Marieke De Vos, flower grower, Zottegem (Belgium)
Our previous encounters have always featured women who produce our food: from cheese and dairy to meat, on the farm, out in the great open or from the saddle. Op de boerderij, of in de wildernis vanuit het zadel. But our sector provides so much more than just food: the flowers on household tablesn for example, also come from farmers. So for this encounter, we talked to Marieke De Vos, a Belgian flower grower with a unique approach.
Marieke De Vos has been running Rijk Bos Bloemen in Zottegem, between Ghent and Brussels (Belgium), since 2019. There, on her small farm, she grows organic flowers. She does so following the principles of CSA or Community Shared Agriculture, a system that is gaining popularity in Belgium. In a CSA-system, the farm is no longer only supported by the farmer, but by a whole community of participants who sign in at the beginning of the year. Via a yearly buy-in, the participants support the operation and are entitled to harvesting the farm’s products in the season. It is a principle that is becoming quite successful with vegetable growers, but is relatively new in flower cultivation. Therefore, Marieke is somewhat of a pioneer in Belgium.
An oasis of peace in the Flemish Ardennes
“Rijk Bos Bloemen is the first CSA-based flower grower in Belgium. Today, ’t Pluk Geluk in Leuven and Het Wijveld in Bloei in Ghent also joined the CSA-network, and De mAKKER from Courtrai will join next year”, Marieke explains. “Participants can come and get flowers throughout the entire blooming season, but I also offer the chance to non participants to buy flowers here. They can do this with a coupon that is only valid during the busy summer season. And so suddenly the operation is no longer carried by one individual, but by an entire community.”
Marieke rents one and a half hectares of land at a farm in Zottegem. The area where flowers are effectively grown is only 36 acres, while the rest is set up for the community that arises around her farm. “There are animals here, there is space for children to play, there is a rest area with a tent and loungers, a tunnel greenhouse and of course the compost heap, a compost toilet and also a food forest with various fruit trees and berry bushes. The idea was to create a place full of beauty and colour. A place where people can enjoy nature and some peace, and where people can meet each other.”
Rijk Bos Bloemen is located at the beginning of the Flemish Ardennes, 25-30 kilometres from Ghent, near Zottegem. Contrary to most of Flanders that tends to be flat, the region offers a sloped landscape. “We’re not far from the bigger, better known city of Ghent, but even closer to another city. And yet it is quiet here, with an old mill, the church tower and the centre of Zottegem less than 3 kilometres away. Thanks to the nearby main road, it is easily accessible. The influence of the city of Ghent trickles down to here and city dwellers are happy with this ecological initiative. And the result is that this place is full of life!”
A choice for organic agriculture
Marieke studied biology and did a Postgraduate in Sustainable Development and Human Ecology. That’s where the seed was planted. “I had an interest in sustainable agriculture, but no ambition to grow vegetables.”
Through a course at Landwijzer vzw, the specialized training centre for organic and biodynamic agriculture in Flanders that offers professional training in organic and biodynamic agriculture and learning paths for those who want to become professionally active in the organic sector, she came in contact with Fleur-Couleur in Landegem. Fleur-Couleur specializes in local and organically grown flowers for florists. Fascinated, Marieke started to work there. Very soon, she realised flowers were her thing. But something bothered her:
“A flower to me is something so pure, but then so many pesticides are used on it and they are often cultivated somewhere far away to be brought here by plane… all things that are not so healthy or good for nature. All I could think was: Is this what we want to give to the people we love: a bundle of poison? I wanted to change that.”
In March 2019, Marieke graduated from Landwijzer and got the opportunity to live on a farm in Zottegem. The following month, she launched her own business there. It was the start of Rijk Bos Bloemen.
“My father was a sales rep in corn seed, grass seed and related products and we lived in an old farmhouse on a 1 hectare piece of land, and my grandparents had cows. I used accompany my Dad all the time when he went to visit clients. Today, I might be on the opposite side of his view because he used to sell pesticides, and I resolutely wanted to go for an organic approach.”
If Marieke encounters prejudice against women in the sector, she does not necessarily feel it is a negative thing. “It feels more like a kind of admiration, a great respect for what I do as a woman. I used to have heated discussions with my Dad every now and then, but I think it’s out of a concern for me rather than a prejudice or bad intention. Agriculture is not an easy industry and as a woman, things are not always as easy physically, that is just a fact, which means I have to ask for help sometimes. However, this also means I find new ways to do things without having to use too much physical power, and those solutions are probably better for the men’s bodies as well.”
Is a woman farming alone more widely accepted because flowers are already viewed as something “feminine”, are times changing or is it a combination of the two? Whatever it is, Marieke’s experiences are positive and the biggest part of her participants are women.
The human aspect
“For me, farming is a wonderful lesson in trust: you have to learn to work with nature. You have to learn to surrender. The challenge for me in this is to not go over my limits, and to take care of myself first in order to take better care of others.”
“I think this is a trap we are all tempted to fall in when we start a new business: we get over-eager. In the first year after starting up, all I did was work. Last year I finally realized that it just wasn’t right to want to keep doing everything on my own, and added a seasonal worker. That gives me some breathing room now, so there is balance between my work and my personal life.”
“There’s this mentality in our profession that a farmer is working 24/7 and for free. I think that’s an outdated idea that needs to go. Prices for farmers must be fair, and so must the hours they work.”
For Marieke, farming and more precisely cultivating flowers, is the most beautiful profession there is. “I’m outside a lot, in touch with nature, I can nurture my ‘baby’, help it grow and choose how to put it in the world. That, to me, is freedom!”
“What I also really like about my profession is that it allows me to bring people back in touch with agriculture and nature, and introduce them to the short supply chain. I get to see how happy that makes people, and that’s what makes it all worth it to me.”
That human contact is very important to Marieke. And it’s there throughout her work, whether it’s organising workshops, meetings and festivals or when a participants comes over to get flowers while she’s working in the field. “There’s almost always someone here while I’m working, and sometimes they come over for a talk, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, the little talks become long conversations. For me, that is perhaps the most enjoyable part of my job: the encounters with my participants.”
“On my Facebook page is a picture of what it was like when I started here: I was standing alone on an empty field. Since then, I’ve taken a picture at both harvest festivals in the same spot, with all the people participating who are litteraly behind me. Taking that picture together is the highlight of the year for me and shows how wonderful community farming is!”
Tips from Marieke
When we ask Marieke if she has any tips for other women in agriculture from her point of view as a solo entrepreneur, the main thing she wants to stress is: don’t forget to put yourself first. “Make the time for yourself, that is so important. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, do it before things escalate and make sure you are surrounded by people who can catch you when you fall. And don’t forget that you are not your job. You can be other things too. You can also be a mom, a girlfriend, a woman,… Don’t be afraid to go for it, because there are always solutions to everything. You already have so much strength as a woman, other than physical strength! You can do this.”
This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2021-4. Click here for an overview of the magazines.