“We're going to do it completely different”

Hoe John Huiberts changed his course

Huibert's bulbs

Every year, high in North Holland, the flowers in the famous bulb fields carpet the countryside in all the colours of the rainbow. There are daffodils, dahlias, crocuses, hyacinth and of course, most famous of all, the Dutch tulip. As beautiful as they are, how the bulbs are grown can have quite an effect on the land. The market demands a lot of bulbs, or, to put it more accurately, a lot of cheap bulbs. To meet this demand, pesticides and artificial fertilisers are needed to grow the bulbs and this can take its toll on the soil. That’s just the way it is!

Or is it? One small bulb grower is bravely resisting the pressure to use pesticides and artificial fertilisers and still manages to make life difficult for unwanted pests and parasites - without chemicals.

John Huiberts

“One of the few organic growers in the world”

Things had to change

Seven years go bulb grower John Huiberts made an important and unusual decision: to start growing his bulbs organically.

“We had an eelworm infestation, and that means you have to destroy your crop to avoid spreading the infestation. So, I did everything by the book. We were scrupulously clean in the barns and the fields. There were no weeds – anywhere. Things went well for a year and then the infestation returned. I realised that the eelworms weren’t in our sheds and they weren’t caused by our method of cultivation. They were in the ground.

An eelworm infestation is a taboo subject for farmers: if you’ve got it, you don’t tell anyone. Because if you’ve got it your seen as a ‘’dirty’’ farmer who doesn’t know how to keep his farm clean. It’s a massive problem. You can avoid an infestation by immersing the bulbs in pesticide, but that’s not really a solution as it also kills the natural enemies of the eelworm. We decided then and there to say out loud that we had the problem but that we were going to tackle it differently.

A better soil

I did a course on soil biology. Amongst other things I learned that we were ploughing too deeply, that we were using too many pesticides and that fertilisers make a plant more prone to aphids which in turn spreads viruses. We have been working organically for seven years now. We see clearly that you don’t have to be afraid of eelworms if you have more organic matter in the soil; if you have a rich soil life.

We have to apply the brakes.

The problem is people have to apply the brakes. We just keep on going; things have to be bigger, crazier. This also true of the demands we make on our arable land; the land has to yield more and more. And also our own lives; we fly all over the world, and that is how we spread disease. Take corona, for example. The same applies to the land and the world at large: if you eradicate one disease, another will take its place. We want too much, and this is not healthy. If we were all to take things a bit more easily, we wouldn’t have all these diseases. But if we carry on like this, it will never go away. This applies equally to infectious diseases in humans and diseases in agriculture. We just want too much.

We’re going to do it differently

How old was I when I first became interested in the land? Well, the strange thing is I thought I was always interested in it. I applied exactly what I learned at school to the land. That’s how it was supposed to be done. There are many “experts” who advise us growers about the soil, but they are also the people who want to sell us pesticides and fertilisers. The more they sell, the more they earn. If they see weeds on your land they tell you they have something to deal with it. So you use the spray and you think you’re taking care of things nicely. That’s how I worked for years. We started to use more and more chemicals. Then I did the soil biology course and I learned that that was wrong. But everyone says that we have to avoid a drop in turnover and we have to maximise production.

When our daughter was four, she developed encephalitis. She actually had a seizure that wouldn’t stop which left her with multiple disabilities. When we took her to intensive care, the doctor said “Ah, you’re a bulb grower? All those chemicals could be what caused this” Fortunately that turned out not to be the case, but it was a huge trigger. So, we’d had the eelworms and I’d been on the course and we decided that we were going to do it differently; because continuing what we had been doing was just unsustainable.

One of the few organic growers in the world

We’ve been working organically for seven years now. We ran at an enormous loss for the first couple of years with a drop in turnover. I wouldn’t recommend making the change so quickly, because your business just crumbles around you at first. It’s a real struggle. But, fortunately, we didn’t know that.

The soil and the bulbs had become used to the fertiliser. And some types of bulbs are almost impossible to grow without fertiliser and chemicals. Our ground was so full of fertilisers and chemicals that we had no soil life. Our soil was completely dead; there was really zero life in it. So now, after seven years of working organically, we are finally seeing that yields are good. That first year there was almost no yield at all. There were a lot of weeds that I would normally have sprayed and the bulbs got sick. It was quite discouraging. And then at the end of the year I’d earned nothing, or actually made a loss, it was really incredibly hard.

But, at the same time, it was actually a lot of fun. I was taking a lot of different courses. We saw that our soil was changing. We won a prize for the most bird-friendly farmer – that wasn’t our main aim, but it was a wonderful bonus. You can actually hear the difference between our farm and the neighbours. On ours you can hear birdsong, next door it’s quiet.

We experiment a lot. We grow beans that are high in protein which we let ferment and then spay over the fields we are cultivating. We had to change what we grew. We didn’t do that at first, we only had daffodils, hyacinths and lilies and sometimes a little grass.

Now, not only do we farm organically, but we also farm nature inclusively. We tolerate weeds; we give the soil time to recover by cultivating just half of our land at one time. The rest is given over to mixed green manure or it becomes a winter food field with a mixture of seeds especially for birds in the winter. Then we rotate it. It’s so much more than just working without chemicals.

Every year it gets a little better. Our harvest can now compete with conventional bulbs. That’s wonderful! And we do it without extra help or subsidies. I want this to be a serious business that can compete with the rest. I want conventional growers to look at my company and say “I want that too”

But we’re the only ones doing it. There are 25,000 hectares of bulbs in the Netherlands, 55 of which are organic. And of those 55 hectares, 33 are ours.

Every year it gets a little better. Our harvest can now compete with conventional bulbs. That’s wonderful!

Pass it on

I’m 59 now. So I’m not going to be doing this for another 20 years. If something happens to me tomorrow then the day after tomorrow, the land will return to conventional farming and there’ll be no follow-up. Then there’ll be no organic bulbs for sale. That worries me. That’s why I’m involved in knowledge transfer. We’re getting a classroom built here where we will train teachers and growers about nature-inclusive organic bulb cultivation.

I hope that in ten years’ time there will be a few young entrepreneurs here. One growing daffodils, another bulbs in pots, another vegetables all helping and supporting each other. And there’ll be chickens to eat the weeds…or robots that will remove the weeds.

We could have taken the easy route. I have 70 acres of land. We could have sold 50 and started anew somewhere else without a mortgage, on a small scale with two acres of bulbs that we cultivate by hand. But that’s not me. I need a real business. And I’m really persistent. I will make a success of it.