News from the world of commons:

Weekly reports from the Travelling Farm Museum tours

Reporting from the annual Travelling Farm Museum tours, we bring you snapshots, stories and/or know-hows learned from them by the hosts, members of the Museum and co-travellers! Expect almost a weekly write-up covering these tours where residents, farmers and artists together explore Leidsche Rijn’s agro-ecological past, present & future.

For more information on the tours click here and visit the online depot of the Travelling Farm Museum as well!

MicrOrganics Company

12 June 2021

The second tour of this year is, in contrast with the romantic expedition to the Voedselbos last week, a bike ride towards a concrete world of blind boxes as buildings, large motorways and almost no trees. An indoor farm, a start up company of microgreens. A magic box to be opened.

Written by Txell Blanco and Maxim Yesodharan; Photo-reportage Txell Blanco with the stories told by Niels Rijksen of MicrOrganics.

Food production in business parks?: For the second tour of the Travelling Farm Museum we were invited by Niels Rijken, the founder of a microgreens indoor farm located in a former mail sorting building at the Wetering business park area in Utrecht. Microgreens are vegetable greens (not to be confused with sprouts or shoots) harvested just after the embryonic leaves have developed. They are used as a nutrition supplement, a visual enhancement, and a flavor and texture enhancement.

In contrast with the romantic expedition to the Voedselbos last week, this time we gathered to bike towards a concrete world of blind boxes as buildings, large motorways and almost no trees. Business parks were created next to suburban areas in order to create different locations for living, work and recreation, and comes with a car-use mentality from the past that increases urban segregation and decreases biodiversity. We wondered how food could be produced in such an environment.

Why did we go there?: And there we were, the nine of us, being students, hobby farmers, musicians, planners or just vinex neighbors. The Travelling Farm Museum departed again from the former farmhouse at Terwijde and within 10 minutes we reached Niels’ location. The urban sprawl in Holland is like a scale model of the American suburbia, not as big, but still, segregated. We brought citizens to Microrganics, and this way we entered a hidden environment.

Niels’ indoor microgreens grow next to a baby photoshoot company, two artists, a 3d printer and a barber shop. That’s what you call a multi-tenant building, where a random mix of start-ups and medium-sized companies find cheap rented spaces. Niels is the only farmer in this building. He begins to tell his story.

Organic, almost circular and zero waste: “As a plant biologist I work almost full time at a company for biological crop protection, where we research how to control pests and diseases in the crop through the introduction of natural enemies, such as fungi and bacteria.” His interest in being self-sustainable and his awareness of the amount of pesticides being used in non-organic vegetables made him start his company next to his job. He wanted to experiment with indoor farming in an organic and almost circular way. His company has existed for one year now and already delivers to 5 restaurants in Utrecht being Landhuis in the Stad, Le Jardin, Luuk, Van Planten and Venster. Niels delivers his greens personally on his bike within two hours from harvesting. That’s an important added value. A bag of microgreens takes 10 days to be produced, therefore restaurants order 10 days in advance and this way Niels ensures freshness and no waste.

“You never get too many worms…”: Why are these little greens, such a source of nutrients, being grown indoors? In a method called “vertical gardening” Niels grows mosterd, broccoli, sweet pea, radish and sunflower on shelves under led lamps, spatially placed in multiple layers. This is a controlled environment, free of pesticides, in a room of about 10m2. Worms are the key organisms in this microclimate. We witness a big worm hotel in the room where they eat the leftovers of the harvested microgreens, and through this process compost is made. That compost he transforms into a fertilizer, to be exact, by creating a liquid extraction of the worm poop mixed with kelp seaweed and melasse (the rest product of the sugarcane industry). In order to make this cocktail a machine is adding oxygen to the mix. This way he gets all the nutrients for microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi, to grow. 

We seem to have an almost closed ‘circular’ system. However, how much electricity, water, kelp, melasse and seeds are needed to run this business? Are we talking about a luxurious product only available for the very few?: “Microgreens are not to feed humanity… but in these times you don’t have this problem anymore” says Niels. We wonder if this is even a good sign. A discussion started, where some of us stressed the fact that an indoor farm is not totally indoor, since creating a tray of microgreens we need 1 or 2 adult plants that have been grown outdoors, to provide the seeds. That means acres of the same plant are necessary to create a few kilograms of seeds. Who´s providing those seeds thus a key process in its sustainability. Niels tells us he is working with an organic seed company based in Groningen called Kiemerij de Peulenschil. The water and electricity used are all included in the price of his “cheap rental space”, but is this green energy? Nobody knows. Melasse is a rest product that otherwise would be thrown away in Holland, yet it could be used for human consumption. Kelp seaweed is a sustainable source harvested without damaging the environment. “You need to outthink a lot of problems.” says Niels. And yet, MicrOrganics is not there to provide basic food, but a luxurious product. In that case some of us suggest creating “DIY grow kit microgreens” for home farming, with a wormhotel included, becoming a solid way to transform your organic waste into food again. Somebody else of us wonders why there are no wormhotels placed in neighborhoods, next to community gardens for instance. It’s all about organizing a sustainable food chain. It’s time to cooperate and work toward a shared goal.

A small company with big dreams: “My idea is to make this indoor farm a way of living so I can start an organic farm somewhere in the countryside” says Niels. In fact, Niels’ dreams are not that far from reality. His pesticide-free organic farm could be an example using different crops in rows that will be harvested at different times. A whole ecosystem where insects migrate from row to row. The Netherlands is a global frontrunner when it comes to agricultural technologies, using robots and drones for harvesting processes in organic fields. In a hopefully near future we wonder if Niels will become 100% circular and sustainable with his company. That is if other farms in The Netherlands will stop importing nutrients from Brazil, if we will prevent waste of food and therefore produce just enough to give back space to nature, or if we shouldn’t have to worry anymore about eating potatoes sprayed with pesticides.

Image description: people cycling through the businesspark, arriving at the urban business complex, a group talking and witnessing microgreens and the growing materials, the tour group posing together with the bicycle architecture in the building. Photo credit: Txell Blanco, 2021. 


Voedselbos Haarzuilens (Agroforest Haarzuilens)

5 June 2021

The first tour of this year took place on the day of World Environment Day along with the re-opening of the cultural institutions in the Netherlands. The place for this first tour is full of blossoming biodiversity!

Written by Binna Choi (director Casco Art Institute) with the stories told by Jan Degenaar and Maarten Scharma of Voedselbos Haarzuilens

Always gathering in front of what we know as the Terwijde farmhouse: the now former Terwijde farmhouse where in 2018 the Outsiders and Casco got an access to use, inhabit, and dream with residents in the area. Otherwise it was not used and semi-ruined since the development of Leidsche Rijn annexed to the city of Utrecht had begun about 20 years ago. Now it’s being developed into a restaurant. Some people felt sad that we lost the farmhouse, no more commoning that place. Yet we still gather in front of it in order to continue commoning wider and bigger, making connections with the local farmers!

Departing and Cycling together:  Usually a group of around 15-20 people follow a staff member of the Museum in yellow suit and cycle about 10 to 15 min across or a little beyond Leidsche Rijn. You’d cycle with experimental sounds from the Museum until you’d arrive in the “outside” of building blocks where the gift of nature to feed us and those caring minds of farmers between nature and people are abundant.

Arriving the Voedselbos Haarzuilens: this time, we cycled towards the north from Leidsche Rijn. We passed the roads, small and big houses, a lake, and then entered a village called Haarzuilens. Already you could notice some operational farms as you see the stalls to sell fruits. At the Voedselbos Haarzuilens where we finally arrived, Jan Degenaar and Maarten Scharma were welcoming us. They met in their biology study at university, co-initiated and have been cultivating  it since 2015. They suggest that we leave the bikes and walk together into the forest. Pointing over the left and right from where we stand, they let us know the forest is in between the intensive agricultural site for pears and the plain land for kettles. Unlike those, it’s hyper diverse, although it’s still a young system. The forest is the size of twelve football fields (6 hectares). It’s leased from the Province of Utrecht for 26 years so there’s still more time to grow! (what would happen after 26 years, we immediately started wondering though).

Walking the mazes, listening, picking, tasting: after walking a road of straight line in a few hundreds meters and, then, crossing a treacherous wooden bridge over a narrow canal, all were mazes, mazes of amazement. Following by the mazes, Jan and Maarten guide us to a whole new “world” of over 200 edible plants and of over 15 different species of bird nesting. Certainly it’s not that we could see and learn all those 200 plants and spot the birds. Yet unlike a usual monocultural farmland, what forms the agroforest is one kind of plant very next to another: fig tree, almond tree, grape tree, sages… an array of things, that’s a parade! Not only those we are familiar with. Many plants and trees whose names I cannot remember and did not know they bear edible leaves and flowers give surprising tastes.

Space for making mistakes, going with flow and growing a little slow: As Jan and Maarten do not use any pesticide, for instance, you cannot cultivate peaches in the Netherlands without using fungicide. Fungi however is what makes soil rich, so other plants grow well in that abundance. They also don’t mow grass, meaning less work!  You let things be and grow, although you try to make the best condition for the diversity to thrive: for instance, plant trees growing tall in the north, the lower ones in the south. With sunshines distributed over the forest, they get less susceptible to disease. Given in The Netherlands there’s a period of little sunshine, there are plants like Wild Garlic that saves solar energy in their bulb. Also somewhat structure the area to prompt the natural predation. This practice also means they go by space for making mistakes, learning by doing, while the self-organizing system of plants find their ways of living together or leaving (dying) away. Go with flow, they say. That lets the complex ecosystem be “built”. Growing slow is a virtue here, the development is multiple phases based. They don’t plan a species that grows fast, spreads, and occupies the whole space – that would make a monocultural empire!

Harvesting and returning: This agroforest being diverse in species means there’s not one intensive harvesting period. Instead you harvest throughout the year, not a huge amount. For now there are 20 people and organizations who subscribed as the members and harvest from the forest, including VOKO in Utrecht (a food collective about 70 members working with local farmers for bringing fresh, (mostly) organic and locally grown food to the city. Merel, an active member of the Museum is also a member of VOKO!). It consciously works with a short supply chain. No storage for accumulating or throwing away. The community of the subscribers also bring their own knowledge for different plants, not only taking away. After each harvest, they also measure the weight, building the data of how much is growing, next to how many as they are dreaming the (re)productive biomass.

At the end of the tour, we sat near a small hut storing some tools, drinking made of elderflower syrup originating from the forest. What we eat determines the landscape, Jan and Maarten said. The environment around us was beautiful. Many children as many as adults, which also gives a vision for the future (most of the area remains open to the public). We all also got the gift from the Museum. Rotterdam based Brazilliana artists Joélson Buggilla and Jorgge Menna Barreto made a visit to the Voedselbos Haarzuilens in advance and made a photograph out of loose assemblage of leaves from here. It’s named “Alphabet Maudit”, referring to language we can’t read or pronounce yet that conceive another world than the one occupied, exploited and wretched by human beings. With this language which we started learning a little from the tour today,  we left the agrofarm towards the city where our homes are. Are we returning or leaving to return?

Many many thanks to Jan and Maarten for the incredible work, walking and sharing their knowledge with us.

Image description: people holding seeds, flowers, discovering edible plants, a tour group talking, standing on distance in the agroforest, a person smelling a flower, and a child being interviewed by the Museum team members. Photo credit: Merel Zwarts, Leonardo Siqueira, Binna Choi, 2021. 

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