Interview: alumnus Zef Soogelee has worked on his own short marketing chain for 40 years
For a number of years now I have regularly ordered beef boxes from Hemels Vlees, Zef Soogelee’s farm in Ransdaal, Limburg. Zef graduated from the HAS University of Applied Sciences in the ‘80s and when I heard about him through a colleague, I immediately wanted to taste his meat. He now drives up to the house a few times a year in a white van and wearing clogs to deliver a deep-frozen meat box that keeps me going for quite a while.
The meat isn’t organic, but it’s close and it’s very good quality. Even more importantly, it’s delicious! Zef is proud of the 75 cows and bulls grazing in the fields around his energy-neutral wooden house and it was high time I went to see them with my own eyes.
The weather is beautiful when I arrive at Zef’s farm and we sit outside on the patio. There we have unobstructed views of the mixed herd of cows and bulls in the undulating fields. This is quite exceptional in itself. On most farms the bulls are not allowed to graze outside as they are difficult to handle. The herd moves continuously, further away at first, later right in front of us. The wonderful mixture of colours is provided by the mottled coats of the Belgian Blue cattle. In the distance, the area that Zef uses to grow Christmas trees is visible; he has about 65,000 Christmas trees - Nordmann, Korean, Nobilis, Blue spruce, Serbian spruce, Subalpine fir and the common pine - a portion of which he sells from home each year. He also runs group accommodation on the farm itself. Zef likes to keep the marketing chain short and has done so for 40 years. He has built up a large customer base from scratch and does everything himself.
40 years may seem long, but your family has farmed here for over 100 years. How did your parents start the business?
“We had a small mixed farm and the way my parents farmed was pretty unique at the time. While other farmers started producing on an increasingly larger scale, my parents kept the farm relatively small. This wasn’t only because of what they believed, but also because of my brother who has a mental handicap. They always based their decisions on what was best for him. He still lives here and so does my sister, but they don’t work on the farm.”
Did you always know you’d take over the business?
“Not necessarily. When I went to the HAS in Den Bosch, nothing had been decided. After getting my diploma, I didn’t go straight back to Ransdaal, but stayed in Den Bosch for another three years. I lived in the Clara nunnery which was then a squat. The council wanted to turn it into new houses, but we residents didn’t agree, of course. At one point I was even part of the building committee which was involved in plans for the renovation project. When that was over I returned to Limburg. Unemployment was high and the interest rates were too, so it was a good time to join the business.”
HAS much changed since then?
“When I started, the business was very small, but because I had been a squatter I knew how to live frugally and it wasn’t a problem. I let the business grow naturally based on what the sales brought in and slowly built it up to what it is now. I started with the group accommodation first and took over the agricultural side later. My parents were totally uninterested in money and didn’t mind whether the business grew or not, but I was very proud that it did. I’ve always done everything myself which is pretty intensive. Not only do I look after the animals and the trees, but I also manage the websites for the three branches of the business and all the associated marketing. I only get in someone else to clean the accommodation and around Christmas someone comes to help me sell the trees. Otherwise I drive around the Netherlands about five times a year to deliver the meat boxes. The slaughtering is done in the abattoir, but I do all the other processing myself.”
You don’t work totally organically, but nearly. Why?
“That’s because I don’t do everything exactly according to the organic rules, but as naturally and sustainably as possible. A relatively high number of calves are born by Caesarean section with our breed of cows. We are trying to reduce this, but it takes time. I could switch to a different breed, but my father already had this breed and it belongs to our family history. I wouldn’t want to change just like that. Also, I usually treat my trees for aphids once a year with as responsible an insecticide as possible. It isn’t organic, but compare my trees to the Christmas trees sold by the Ikea down the road - they’re full of rubbish. I try to farm by including nature, with the neighbour’s sheep eating the weeds around the Christmas trees, for example.”
How do you look back on your time as a student?
“I was not an easy student, that’s for sure. Many of the lessons were not compulsory then and I often didn’t show up. I regularly missed the first lesson because the baker hadn’t opened yet - I needed an apple turnover or a Bossche bol (a large profiterole) for breakfast first. As long as you got good enough marks, everything was fine. The HAS diploma was the first diploma I ever got; before that I’d done three years each of middle and higher-level secondary education. I don’t even have a swimming proficiency diploma. That was why the HAS said I had to take swimming lessons during my time there. I never took the final test, though. I was an active student: I sat on numerous HAS committees, was chairman of the student council and was a member of both the university and the agriculture councils. As a member of the Gremio Unio student association, I was on the introduction committee and the board. The union building was one of the few places in the city where you could drink until the early hours. I made good use of that fact and I learned a lot. I did the most commercially-oriented course and was ambitious and curious to learn how to tempt people to buy your product. If you were active, as I was, the lecturers and board of directors would turn a blind eye as long as you showed involvement and passion. I think that’s still one of the strengths of the HAS.”
How do you see the future?
“I’d like to become organic. That’s the highest attainable certification available and the most nature-inclusive. I’m past 60 and I don’t have a successor yet, but I’m not thinking of stopping because I enjoy it so much. I am aware, however, that if I want the business to continue, I’ll have to organise that within the next five years. You need that much time to hand over a business like this. So, who knows, maybe a suitable HAS graduate will turn up. I’d like that very much.”