with Martine van Wesemael
In Zeeuws Vlaanderen, the Netherlands, in a unique landscape of mud flats and salt marshes, we find the “Mariahoeve” (“Maria Farm”). The Mariahoeve is a family business, with contracting and arable farming branches plus the cultivation of special, salt tolerant vegetables. But Martine van Wesemael’s real passion is to introduce people to farm life and to the pleasures of eating at “Op de Mariahoeve”!
Martine, can you introduce yourself?
My name is Martine van Wesemael, 63 years old, and I have been living and working in the Koningin Emmapolder for 43 years! I am married to Erik, and together we have two sons, Jean-Pierre and Julian, who both joined the company. We are therefore a real family business and specialise in four branches: arable farming, contract work, farm tourism and the cultivation of salt tolerant vegetables.
Salt tolerant vegetables?
Our farm is located on the Koningin Emmapolder, the polder closest to the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe, and in the mud flats and salt marshes we grow samphire, sea kale, “lamb ears” and salt potatoes. Marsh samphire grows naturally on salt marshes, the transition area between salt water and land, and owes its salty taste to the fact that it actively absorbs salt. Because of its pronounced salty taste, it goes well with dishes with fish and shellfish, but also with lamb.
Sea kale has also been growing in the wild since time immemorial. In the Netherlands, wild sea kale is found along the Afsluitdijk, for example. The plant has a light, salty, nutty cabbage taste and can be prepared in various ways.
“Lamsoor” or “Lamb ear” is the Zeeland name for sea aster, probably because on the one hand the leaves are ear-shaped and, on the other, they are very much appreciated by the sheep grazing the marshes. It grows on the higher parts of the salt marshes and is somewhat softer than marsh samphire.
Most fruits and vegetables will not tolerate even a pinch of salt in the ground and will die immediately. Currently tests are being carried out with various potato varieties. The salt potato tastes slightly salty and is prepared in the same way as ordinary potatoes.
All these products find their way to the better restaurants, partly thanks to my youngest son who has a real passion for cooking!
How did the farm get started?
The farm originated from our family. My husband and I are already the fourth generation, Jean-Pierre is the fifth.
What’s your role on the farm?
Everyone has their own speciality at our company. My oldest son and his father do the contract work, the youngest son takes care of administration, planning and marketing, and I have the Mariahoeve, the farm tourism branch. The Mariahoeve was born out of idealism, to help people discover the farm and the beautiful region. I wanted to offer coffee to the walkers and cyclists and I like to cook, so I decided to organize bike tours and lunches for people visiting the polder.
Although everyone has their own tasks and therefore our days are always busy, we do sit down together every day to discuss the planning. This is extremely important to me: that we continue to see each other and communicate well with each other. After all, we are a family business! You could say I’m the “glue” that holds this business together.
Is the perception towards you, as a woman on the farm, different, in your opinion?
I don’t think so. “De Mariahoeve” is mine, and the people who come here know that all too well. Everything is well divided here, everyone has their own department and that is clear to everyone, including the people who come here. Because of my tasks, I am more present on the farmstead, but that just part of the deal. My youngest son, for example, studied marketing and is passionate about food, but not so much about farming. He prefers to do the behind the scenes work over sitting on a tractor. Everyone here has his or her role.
Is there any advice you’d like to pass along?
I am a farmer’s daughter myself, and grew up on a mixed farm with cattle, pigs and an arable branch. The advice I used to get from my mother, who was a city girl herself before she married a farmer, was “sweet girl, don’t get into farming because it never stops” (laughs). When I met my husband I thought “it won’t be that bad, he doesn’t have livestock”, but I was so wrong! The contracting takes up all of his time… So the advice I’d like to give to women wanting a career in the sector is: if you want to have some free time, you’ll have to make it. If you wait for there to be less workload, you will never have a moment to yourself. Here’s how we do it: we take time off on rainy days.
What makes a woman farmer strong, in your opinion?
We’re there for everything, you know? We, and I’m only talking for my generation of women farmers, are almost always home on the farmstead. You know, our men are not exactly the communicative type. And it was worse in the generation before us. Those were the days the men were in the field all day, and those men did not communicate at all. Honestly, I see progress in my generation, but still… the men aren’t that good at talking. I think that’s where the woman on the farm has a tremendously important role. She has an overview of everything that makes the farm: home, administration, bookkeeping, fieldwork,… and she is often the one who initiates communication. With the outside world, but also within the farming family.
I also think that the agricultural women of my generation are pretty tough, but that’s just the way we were brought up. We had everything we needed and wanted, but we had to work hard for those things. And that does make us tougher.
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This article appeared in Women in Ag Magazine 2021-03. Click here to read the magazine