20 November 1998

Growing onions on land his father rescued from sea

ALL farmers appreciate the hard work that previous generations have put into a family farm – all that effort is one of the reasons they like to hold onto their land. For Jac Oomen it has particular significance for he farms land that his father helped reclaim from the sea.

"All the land here was below sea level until it was reclaimed in the early 40s," explains Jac who farms at Vollenhove, which is about a 90min drive to the north-east of Amsterdam. "My father came from Brabant, from a big family on a small farm. The only opportunity he had to get land was to come to the new land, where if you worked hard you could get a farm.

"It was heavy work, canals were dug by hand and people lived in hostels. In 1950 my parents rented this 40ha farm from the government."

They were exciting times, everything was growing up new and fresh in the area. In two years his father had built the house and main outbuilding – the latter with room for two horses and a house cow – and his first child, a daughter was born. In 1954 Jac was born but tragically his father died six months later.

"My mother was the first widow in this new land, it was disaster for the farm," says Jac.

His mother was determined to stay, however, and Jacs uncle came to farm with her.

&#42 Farming partners

In 1972, after attending agricultural school, Jac started farming in partnership with his mother and they had six good and profitable years, before his mother decided to retire. Jac wanted to continue working the family farm but… "To be a farmer on government land here, you had to be married," recalls Jac, hastily adding, "but that is not the reason Mieke and I got married."

His wife Mieke came from old land and worked in an office, and she continued working off the farm until the children Paul (10) and Saskia (6) were born. Today Mieke does all the paper work for the farm business. Jac values her support and she enjoys being involved and has no plans to take an outside job.

"I joined a study group for women that teaches you to make choices for the future, once the children are off to school. It was for farm women and we met once a week for 10 weeks. A lot of women work off the farm now but I realised I am happy to be here. I dont like to say to the children I dont have time for you," says Mieke.

She has plenty to keep her busy – the farm business has grown and changed a great deal over the years. Since their marriage the Oomens have rented extra land to bring them up to 80ha (198 acres), growing onions, sugar beet, carrots, and 8ha (20 acre) of wheat to rotate with the potatoes. In 1990, a fire burnt out a cool store and kindled an idea for expansion that did not depend on buying land.

"It was a critical moment. We needed to grow our business and wanted to build a big new store. The government said it was too big an investment to make on their land.

&#42 Start all over?

"They said give us back the farm and we will give you a new farm in Flevoland but this would have meant we would have had to start all over again. We said no and put pressure on them," recalls Jac. It worked. They got permission and in 1991 built a specialist onion store with bulk capacity to hold 1500t and the direction for the future of the farm was set.

Since then the Oomens have secured a reputation for quality onions, stored to golden perfection and in June this year they completed an additional new onion store that can hold 3000t in wooden boxes. A computer in the farmhouse gives continual readings of this store, beside it another computer keeps Jac up-to-date on the weather and world prices via the internet.

"I have always said a new investment must be very good, worth 130% of the cost," says Jac who thinks he might now have the biggest farmer-owned storage in Holland. It holds about 2% of the countrys total crop and is used by both growers and traders.

"It is normal for farmers here to grow and store then sell to traders, who pack and sell."

There are about 40 traders but eight take most of the market. These professionals like farmers who have steady, high quality – "our storage is not a hospital but very like one," says Jac, who is now doing some trading himself on the export market and plans to expand this.

"The price of onions is very volatile. They are very low at the moment because Russia has problems and cant pay, so traders wont export there but for the past two years prices have been very good. We saw more farmers would grow onions this year so we had good long term contracts for 70% of the onions. We did some speculation and had good results. We couldnt speculate with it all as it is such a big risk and we want to sleep at night," says Jac, who derives 50% of farm profits from storage.

&#42 Harvest hands

The couple have always run the farm on their own, taking on men as needed for harvest. There is much more activity in the yard now and a happy bunch of local casual workers handle the crops coming in for drying and storage. .

"We are not used to working with a lot of people and are in the middle of finding a good way of doing it," says Jac, who seems to be enjoying it, nevertheless.

"Before I was just a farmer and did a lot of work with my hands, now we might take on one man permanently to give me more time for business – I am enjoying that side of it."

It has been an exciting and fulfilling year for the couple. Not only have they expanded the business but they bought the freehold to the farm in January. "There is a strong law protecting tenants here but the government wants to get rid of property so we could buy it for a very low price. We bought the buildings and house two years ago and this year we bought the soil," explains Jac, happily. "We have made a lot of investment in land and storage this year and now we are looking for stabilisation. I hope that the targets we have set, we can meet. Then that will be the limit for us or we will be too busy for the whole family to enjoy life.

"Our target is to have a good living for our children and ourselves and to keep busy with the things we are good at."

Dutch farmer Jac Oomen knows his onions and specialist

storage is the way he has chosen to grow his business on

land his father helped make. Tessa Gates visited Jac and

his family at the farm on a polder at Vollenhove

Jac Oomen, pictured here with wife Mieke and daughter Saskia, grows onions on his own land and also stores and sells onions and shallots for other farmers, handling about 2% of the

Dutch crop.