Groningen’s philosophical gardener

By Valerie Scholz

An air of tranquility seems to be emanating from the man standing in front of me. His fingernails are dirt crusted and his kind eyes are filled with excitement as he introduces himself. “I’m Gijs! Founder of Haren’s self-harvesting garden.”

A fresh spring breeze carries the earthy scent of the surrounding fields. The sun is low in the sky, reflecting off the greenhouse rooftop and the large puddles, remnants of the past rainy weeks.

“You can walk over there,” Gijs advises, with a side-glance on my light pink shoes. He points to a dry path through the garden, made of wood chippings. We slowly snake our way through neatly arranged rows of farmland and past small greenhouse tents.

Gijs´ garden, in which the customers themselves harvest the ripe produce, is part of the De Biotoop community in the village of Haren. This property, once the former biological department of the University of Groningen, now comprises an area of over eight hectares of living and working space. It houses more than 300 people and 80 small businesses. “It’s a very nice place to be,” Gijs says, “people here have more or less the same mindset.”

“My own boss”

Gijs Nauta is a native of Groningen. He quickly discovered his knack for tilling and received a 3-year education at an organic farming school in Dronten, in the province of Flevoland.

Having worked at a small organic farm specialized in cultivating herbs, and later as a dairy farmer for several years, he suddenly found himself jobless in 2013.

“This is when I decided to become my own boss,” Gijs says proudly.

He entered a municipality-initiated program that aimed to help unemployed citizens become entrepreneurs. He learned how to write a business plan, do administrative work and find a suitable location for his business.

Gijs also received considerable funding. “It’s a win-win,” he explains. “I am out of social-welfare and the municipality makes a little profit off my earnings.”

The importance of self-harvesting

He then used the money to set up his self-harvesting garden. “I started sowing in January 2015,” he remembers.

Gijs set up his gardening business as a response to the shrinking appreciation for food among people. “We live in a time where everything is getting impersonal, anonymous, faster and faster,” he remarks. He thinks that the experience of buying food has been reduced to rushing through crowded isles and mindlessly throwing plastic-wrapped products into the shopping basket, before scanning and paying at self-checkout stations.

“It’s the opposite here,” Gijs smiles. “Here you can calm down.” Harvesting vegetables in the field turns food consumption into an experience for the customer. “It gives the client a lot of satisfaction to see the growing vegetables,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a long time to wash off the snails and dirt,” he laughs, “but it’s more real.”

A sixth sense for gardening

On three days of the week, Gijs gets up at 5:30 in the morning and distributes flowers for some extra income. Then he goes into the garden and works until sunset.

In his first seasons, he strictly followed a gardening guidebook, “my bible”, he says jokingly. But over time he has developed a sixth sense for his vegetables.

“Each day, I decide what I am going to do by looking at the garden,” Gijs explains. Sowing seeds, picking weeds and planting vegetables are part of his daily routine. “Today, for example, I have to plant a lot of beans!”, he gestures towards tiny plantlets stacked in the greenhouse.

Gijs plants organic vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers according to season. He regularly sends out newsletters to his customers, letting them know which vegetables are about to ripe and become ready for harvest.

A walk around the garden

More than just a customer

“This concept is very much based on trust,” Gijs says. The production process couldn’t be more transparent, because “it’s very direct from producer to consumer”.

Payment is organized on a subscription basis. Customers pay a yearly fee of 275€ in advance. “My goal was to make it available and affordable for a lot of people,” Gijs says.

Most of his customers are quite well-off, partly by virtue of the location. The village of Haren is the wealthiest area in the province of Groningen. “Most people are richer than I ever will be, I guess,” Gijs laughs.

His customer base is a diverse crowd, currently made up of 65 people. From young families with small children, for whom self-harvesting has an essential educative purpose, to elderly people, who just love to come by for a coffee and a chat.

Gijs’ customers are friends to him and his garden is his home. “We are like a community.”

The gardening community also holds regular get-togethers where the business is discussed over a nice meal and some wine.

A risky business

It was during one of these periodic meetings when some of Gijs’ customers decided to voluntarily donate 75€ on top of their regular yearly payment. “They couldn’t accept that I am working that hard and have no regular income,” Gijs says gratefully. “People care about me.”

The appreciation he receives motivates him every day. “You know what you are doing, why you are doing it and what you are doing it for,” he explains.

Still, the advanced payments, as well as the trust and care of his customers make his income more secure than that of an ordinary farmer. Agriculture is a risky business, he explains. “Weather changes or pest infestations can ruin an entire harvest.”

His colleagues, who have contracts with supermarkets, can easily go bankrupt if anything goes wrong during the season. “Of course, I always give my best, but I don’t have to worry so much about that,” Gijs says.

But Gijs has never been in this business for the profit. “I don’t have much money,” he says with a smile on his lips. He pauses to think. “But I am rich not with money, but with doing what I do – that’s my happiness.”

Nature, freedom, people

Gijs is beaming when he feels wet earth beneath his feet. Nature is his safe haven. “It brings me quietness and comfort,” he says.

He chuckles and admits that he even enjoys working in pouring rain. “In the depth of my heart I like it better on a quiet field than being in a group of loud people.”

Maybe that is the reason his volunteers call him the “philosophical gardener”.

Why does he love this job? “The nature, the freedom and the people I meet,” Gijs says.

He shields his eyes from the sun and his gaze wanders over the garden. “I never had any regrets that I started this, not a single moment,” he smiles and looks back at me. “I want to do this all my life.”