and local government)
2) Production (farmers, herders, fishermen, etc.)
3) Consumption (consumers)
4) Distribution (traders, wholesale markets, retailers)

In an ideal scenario, these key players would efficiently collaborate and produce food in a way which is healthy for people, good for the environment, and minimizes suffering for animals. In practice, the key players in the chain of activities that connect food production and agriculture to the consumers, see the agricultural/food system from a perspective of self-interest, creating several conflicts of interest.

Food chain driven by price: depleting our soils
Because of the focus on low purchase prices, farmers are trying to drive down their production cost as much as possible while maintaining “acceptable” quality to keep their margins. What this does to food production, is that producing quantity is far more profitable than producing quality, which in turn results in depleting the soil which is not in its natural balance anymore, or as Geert put it: “our soils are basically dead because we industrialized them”.

Supply driven instead of demand driven (waste)
Additionally, consumers are far removed from where the food they consume is coming from. They are used to buying identical looking, washed, pre-packaged or even pre-cut, plastic wrapped products which are available at all times in the supermarket. The consumer becomes merely a recipient of a service and a product, ignorant of the consequences, an important one being food waste. The entire food production system is supply driven instead of demand driven which results in excessive production and therefore excessive food waste. In Europe, this means that 32% of the entire food production is wasted. 10% at producer level, 4% at supermarkets, 10% at consumers, 5% in processing and 3% in logistics (Gustavsson et al., 2011). In the Netherlands, those numbers look even more dramatic. Finding a way to reduce this food being wasted would be a critical step forward.

Food poverty
On a global scale, we are theoretically producing enough food to feed everyone but the production of food is not evenly spread. We see large per hectare yields in most industrial nations and very low ones for South Asia, Sub Saharan Africa and Central America. At the same time the industrial nations are the ones which contribute least to global food production (0.2% for the Netherlands).

Increasing per hectare yields and by exploring innovative food production models that can be adapted to local contexts and enable people all over the world to produce their own food in a more sustainable way will be necessary to ensure food security on a global scale while making sure that we stay within our planetary sustainability boundaries.

The Strategy

With Herenboeren Geert offers a comprehensive solution for many of the identified issues. Herenboeren empowers people to take initiative and join hands to set up a network of cooperative farms in the Netherlands, changing the practice of farming, nature conservation and eating habits along the way.

How does it work?
A group of people comes together to inform Herenboeren that they as a group want to set-up a farm in their area. The entire process is facilitated through an interactive step-by-step model via the Herenboeren website. This leading group now has to find 200 locals who are willing to invest 2000€ and each become owners of the farm, as well as becoming the customers of what the farm produces. After this, they organize a plot of 20 hectares of land which is enough to cover 60% of the average basket of vegetables, fruit, dairy, and meat for 200 average Dutch families (500 people). This basket of products will cost 25€ per week per household. The next step is to find a farmer who is willing to work for a salary of around 45k per year, which is above what most farmers are making in the Netherlands. From this point onwards the group can decide for themselves what is produced and what is needed, thus also taking the pressure away from the farmer to produce with a focus on quantity. In practice the leading group who initiated the movement in the locality mostly acts on behalf of the entire group, who are not required to help out but are encouraged and do so to different extent. Geert realizes that the 2000€ upfront investment is potentially excluding those who cannot just make that investment, and to avoid this scenario he is setting up the foundation “Friends of Herenboeren” which those raises the funds for those people who want to be part of the cooperation.

Since all families in the cooperative farm also decide what is being produced, it increases peoples’ awareness about their consumption habits. Geert mentioned that “once you see that half of your farmland is being used raising cows for beef and milk you realize that maybe it’s time to change your diet a bit”. Instead of just buying food you realize what the impact is of your own eating habits. The entire production system gets flipped around and now functions on demand which results in far less food waste, more sustainable production, and better quality of the soil and of the lives of the animals.

The key principles of Herenboeren are:
1) No loans
2) Quality not quantity
3) No waste
4) No exit
5) Healthy soil
6) Cooperate with nature
7) Respect for animals
8) No grants
9) Professional environment

Those principles are the reverse of the standard set-up which we see in the current farming landscape and their purpose is to guide the Herenboeren movement towards creating a fully integrated and bottom up farming system, changing current unsustainable food production processes to work towards a future of democratization of natural resources and food production.

Every person is a consumer of food and Herenboeren empowers these consumers to step into the production-to-consumption system and start making a change. Geert holds the firm believe that people are changemakers and will contribute to change as soon as they feel empowered to do so. Herenboeren already made significant impact showing how farming can go hand in hand with nature conservation. Geert’s leadership can be seen in the way he shares his inclusive farming practices through Dutch knowledge institutes by teaching the next generation of farmers and agriculture experts. By doing so he is laying the ground work for a paradigm shift of how innovative food production systems of the future could look like, evolving from the starting point that every individual will identify and take ownership of nature.

Since many of the practices that Geert applies aren’t conform Dutch agricultural guidelines, sometimes even do not comply, Geert is advocating to transform legislation in the Netherlands (at central, regional and local government level). With the way Herenboeren farms manage their own water supply (as much as possible self-sufficient), the way animals are raised (as much as possible according to their natural living habits, i.e. not individually separated in cages), and the application of permaculture techniques, Geert ran into issues with the (local) law. He started the conversation with the different authorities, and recently had his first success in striking a so called green deal, which makes his farms part of a nature conservation area that exempts them from the standard policy guidelines and allows all Herenboeren farms to adapt to their environment and make the best possible use of it.

By doing so he is not only creating a completely integrated farm but actually an integrated biosphere in which forests, wildlife and farm practices go hand in hand and enrich each other. This has strong rehabilitative effects for the ecosystem in the area and rejuvenates the soil. The soils health is at the centre of all the practices Geert uses in his model.

To assure that these practices are receiving a stronger focus in research, Geert is working with agenda setting bodies to change the way agriculture is taught and researched at Dutch universities which are globally reputed for their innovative and strong programs in agriculture, for example with Wageningen University, Utrecht University, Agricultural University of Applied Sciences Dronten and University of Den Bosch. He is collaborating with them to change the norms and rules to ultimately create more innovation, and business models in the field of agriculture.

In the end of 2016 Geert hosted a conference, bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders, from policy makers, to social entrepreneurs working on nature inclusive agriculture, nature conservation experts, agricultural cooperatives & citizen initiatives, to start the conversation on how nature can be better managed.

Herenboeren has launched its first 20 hectare farm in 2016. The scaling model depends on the traction local groups can create and in doing so mobilize the necessary 400k investment, the plot of land, and finding a farmer agreeing on becoming employed by this cooperative. The pilot model in Boxtel is functional and moving towards a fully integrated and sustainable farm/ecosystem. In the entire country 31 locally formed groups are now active to set up the Herenboeren model in their localities, with 8 of them being at an advanced stage where launch is expected to happen. Another positively contributing factor in scaling is that in the Netherlands we are seeing that the number of farms is drastically decreasing from around 97k in 2000 to about 58k in 2016 (40% less) while the total farmed area only decreased by 7.5% in the same time. Especially smaller farms are the ones most affected. These now often empty farms are the farms that could be taken over by the Herenboeren movement to use already existing farmland, and farmhouses and sometimes even farmers to bring the Herenberen movement to scale at relatively low cost. The ambition is to grow tens of Herenboeren farms in the next ten years.

Herenboeren Netherlands is registered as a foundation, but in practice it is more a network organization as it envisions scaling its impact not only through their direct network partners and farms but also in collaboration with:

• research and the scientific community
• politics and society
• private sector
• financing institutions

With this collaborative effort, Geert and Herenboeren can organize more efficiently and make a powerful statement for change in agriculture and nature conservation.

The Person

Geert received the title of an engineer in agriculture, nature and recreation but already as a student he felt an itch that he wanted to do something more practical and he got involved with the Dutch Agricultural Ministry to reintroduce the common hamster to nature. Here he had the learned that he could actually make money that way as this was creating better conditions for farming, and this experience fostered Geert’s ability to invent new business models in the agricultural sector. But he didn’t feel at home in this field, he wanted to contribute more so he got involved with a agri- and horticulture organisation where he was shocked by the fact that in the Netherlands Broccoli was imported from Italy while they were growing right around the corner. He had so many new ideas and suggestions that his colleagues started calling him the missionary, which made him realize how important it is to have a group of people with you that share the same vision.

But working in this field he felt that he didn’t want to fight against the system anymore and do something else. Together with an old University friend he co-founded Praedium, an organization which supports but also creates concepts which stimulate the rural economy and makes these concepts more sustainable.

But Geert still felt that he didn’t really fit into this world of big business and was looking for new ideas, and when another person from the village mentioned to Geert that he would like to be buried in the forest, Geert though that if he anyway has to start something it might as well be this. Together with 6 others he bought 17 hectares of forest and co-developed and founded a concept in which nature development (a forest in this case) was combined with the need of people to find a respectful last resting place for their beloved ones. The first natural cemetery in the Netherlands was born, allowing a piece of nature to be managed, by the fees paid for the people who are buried there. Since the forest as burial ground, was dedicated to a need of a local community, the people started taking better care of it, and income generating model allowed for better nature management. Since the start of it, biodiversity increased with 236%. Some of these learnings were crucial for developing the idea of Herenboeren later.

This success was a turning point in Geert’s life. He knew that he could do much more and in fact this was also the point when he decided to transform his previous company Praedium into a cooperative because the for-profit model was giving him the wrong itch, he wanted to fairly distribute the profits. At around the same time he also co-founded Boerenfluitjes, an initiative where people who have in questions regarding food products, such as “how do you harvest bell peppers” or “why do we import broccoli”, can get answers directly from the people who can answer them best, the farmers. But still, Geert wasn’t happy and he had the insight that he needed to move away from welfare to wellbeing, he needed to transform his life and his work. Actually, he wanted to go back to food value chains and transform them from the idea that we are from wealthy places which lead us to look at nature as a cost position in the government budget, instead of feeling real identification and responsibility for it. Here was where Herenboeren was born and Geert took the steps to empower everyone who shares his vision to join and be involved.

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