“I see it as my mission to bring the farm closer to the consumer.”

Mariëlle Schalk, Hoogstraten (Belgium)

Mariëlle Schalk and her family run ‘t Kakelhof in the Belgian village of Meer, near the border with the Netherlands. The farm specializes in laying hens and has a grading plant where its own eggs are graded for sale. Those eggs, along with other local produce from fellow local farmers, are offered for sale in the farm’s vending machine shop.

“Our eggs are sold to stores, restaurants, sandwich stores and bakeries,” Mariëlle says. “And now they are also offered in our vending machine shop, where customers always find seasonal and local produce from the farmers from the area. What you find in the vending machines is different every season and even every year. If the local grower does not have tomatoes, you will not be able to buy tomatoes in our shop. The focus is on short chain, local and in season.”

Local products in the vending machine shop

The first vending machine arrived back in 2007, in response to increasing customer demand for Mariëlle’s eggs. Soon, it needed to be expanded to more machines. “More and more people were coming over to buy eggs, so we made the decision to put one vending machine,” she recalls. “But that quickly gained notoriety in the neighborhood, and before we knew it, we had to expand to more vending machines. With that, we decided to add a room to the shop where customers can have a coffee and look into the barn. In 2019, twelve years after the arrival of the first vending machine, Mariëlle and her family decided to start selling other products in the vending machines.

“We have such a versatility of products in Hoogstraten that we were able to provide a nice assortment. What began with potatoes, onions, apples and pears and dairy products soon expanded to include leeks, carrots, different types of cabbages, strawberry, cherries, raspberries, cauliflower, tomatoes, pickles, asparagus, even stew! You name it, we have it in the shop. Right now there are even red beets in the vending machine!”

Raising awareness for agriculture, one hike or bike ride at a time

Mariëlle, who is very active in raising awareness for the agricultural industry in Belgium and drove to Brussels for the farmers protests on 3 March 2023, does more than run a farm and a vending machine shop. She is always looking for new ways to reconnect people with agriculture. And so, in 2020, she had another idea.

“During covid, I had the idea to map out a bicycle route along the shop producers. Participants would be able have a look behind the scenes and learn more about the products they buy here. However, due to lack of time and the cost of setting everything up, summer had passed before the route was finished,” she says. However, her idea was not lost. Her colleagues gave her the push she needed to pick it up again. “Today, this has become a leader project, meaning it is subsidized.”

Local non-profit organization “‘t Pleckske,” a collaboration of eight municipalities in the Noorderkempen region and three supra-local organizations, picked up Mariëlle’s project and decided to help her. The nonprofit, which aims to work to increase support for agriculture, horticulture and rural areas by focusing on projects, knowledge sharing and building bridges between civilians and farmers, has expanded Mariëlle’s plan to include bicycle routes through other municipalities. “The non-profit organization also hosts the ‘inside the farm days’ where fifth-grade children get the chance to visit farms from the various branches. Each farmer can tell his or her story that day, and teach children about farming.”

For those who prefer to explore the region on foot, there is the “wet boots hike”, another idea Mariëlle had during the crisis. The “wet boots hike” proposes walks through the fields surrounding the farms. “I wanted to show how beautiful nature around the farms is”, Mariëlle explains. “On the first year, we had videos the farmers had recorded in order to give the participants a look into their farms. During the second “wet boots hike”, there were cartoons explaining what happens on a modern farm.”

“This is how we try to create more support for our profession among civilians and governments: by telling and showing (about) what we do. I am convinced that people will appreciate how much knowledge and innovation our farmers and growers display.”

Sleep between the sheep

One thing is clear: Mariëlle has a hard time doing nothing. Besides her fulltime work on the farm and in the vending machine shop, and her raising awareness for agriculture, she also runs an on-farm camping business. “We have a spot were campers can stay for one day and one night. In return, they shop in our vending machine shop. We also started this during corona, in response to a request from the province because at that time Flanders did not have enough camping places.”

And the farm tourism component is expanding, since Mariëlle and her family bought the old family farm two years ago. On that location, they are busy installing new camping and lodging facilities. With this project, Mariëlle and her sister Lyn are following in the footsteps of their great-grandmother, who opened a camping location here in 1950. “When the camping spot closed, youth groups used to come and camp on the pasture across from our farm. I always really enjoyed that as a child. We did not go to camp ourselves but were still able to enjoy the atmosphere at the campfire. Our children also like that.”

“We are now providing RV sites with all the sanitary commodities. We would also like to offer campers a local breakfast in the future, with eggs of course!”

“There will also be a B&B”, Mariëlle continues. “The family farm actually used to be a camping farm. There used to be rooms for children from youth movements to sleep. We are now converting those rooms into a bed and breakfast with a view of our sheep in the old barn. The concept is called ‘sleep between the sheep’! (laughs)”

“For the people who are looking for deep silence and rest, we are also going to install speciall little houses in the forest.”

Everything she does serves a higher purpose for Mariëlle: to make the countryside and agriculture accessible to the public again and thus, hopefully, create more understanding for the industry. “This farm tourism branch gives people the opportunity to get to know every aspect of the countryside in a relaxed manner. People stay overnight on the farm, from where they head out to explore the area on educational bike rides. And during their stay, they can eat the delicious local and seasonal produce from the local farmers, sold in our vending machines.”

For Mariëlle, who also works for the local market in Hoogstraten, the decision to diversify came gradually. “We actually grew into it,” she says. And although the decision was made by the whole family, she notes that it is often the women on the farm who take the initiative to communicate and diversify. “People often underestimate or romanticize short-chain. This isn’t just selling our eggs: if you want your set-up to succeed, you really have to put in a lot of time and be active in marketing, communication and promotion. And women are often more talented in these areas, in my opinion. Men would rather just fill the machines, resolve technical issues and do the heavy lifting… (laughs)”

When it is time to fill the machines, though, the family does not rely solely on manpower. The whole family, including Mariëlle’s husband Wim and children Tren, Daan and Nienke, are involved in the work at ‘t Kakelhof and help restock the shop. And all that work pays off. “People who shop with us are more aware of the work involved in getting a product on store shelves. We always try to tell our story, and when we have to increase prices we also try to explain why. That way we try to be closer to the consumer and also sense what they want from us.”

For Mariëlle, the farm tourism part of her operation is a lot of fun. “I really like the campers because they are in a vacation mood. They are always amazed by our wide range of local and seasonal produce and come from all over! We get guests from England, Germany, France, Portugal… even famous people come to stay in our farmyard and are interested in the story behind the egg! Most of the guests who come to camp on a farm are open to agriculture and horticulture which, of course, is nice for us.”

A farmer on a mission

Mariëlle’s favorite task on the farm is starting up her young hens. “I teach them to lay eggs in the nest, perch and clear their plates. The first eggs from new hens are always a great moment!” But as a businesswoman, Mariëlle also loves negotiating with her suppliers. “Making decisions about sales is often hard, but it’s also one of those challenges that make entrepreneurship fun.” Mariëlle loves the human aspect that came with the diversification on the farm.

“I have always felt that my mission is to bring the farm closer to the consumer. From farmer to plate. Now, with all these extra activities on the farm, I can pursue my mission. That’s why I’m happy to put my time and energy into it.”

Diversification also comes with challenges, though. “Like my other colleagues in short chain, I experience the typical difficulties that come with it. For example, you have to spend a lot of time marketing your product. That requires a tremendous amount of commitment. And then, of course, there’s always people complaining when prices have to go up or a product is not available. This, too, is customer contact and it is not always easy.”

Caring for each other

Currently, every effort is being made to get the B&B and camping spots in place as soon as possible for the summer season. Diversifying takes a lot of time and energy, but Mariëlle is not alone. “My husband, brother and sister, sister-in-law and parents work with me every day to ensure the future of our farm. So we are a real family business.”

“When the camping and bike trail are ready, I hope that I’ll get a little bit of extra time for myself, even though I think I will just spend that time doing something else”, she laughs. “I just think that my being busy all the time means that I’m getting everything I can from this life. And I enjoy being busy. It gives my life meaning.”

“What I do, I see as caring for other people and that is what our society should be about. Taking care of each other and being kind for one another. The world would be so much nicer if we all had a little more appreciation for others.”

About

Mariëlle Schalk (34) grew up in Hoogstraten, in northeastern Belgium, as a farmer’s daughter. From a very young age, she knew she wanted to farm herself and joined the parental farm ‘t Kakelhof, a laying hen farm in Meer. The typical white eggs from her hybrid white Lohmann hens, which are much more efficient than the standard laying hen, are offered for sale in contrasting boxes in the farm’s vending machine shop. In addition, Mariëlle and her family are also building the tourism branch of the farm and are very active as agtivists in Belgium and the Netherlands. With bicycle and walking tours in the region as well as regular columns and a prominent online presence, she tries to raise awareness for her industry in an honest and fun way.

You can find Mariëlle:

On Twitter

On Facebook

On Instagram

 

This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2023-001. Click here to read the magazine.

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