How Does Your 'Organic' Garden Grow

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Monday 9 June 2014

How Does Your 'Organic' Garden Grow

One of the things we both enjoy is learning about nutrition and over the years have seen the power that eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables can have on long term health and potentially some medical conditions. We also now try and buy organic whenever we can, having been convinced about the benefits by colleagues doing agricultural research when I worked at Newcastle University. Plus, we are always on the lookout for something new to put through our juicer.

That being the case, when Esther saw a flyer last week in a local organic supermarket (one of the Dutch Ekoplaza chain) for an organic farm open day, "The Taste of Bio" event organised by Ekologisch, we knew this would be something we'd enjoy. We also realised that even though we try to buy organic neither of us really knew what the difference in the growing process was when it came to the fruit and veg you buy in the shops. Time to find out.

Following the knooppunt markers
The farm was near a place with the snappy name Roelofarendsveen, about 45 km bike ride from where we've been staying, which was no hardship as it was mostly a very scenic (and flat) bike ride through some real Dutch windmill country. Without a map, we set off following the Knooppunt fietsnetwerk again just like on our bike tours in 2011 and 2012 and reminded us of our past adventures.  Playing spot the windmill to pass the time (final score Esther 16 - 15 Dan) and distract us from the morning drizzle, we arrived around lunchtime.

First impressions were a bit underwhelming as there were only about 10-12 stalls, but the farm itself and the tour we got more than made up for it. It was fascinating. The farmer himself gave the tour and we got the impression he was a bit of a poster boy for the organic supermarkets here as he was youngish, easy to listen to and very passionate about what he did.

We started in the greenhouse where he was growing beans (runner and harricot), tomatoes, melons and celery and he told us all about how to get the organic stamp of approval and the also the different organisations who controlled this and their specific requirements.  He couldn't use artificial light to illuminate the plants, he didn't heat the greenhouses, he couldn't use any machinery except to plough, everything else (seeding, weeding, harvesting etc) he did by hand.  Also he was only allowed to use substances that were produced naturally in the wild to act as fertiliser or pesticide. Not being able to use the artificial fertilisers, he also had to rotate his crops to keep the soil quality high and all crops had to be grown in the ground rather than in pots on stone.

Surprisingly, he told us that there wasn't a lot of difference in the time or cost it took to grow the plants to harvest compared to non-organic. I'd always assumed that non-organic would be much quicker, but as long as the nutrients are in the soil the plant grows just as quickly. What changes is how you put them there, and how you make sure pests don't spoil the crop.

Unsurprisingly he could only produce crops that were in season. He couldn't grow tomatoes, for example, in winter as he couldn't illuminate them and keep them warm artificially, which is one of the big advantages of non-organic growing where they can produce continuously from the same patch of earth by keeping the soil topped up with the perfect balance of fertiliser for the plants they grow.

Someone asked why he did it if it was so much harder and the farmer said it was 2 reasons. Firstly, there was a market for it and secondly as he wanted to show sustainable farming methods were viable and leave a farm that was going to keep being high quality for future generations.

When some questioned the price of organic food (the Dutch can be very direct!) the farmer countered by saying that it did take more work, but mostly that if the price of staple foods wasn't kept artificially low by the farm subsidies the price of vegetables and fruits in general wouldn't look so high in the first place which I think is a good point that I'll probably try and remember to do some research on sometime.

Anyway, after much questioning in the sauna of the greenhouse (I can't imagine harvesting celery all day in that heat!) we moved outside to be told about his lettuce, pumpkin, beetroot and extra celery growing. It was a much bigger area outside. The only other machinery he could use, in addition to a mechanical plough, was a pump to stop the land flooding as this part of Holland was so low and waterlogged otherwise. Outside he had to rotate his crop to keep the soil quality high; his land was divided into four sections so for example only once every 4 years his pumpkins would grow in the same place.

It really was fascinating and after 45 minutes or so we'd learned a lot more about what 'Organic' actually meant. We wandered around and browsed the stalls picking up some fruit and veg picked that day from his farm and sat in the now baking sunshine and enjoyed some real 'Dutch' music. This basically means one guy playing an accordion and another on the guitar singing folk songs on a bench. What's the best thing about this is not just that the songs are fun, but that when you see a Dutch music video on the telly it usually looks exactly like this - they tend not to spend lots of money on lights and extras for their music videos.

By mid-afternoon we hit the road and made our way back in the sunshine. Windmill spotting had to be suspended as we couldn't remember which ones we'd seen and which ones we hadn't, but they were still good to look at and in no time at all we were back in the Hague and enjoying a salad made from food that had been in the ground that morning. It was very satisfying day.

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