Any notions that organic farmers are somewhat detached from the mainstream and place idealism above sound business sense are soon dispelled when visiting the farm of Jac and Cornelis Eck of the Netherlands.

The father and son duo have been running their 85ha (210ac) farm as an organic operation since 2017. Soon after this course was chosen a fire destroyed their main shed and it was in the aftermath of this event that the decision was taken to build the business back in a truly professional way.

Decision time

It was not a simple decision, for Cornelis believes that if something is worth doing then it should be done properly, and this was certainly the case when the two applied themselves to creating a new business model for the farm.

There are many essentials when planning to switch to a low-input system, the key one being settling on a new rotation that would include high-value crops alongside caring for the soil.

Jac and Cornelis Eck holland organic
Jac (left) and Cornelis Eck of Herkingen, the Netherlands

The plan is now based on a seven-year rotation that starts with two years of a grass/clover ley followed by onions, chicory, sweetcorn, kale and quinoa. A mix without any cereals or other main crops, focussing, instead, on high-value products.

Chicory is considered the main crop with the grass being baled as hay for an organic goat farm which then returns its muck for spreading on the fields. Manure is also sourced from an organic dairy farm for incorporation; non-organic inputs are not allowed under Dutch organic rules.

Easy tillage

The farm is situated on the polders of the southern Netherlands where the soil is of a light sandy consistency, rather than the heavier clays found elsewhere in the area. This is a forgiving loam although a major problem is the slow influx of salt from the inland sea which it lies alongside.

Organic farming may not require sprays and fertiliser but it does tend to require a heavy investment in machinery as it relies on mechanical weed control rather than chemical input.

Organic Farm Holland
A shallow pass with power harrow and rollers prepares the seedbed for the next crop

This not only means a more intensive use of specialist equipment but also a certain degree of over capacity as there may be only very short window of opportunity to perform certain operations – maybe just two or three hours in a day.

Timeliness is everything on a farm of this type and it reinforces the Steketee message that organic farming is a full-time affair with constant monitoring of the fields required, along with the ability to immediately react to situations as they arise.

Be prepared

The situation boils down to needing the right machinery at the right time, and with weed control heavily dependent on mechanical hoeing, it does lead to different collection of implements in the barn to conventional farms.

Contrary to most organic farms, the plough plays little roll in cultivation here and there was none to be seen in or around the yard. Wing-tipped harrows and discs are responsible for the primary cultivation followed up by a power harrow and rollers.

Burner and light harrow organic
The gas burner and ultra-light harrows lined up ready for the coming season

A gas-fired weed burner is also used in front of the vegetable crops to incinerate any seedlings, although the heat is not intense enough to have any great effect on soil-borne pathogens.

Drilling itself is by a 15-row pneumatic precision drill made by Agricola Italiano, which has been making the machines from 1977.

Light harrows to heavy hoes

Once in the ground, the serious business of mechanical weed control starts and the first implement to be used is a very light spring-tine harrow which, it is claimed, will remove young weeds and leave the more robust crop plants alone.

The Fendt Favourite Eck
The Fendt Favourite 824 is around 20 years old and was bought in from Germany

This would appear a matter of faith, yet there are two such implements in the yard and the Eck family operates a successful farm, so it must work. Most of the following operations are carried out by Steketee hoes while the harvesting is performed by outside contractors with the appropriate machinery.

Providing the power for the field work are three Fendts, including a Xylon tool carrier and Fendt Favourite 824 which is at least 20 years old and was bought in from Germany. Quite where its 234hp was required wasn’t immediately clear, although lifting the drill will require weight to balance it.

The goat muck is stored on a concrete pad between the polder and dyke

All the tractors are fitted with satellite receivers and the two smaller units were shod with skinny tyres, reinforcing the view that ground compaction was not an issue in the fields once winter had passed.

Cornelis and Jac are happy enough to buy used tractors which are trouble-free, yet implements are purchased new to keep up with the latest developments while the investment in the storage and handling facilities takes the farm to another level altogether.

A barn built for sharing

Two years after the farm stated the switch to organic, a fire destroyed the main storage shed on the farm, requiring a completely new structure if they were to continue with the enterprise.

But rather than merely replace the building, they built a much larger structure that not only served their own needs but also had space for other growers to store produce.

Organic shed Netherlands
The impressive new shed is used by other growers for storage

The new shed is 55mx30m and reaches to 13m high in its centre. Two sections may be temperature controlled down to -2.5°, the temperature at which chicory needs to be stored.

The refrigeration system takes the excess heat and warms the ground beneath the ambient store. This is then extracted by reversing the system and it is used for drying the quinoa when it is harvested.

Onions in new shed
Onions are kept at 0° and stocks are drawn off by customers throughout the winter

The whole system is designed to use as little imported energy as possible and, Conelis tells us, was not cheap to build. However, he keeps the final figure to himself, just saying that the bank needed a very detailed plan and it will be 40 years before the loan is settled.

He also pointed out the insurance from the old shed made only a very minor contribution to the cost.

New barn fire
A tractor caught up in the blaze now stands as a monument to the event

The crop is sold through agents rather than direct to retail outlets, it would not be his preferred method but apparently the Dutch do like to have a middleman involved rather than go straight to the grower.

Going organic has been a big step for the Eck family, yet they have managed to not only make the switch but survive a fire which could have destroyed the business, instead, it made them far stronger, and should the Dutch farmers survive the present policy of erasing agriculture from landscape they have made a strong commitment to the future.