Young Dutch Farmers with Smarts take on potato farming in Slovakia

Rick Schutter

Rick de Schutter

January 18, 2024

A non-certified biogas installation. Staff who turn to the previous owner with their problems. An adventure wouldn’t be an adventure without a few obstacles along the way — and the same applies to the adventure young Groninger farmers Rick and Thijs de Schutter currently find themselves on in Slovakia, a country that remains off the beaten track to many in the Netherlands. "This country has surprised them in a good way."

"Slovakia? What are you hoping to find there?", was the question nearly everyone asked Rick de Schutter and his brother Thijs, both from Kloosterburen in the north of the province of Groningen, when they started spreading the news about their plans to emigrate. To many, this country remains uncharted territory. Some in the Netherlands even have the idea that things are still done by horse and cart there.

Rick de Schutter:

"Once you explain you’re just an hour away from Vienna, three hours from Prague, and just a thirty-minute drive from the capital, Bratislava, people soon start coming round."

It might just be because Slovakia is perhaps a little off the tourist trail — about forty percent of the country is forest. The brothers do occasionally spot the odd Dutch campervan drive by, but neighbouring countries like the Czech Republic and Austria remain much more popular as holiday destinations, whether for winter sports or otherwise.

Sure, opportunities are limited in the Netherlands. But why Slovakia?

Thijs de Schutter:

"Both of us wanted to change track, and we wanted to do so together. The Netherlands offers limited opportunities, unless your onions make you 40 cents a kilo year after year."

On the family farm in the north of Groningen, the brothers produced ware potatoes for the table and French fry market together with their father Frans, through HZPC.

Thijs de Schutter

Thijs de Schutter

Rick de Schutter:

"Sure, we may have been able to expand our father’s arable farm, but land is pricy in the Netherlands. And aside from that, we’re not ones to shy away from an adventure."

With that in mind, the brothers explored Denmark as an option, but they soon came across adverts for farms for sale in Slovakia in Interfarms magazine.

A great time to get on board

Rick de Schutter:

"One day, we just got in the car and started driving, not knowing what kind of world we were going to end up in. But Slovakia took them by surprise."

"The people were decent, and nearby operations included a major vegetable farm, as well as Lamb Weston and McCain: two major processors who can’t get enough of the Innovator, but who are largely dependent on imports. In other words: there was potential here."

"We saw with our own eyes how the boundary of what was once Western Europe is shifting ever-further east: more prosperity, more industry. Now is a great time to get on board."

That being the case, it took another six months before the brothers found a suitable spot.

Rick de Schutter:

"In some instances, the owners suddenly backed out of the sale. And we also wanted an irrigation system."

The latter aspect was crucial because the brothers were adamant they wanted to grow potatoes, even though wheat is the main crop in Slovakia. Due to the local climate — with its long periods of dry weather — an irrigation system was indispensable for their purposes.

They eventually found a farm with 1,200 hectares of land, of which they were able to irrigate 1,000 hectares using four pivots and more than twenty reels. That might seem like a large amount of land, but here in Slovakia, it actually leaves them as one of the smaller farms.

The downsides of a family business

An undertaking of that size is simply too large for two pairs of hands to manage.

Thijs de Schutter:

"We took on a total of 36 staff as part of the takeover, all of whom had been doing their thing here for many years, and all of whom had close connections with the previous owner — family connections, even."

Rick de Schutter:

"The owner’s sister handled the farm’s administration, for example, and his nephew was ‘good with computers’. But because they kept going back to the previous owner with any problems, getting a grip on our new business proved quite tricky."

Rick de Schutter:

"The first time we shut down a machine in the middle of the field, the Slovakians couldn’t believe what they were seeing. As time went by, people got used to the fact that we like to get involved: now, they’re only happy when we’re happy. Even so, we had to say goodbye to some of the staff, but that has left us with a fresh new team who come straight to us with any problems."

Sat on a stool

Thijs de Schutter:

"On the other hand, people needed to get used to us as well. The previous owner was something of an authoritarian, for example."

"When we went out with him, he felt that he deserved nothing less than to sit in a luxury armchair while being plied with sweets, while we were sat on simple stools, just watching him. Our staff were also utterly bewildered when we started driving the tractor ourselves, as the previous owner never really set foot outside of his office."

Before venturing out east, people were quick to offer Rick and Thijs advice, with the best intentions: 'Before you do anything, see how they go about things themselves.' But the longer the brothers did exactly that, the more frustrated they became.

The reason, according to Rick, is that they saw so many things done wrong: 'People here just hopped on a tractor, switched on the ignition, and headed out onto the fields. If they didn’t get it quite right today because the machine wasn’t calibrated correctly, well, tomorrow was another day.'

Thijs de Schutter:

"In the Netherlands, we’re not used to that attitude: here, our staff genuinely care about the work they do. We don’t need to ask people at four o’clock to come back at nine o’clock in the evening, because that’s the ideal time to sprinkle the fields."

"So we started doing things ourselves. And to be honest, we really didn’t mind, as that way, we got to stay in touch with what was happening on the land."

Couldn't stand by and watch any longer

One day, the brothers felt they couldn’t stand by and watch any longer.

The biogas ordeal

When asked about the biggest obstacle the brothers have faced to date.

Thijs de Schutter:

"That would be the biogas ordeal... In February, fertiliser was spread using biogas — something that isn’t permitted. Someone reported the brothers, and the food safety authority paid them a visit. It was winter, and everything was wet and soggy. The place looked in an absolute state. They said they would return in summer, but when they did, they arrived in the morning after the only night in July in which we had rain."

"And not just a little rain: more than 20 mm. On top of that, the pump had broken down. Everything was underwater — water that had turned brown due to the maize and other residue floating around in it."

"The inspectors saw the broken and leaky components and made themselves extremely clear: the installation would have to be certified all over again. They would be back in a month to check. I’ve got to say, that really took us aback for a moment."

Rick de Schutter:

"If this had happened in the Netherlands, we would have known instantly who to call for help. But here, we didn’t have a clue, and what’s more, we hadn’t quite mastered the language yet."

The wrong colour stamp

When it came to putting things right, the young brothers from Groningen weren’t quite sure where to start.

Thijs de Schutter:

"We didn’t have anything to go on. The only thing we knew was that the biogas plant was built ten years ago. Other than that, we had no information, no drawings, nothing. Sure, plenty of people do want to help, but they always expect something in return..."

"Other times, you’re entirely dependent on a single person to complete a certain step in the process, and that person just happens to be off sick, permanently. Or a black stamp isn’t quite right, and you need to travel all the way into town to get a red one..."

Fortunately, the brothers can see the funny side of all this bureaucracy.

One hectare, one hundred leaseholders

Thijs de Schutter:

"We’re currently operating with 20 staff. We’ve got an irrigation team, two people to operate the biogas plant, and one person who deals with land lease contracts, full-time. During the communist era, the land was redistributed among the country’s citizens. And that has produced a situation in which a single hectare of land can actually be owned by a hundred different people. In some cases, someone owns as little as one square metre. You can imagine the sheer volume of paperwork this involves."

Once again, the brothers decided to take a pragmatic approach to this issue.

Rick de Schutter:

"We actually don’t mind, as it means you’re not entirely dependent on a single landowner. If one person decides they no longer want to lease their land to us, there’s plenty left over."

People are starting to take notice

Rick de Schutter:

"The diet here is pretty pork-heavy."

Another thing they miss is the ability to hop on their bike in the evening to go share a beer with their friends.

But what do they think is the biggest difference between the Netherlands and Slovakia?

Rick de Schutter:

"It’s only once you’re here that you realise just how advanced the Netherlands is when it comes to agriculture. The local vegetable farmer, for example, runs every aspect of his business using Dutch technology and Dutch growing advice."

Thijs de Schutter:

"Relax! It’s OK to take your foot off the pedal a little every now and then.” On the other hand, the brothers are quick to add that the Dutch mindset might just be one of the reasons why the Netherlands is so far ahead of the pack."

Rick de Schutter:

"But when do we say enough is enough? Knowing when to be satisfied is an art in itself."

In the meantime, the brothers simply keep doing what they do best: farming, the smart way. And people in the region are starting to take notice.

Thijs de Schutter:

"One of the main things we’re proud of is our onions. As part of the takeover, we got our hands on a good onion planter. And alongside our wheat, beets, maize and potatoes, we’ve now started growing onions on a five-hectare test field. We had one in the Netherlands, but in Slovakia, they’re not that common a sight."

The onions are thriving — and they’re caught the eye of a major vegetable grower nearby. “Those Dutch whippersnappers sure know their onions.

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