Rebel with a Cause
Most of Local Green’s suppliers are open farms, places where you wouldn’t be out of place showing up in your dungarees, with dirt on your hands and mud on your boots. Bore Place is a special farm where you might want to spiff up a bit before a visit. Located in the Kentish countryside, their offerings extend well beyond farming to stays in a historic manor house, glamping in yurts, artisanal basket weaving, hosting wedding parties and yoga retreats, even art courses and mentorship schemes are well within their wheelhouse. Such a unique venue required a unique personality to oversee its organic garden. Enter, Metske van der Laan – a Dutch farmer who never had England in his plans at the start of his career. Metske has an incredibly adventurous past, and a wealth of experience to share.
Local Greens: How did you come to work at Bore Place?
Metske van der Laan: I joined the Bore Place team in November 2017 as the Organic Market Gardener. I have been working in the world of organic vegetables all my life. I started by cooking with veg in a vegan restaurant and later moved on to becoming a market trader in organic fruit and veg in the Netherlands for 10 years. By doing courses and placements, I acquired the skills to grow, and I found work in the south of England as a head grower for two seasons. In 2005, I rented a farm near Hastings and I have been growing organic vegetables since then. Bore Place has offered me the opportunity to mold the market garden into a commercially viable business, and I also get to offer young adults facing challenges a place to grow and learn.
LG: Bore Place is an unusual setting for growing veg. What is the story behind it?
MvdL: At its heart, it’s a charity. The site dates back to the 1300s and the main buildings to the Tudor period. The current business was founded by Neil Waits in the 1970s. He came from an established building and construction family, and back then they wanted to expand into South Africa. He didn’t want to get involved with the politics and policies of that country in that time, so he fell out with the family company. They bought him out and he started travelling. He came back to England and wanted to lead a different life so he bought the place and started a dairy farm and Commonwork Land Trust. The farm was ahead of its time, making clay bricks from excavated land, looking into solar energy in its early days.
LG: How is the farm involved in philanthropic work?
MvdL: The charity, Grow to Grow, plays a role in the life of young adults with social difficulties, mental health issues, maybe they’re school dropouts. It’s a place to offer them opportunity and education. They can try farm work and learn essential skills. Many of these young people have not excelled in traditional education, so they have no qualifications and their job prospects are bleak. By participating in our program, we aim to give them a better shot at that first job. We show them what the countryside has to offer, not just the farm but the woodsman looking after woodland, wilderness, all the products we make from the land. It can give them a different outlook on their situation. I’m looking into setting up a new project with Kent County Council that would create a direct program to offer proper skills in farming.
We also host a lot of school groups. Kids complain that the farm has bad WiFi. They come over to see the facilities and animals. We share how food is produced and show them that there is a different side to food production than McDonalds!
LG: Going back to your background, what was life like growing up in Holland?
MvdL: I grew up on a farm in Holland. When I was younger, I couldn’t see myself doing farming. I was a rebel, an activist. I became a squatter, living in abandoned homes and industrial buildings. We were constantly dealing with police evictions. I started working in a vegan café on the squat, and I cooked with organic produce for people with low income. I got to know the local, small market gardeners, and my contacts grew, and soon I started working on the market farms. I picked veg for growers in the area, and became a market trader. I was making more money as the middle man than the farmers were making. This became a dilemma for me. If I wanted to do the honest thing, I should start growing too. So I started training in biodynamic agriculture, and came over to the UK in 2002.
LG: Why the UK and not somewhere else in Europe?
MvdL: Well, I said to myself, “I’ll farm in France because it’s cheap.” I had friends there too, but my deal fell through. I looked at the Soil Association and found a job in Canterbury. It was easy to find work in England. I just kept finding jobs here, and I guess I got “stuck” here!
LG: What happened with your farm in Hastings?
MvdL: I was a tenant farmer for 12 years, and one year, my lease was not renewed. What turmoil I was in. It was a shock. You build up the land and relationships, and suddenly the owner of the land takes away your livelihood because someone decides they want to do something else. The owner applied for planning permission to build new homes. In the end, that didn’t happen. It’s not about value; it’s about money for some people, and it’s sad to see the countryside full of people with money but no connection to the land. If you don’t have the means to buy land, you’re “in with the wolves,” as we say in Dutch. Legislation in the UK was once that if you farmed, it was near impossible to evict you, but legal changes have not been in favour of the farmer. Security is not the same here. In Holland, my parents were tenant farmers, and you’re on the farm for life there, unless the owner decides to farm himself. Even then, it would take 7-10 years to get a farmer off the land. Security is much better in Holland.
LG: What a frustrating experience. Yet, it brought you where you are today, which must be a silver lining?
MvdL: Definitely. Bore Place gives me a better opportunity to do the same work. The charity is a more secure landlord, and they are committed to the environment. It’s a win-win. I look after six acres of land here, and I can focus and think about how to feed people. It’s a lifestyle choice to do this. I’m sad to say the average age of a farmer is 55 years old. We’re a bunch of old farts. More young, organic growers would be great, and people need to be motivators to achieve this. If your customers want to get involved, they are welcome to come visit the farm, volunteer, stay over. There’s a lot we offer.
LG: How has working with the Better Food Shed helped you?
MvdL: I think they’re amazing. They are all hardcore, organic farmers or traders. They enable me to step up a little bit and reach an enormous number of people who want a veg box in London. They really look after their growers. You won’t find that in conventional growing. Relationships are very special in the organic scene. You know each other by name and have a chat; you look each other in the eye and do a deal that works for everyone. We all need to make profit, and I don’t mind if you put a mark up on the veg to make it work. But you pay a decent price, and we have the benefit of mutual trading. When I was a market trader in Holland, there was an old man in his 60s who should have retired, but he couldn’t of course. We would have coffee together after loading the van, and he gave me some wisdom. He said, ‘If you do well, I can do well too.” That was really important for him to have a relationship that was not a one-way street. In the Better Food Shed world, you don’t need to squeeze the growers.
LG: So you’re a European, living in the UK…Brexit?
MvdL: It’s really difficult. I’m a “lefty,” and I cannot see anything worse than the Tories opening the doors for deals we don’t need or want. That will have massive effects on our agriculture. It is going to head the way of genetic manipulation. Will it be possible for us to grow organic sweet corn if there is GM sweet corn in the field next to us? Fingers crossed. The Tories may not always be in power, but right now the UK is taking a step back. We only have one world and we need to take care of it. The best thing you can do is do what you think is good.
LG: Finally, do you have any advice for young activists today?
MvdL: It’s amazing they have the energy to change the world. When I was young and an activist, I was always against everything. Now, as a grower, I’m in favour of some things. I think back at why did we not connect with some people? We were middle class kids, with this desire to be working class, and that doesn’t work. There is something not right about it, but we had this belief that the working class would change the world. I would say, try to connect with everybody in some kind of way. How do you do this? If I knew that I would still be out there squatting. In the end, we became disillusioned when it wasn’t working, but we had the same sort of problems in our communities then as exist now. We should acknowledge that we’re not better than other communities, acknowledge that we’re all a bit wrong, we’re all a bit “-ist” sometimes.
Learn more about all of the activities Bore Place has to offer and how to get involved with their many programmes: https://www.boreplace.org/