Improve the world: start a vegetable garden!

26 July 2017 - Published by Alfred Kazemier
Merlijn Albering started her shop ‘De Stadsakker’ exactly five years ago, the first urban vegetable garden shop in the Netherlands. In addition to a store that offers everything in the area of ​​vegetable gardens - right in the centre of Groningen – ‘De Stadsakker’ consists of a 2-hectare nursery. “In everything we do, our goal is to bring vegetables and fruits back to the gardens. This garden could literally be your balcony or garden, but also the hinterland of Groningen. The Stadsakker contributes to this by letting people do the work themselves: this shop is really meant for growing your own vegetables. You will have all the tools you need at your disposal to turn the vegetable garden into a success. The shop also has an educational aspect. Anyone who grows tomatoes knows this takes time, so that they taste better. This also means that a kilo of tomatoes costs more than 1 euro. We sometimes jokingly refer to our shop as our “education shop” because it has an important role in raising awareness among our customers.”

Everyone 1m2 of vegetable garden

Improve the world: start a vegetable garden! This is the Stadsakker’s mission. “Small-scale cultivation of food makes the world a better place and people are happier, says Merlijn. “I always say that if everyone in Groningen - over 200 thousand residents - would start a vegetable garden with an average area of 1m2, we would have 20 hectares of vegetable garden in the city, without us having to adapt a zoning plan. It would greatly benefit the city and the region: because of small-scale cultivation there would be much more diversity, the city's economy would improve - growing local food is more labour-intensive – and it would slow down depopulation in the countryside. We want to contribute to this with our shop and nursery. This is why our customers receive a gift every March when we have our birthday. For example, we gave away a planting calendar in the first year. We also made calendars on herbs, changing combination crops and horticultural concepts. This year, we’re republishing a booklet - dating from the war - on how to grow your own vegetables. This booklet was published in 1942 by the Nederlandse Staatcourant (The Netherlands Official Gazette). At that time everyone was growing their own vegetables and carefully dealing with seeds. Because fertilizers and pesticides were almost non-existent, people were using natural fertilizer and pest control. We consider it an important part of our business to motivate people to start their own vegetable gardens.”

Vegetable packages from the nursery

Merlijn grows vegetables at the nursery for people who don’t have a green thumb but still want to eat locally grown food. Merlijn tells us: on the outskirts of the city - on an old soccer field between high trees- we have, since 2014, 2 hectares at our disposal. Here, we grow all kinds of vegetables and create bouquets from the flower garden. We sell the vegetables separately or as a vegetable package. These customers pay in advance in March so that we can invest. I check the customers' preferences to get ideas, but I’m the one who decides what we plant. We harvest on Friday and the packages can be picked up on Friday afternoon and Saturday. I’m available at the shop during these times, which is appreciated by our customers because I can explain the little bug in the leek or why the lettuce looks great this time. Having these conversations also raises awareness.”  


Many adjacent urban farmlands

Frequent contact with customers is an important part of the corporate philosophy of the Stadsakker. Small businesses can easily anticipate customer questions and are much more flexible. “This really matters. My company has to continue to run so I do listen to my customers. I therefore believe in many adjacent urban farmlands. We can co-exist. I can serve about 200 vegetable customers. My employees and I will then have an income and provide 200 customers with locally grown food. Put an urban farmland next to it with a private clientele of 200 people who are doing something slightly different: customers who feel at home there, will go there. This is how you create diversity in supply and in shops. I also strongly believe in a local supermarket where farmers can rent a shelf and sell their products. People can then pick up their weekly local groceries in town. Selling locally produced food should be given a permanent place in the city.”

Training urban farmers

If it were up to Merlijn, the municipality could be fulfilling a more active role in terms of food policy. “We don’t have a zoning plan for urban agriculture and local farming in the city. I support the idea of motivating our residents to become more active when it comes to agriculture. The municipality is organising a competition whereby they will be searching for six urban farmers. I’m prepared to train these urban farmers in my company – they can follow an internship with me as long as there is a plan for setting up their own business - and after successful completion of the training they can start their own nursery on one of six lands designated by the municipality. In for example Leeuwenborg or Vinkhuizen or Ten Boer or any other town. This makes the training a lot more attractive. In line with this, you could consider appointing an urban farmer who represents the interests of local urban agriculture in the municipal policy.”

European regulations

As an entrepreneur, Merlijn is regularly confronted with European regulations: she feels limited in undertaking her activities. “I would like to use the vegetables that are left over to make fresh soup in my own kitchen and sell it, but I’m not allowed to do that. I think Commodities Act-representatives will visit our shop within one week. We prefer to get our products from local fellow entrepreneurs, such as De Wit Hand and garden tools from Kornhorn. When I was in Canada I noticed that farmers could sell their own products at farmers' markets. They’re allowed to sell homemade cake or bread. I can’t process my own waste products because of European legislation and I think something should be done about this.”

In conclusion

We should raise awareness on urban agriculture and the many opportunities it offers! We are celebrating five years of food policy in the city: spread the word! Show what is happening in the city and what has been achieved. Only then will this topic come to life. And I believe in doing! That’s how we started.