BioVerbeek, Velden, The Netherlands

 
 
 

I visited this farm just before I left Europe last year. I only had one day to visit, had to take several hours of buses to get there and it was another few miles walk before I arrived at the gate. I saw many glass house farms as I meandered along the road. Some were empty and in between crops while others seemed to be bursting at the seams with lush and verdant growth.

 
 
 
 

The appointment at BioVerbeek was a little bit difficult to negotiate. They don’t often invite people to come, never the less once I arrived Jac treated me very warmly and we got right down to business. We had to dress in full Tyvek suits, hair nets, sanitize our shoes and wear booties before we could enter the houses. These measures are to try to limit infection or infestation. As we entered the first house, the size of the structure was overwhelming. The heat and the moisture in the air made me feel like I was walking into a warm summer day though it was October.

 
 
 
 
Jac told me that there are more than 10k hectares under glass production in The Netherlands. Around half of that space is dedicated to flowers and of the 5k left for vegetable production, only 0.5% is Organic. Jac started BioVerbeek in 1978 as a conventional glass house farm. His brother Leo joined him a year later and they spent the next 16 years building their business. In 1994 the last brother, Fons joined the team. Fons wanted the farm to transition to Organic and convinced his brothers that it was the right decision both financially and morally. They started their transition that year and have never looked back. Now, at 10 hectares, it is one of the largest Organic glass house farms in The Netherlands.
 
 
 
 
They currently grow 4 varieties of tomatoes, both cherry and cocktail, 1 variety of cucumbers and 2 of bell peppers. They also trial several new varieties per year for possible future production. All of the plants are grown in ground according to EU Organic standards. Most conventional glasshouse vegetable production is done in substrate rather than soil because it is easier to control. BioVerbeek has come up with an incredible system that allows them to grow in soil successfully. They make their own compost from local cow and horse manure mixed with their own vegetable scraps which is spread on the beds 3 times per year. They also brew a compost tea that gets fed through the drip irrigation system.
 
 
 
 

They nurture an incredible population of beneficial insects within the houses for pollination and pest control. Bumble bee boxes are used for pollination and there are 6 species maintained, through nurture and release, just to control aphids. There are many more that help them to control spider mites, thrips, white fly, fungus gnats and various other pests. The soil is “steam cleaned” every 2 years to keep the root knot nematode population under control.

 
 
 
 

The biome created within these enormous structures is impressive. Because each house has its own delicate balance, we had to change into a new suit before entering the next one on the tour. Workers are assigned to one house and its adjoining packing house and do not enter the others to avoid cross contamination. The produce ships out all over Europe, mostly to Germany, Finland and the UK. If they have a real glut, like they did with peppers last year, the excess will also ship to the US.

 
 
 
 

All of the houses are planted in January and the crops are harvested until the end of November. The soil is then stripped of all plant material, they go over the soil with a flame weeder, clean out the irrigation system and make any repairs that are needed before rotating the crops and planting again.

 
 
 
 

The heating system that powers these behemoth houses is also extraordinary. Gas powered generators are used to create electricity, some of which is used in day to day operation and the excess of which is sold back to the grid. Heat, one of the byproducts, is collected with water and pumped throughout the houses to maintain optimal growing temperatures. During the day, when the houses are collecting passive solar heat, the water is held in 20k gallon tanks that reach 95 ℃ (203℉) before the sun sets. That water will be cycled through pipes to heat the house for most of the night. CO2 is also produced during the generators combustion, it is filtered from the rest of the exhaust, collected and pumped through the houses to promote green growth. Tomatoes vines easily reach 10 meters in length each season and the pepper plants I saw were more than 5 meters tall!

 
 
 
 

The last bits of impressive automation were the tracks that ran down the center of each bed. There are small cars designed to be ridden to harvest, spread compost, perform pruning and plant trellising and operate flame weeders. Each type of car is stored in the front of each house.

 
 
 
 

My short visit to BioVerbeek was illuminating. Both the automation in use, and the biome they have created within these houses is remarkable. I spent most of the 2 hour tour slack jaw at what I was seeing, and most of the trip back suspended in that awe.

For more info please visit the BioVerbeek website; http://www.bioverbeek.nl/

 

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