Flanders, famed for its medieval cities and motorways that can be seen from space, is one of the most urban corners of Europe. Yet this densely populated area is seeing a mini-boom in a new type of agriculture where farmers sell direct to consumers.
The movement, known as community-supported agriculture, is the antithesis of the sprawling global distribution chains of modern industrial food production. CSA farming means no supermarkets, no fertilisers and no monoculture.
Advocates say the most important feature is the direct link to consumers, who pay upfront and often pick the produce from the fields.
This model of farming – sometimes referred to as farm-to-fork – originated in the United States and the Netherlands, but has quickly taken off in the Belgian region of Flanders. More people are eating CSA-grown food in Belgium than in the more populous UK, according to a 2016 report by Urgenci, the international CSA network.
Since the first Flemish CSA farmer struck his spade into the soil in 2007, at least 45 similar businesses have sprung up in the region.
Koen Tierens, a plant biologist, is one of the newest on the scene. Tierens swapped his desk job as an agrarian expert for the 5.30am harvests that come with running his own vegetable farm. He has a 1.2-hectare (2.96-acre) plot in the village of Kampenhout just outside Brussels, where the rich, loamy soil is ideal for growing.
Tierens’ father, a retired farmer, was sceptical when he outlined his plans; a small holding, no fertilisers and a few old-fashioned, second-hand tools: “My father told me, ‘Koen what are you doing? You studied at university, you have a PhD! Are you going to be an ancient Belgian farmer doing how they did it in the middle ages?’”
Tierens says there is nothing primitive about his business, and stresses he is not against conventional farming or fertilisers. “The market is evolving in this [CSA] way,” he says, describing the combination of care for the environment and close connection to the customer, allied to marketing and a website that allows consumers to choose their vegetable boxes. Now in his second growing season, Tierens has 72 households paying him to grow their vegetables and hopes to increase this to 90. His father is now convinced, he says.
He grows 200 varieties of vegetable in a year – a much wider range than typical farmers. As well as the more common peas, carrots and potatoes, he grows less familiar varieties – purple cauliflowers, green zebra tomatoes, black radish, salsify and cardoon.
But Tierens does not grow Belgian endive, the most emblematic vegetable in the national cuisine. Although he farms in a region that is famed for the bitter white lettuce, he decided it would be arrogant to grow his fellow farmers’ best-known crop.
Another big difference with conventional farming is the limited use of subsidies, although he received EU funds to start his business and cover the costs of gaining organic certification.
Other things are constant – the unpredictability of the weather and early starts. Tierens works in his field every day, wearing a head torch on dark winter mornings. During the peak growing season from May to October, he works 12 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week. His customers share the risk of a storm or a bad harvest. “It would be a disaster for them as well, but the chance of that happening is not that big because I grow 200 types of vegetables,” he says.
Unlike most CSA farms in Flanders, Tierens’ customers do not pick their own vegetables. In the UK, a quarter of such farms are pick-your-own, but in Flanders, 85% fall into this category.
Belgium is an enthusiastic latecomer to CSA farming, which traces its roots to the biodynamic movement launched in the US in the 1980s. But there were other inspirations. The first known CSA farm in Europe was Les Jardins de Cocagne, an organic vegetable cooperative near Geneva founded in 1978. Japanese farmers were experimenting with similar models at around the same time.
“It is not only about the food, it is also about the community and being outside,” says Nele Lauwers, a policy adviser at the Flemish farming union Boerenbond. She belongs to a CSA cooperative near Ghent and describes harvesting days as “a weekly outdoor trip” for her children.
Demand for pick-your-own vegetables is growing among medium to high earners, she says. But price may limit its appeal. “It’s quite a different market. You have to pay in advance and it is not possible for everybody, although some CSA groups may offer social prices.”
CSA farming is therefore likely to remain marginal to food production – 0.1% of the population of Flanders are paying customers.
Land is also limited. Pepijn de Snijder, an independent expert, says would-be CSA farmers face competition from nature reserves, traditional farming, horse paddocks or city sprawl. “If we don’t change anything by 2050, 50% of the area of Flanders would be paved concrete,” he says.
The Flemish government has agreed a ban on new urban development from 2040 unless an equivalent area of land is returned to nature.
Another feature of CSA produce is that it takes longer to prepare. Vegetables arrive in customers’ kitchens with earth clinging to roots and leaves, rather than shiny and neat in plastic packaging. “Not everyone likes to bring soil into their kitchen,” says Tierens. “With me you need to invest a little bit more time, but you can taste the difference.”