Growing Ideas: From anonymous milk to “product with a story”

A family farm makes a clever shift

The Den Eelder family farm suffered the fate of many dairy businesses in the 1980s after a quota capped milk production across Europe. Den Eelder was able to turn things around thanks to a unique product range with an authentic story.

Willem van der Schans and his brother Gerben are the third generation working the family farm Den Eelder, which their parents took over from their grandparents in the early 1980s. Construction on a new barn had just been completed in 1983 when the European dairy quota was introduced. “The quotas put our parents’ plans for the future into a very different perspective,” says Van der Schans. “They have always been in favor of enhancing quality and the quota was the nudge they needed to start manufacturing dairy products themselves.”

Churning out unique products

Since 1990 Den Eelder has made their own dairy products on the farm. Because the quota restricted the production of cheese, cream, butter and milk, they decided to focus on products that fell outside of that range. Van der Schans explains, “By opting for buttermilk, yogurt and dessert products like vanilla custard, we were able to get round the milk quota.”

This transition from dairy farmer to dairy producer had far-reaching consequences for the business. To stand out, the family saw two options: either shift to mass production or create a quality product with prices to match. Van der Schans says, “We quickly decided to go for quality.”

Creating an independent brand

Den Eelder’s ambition to create an independent brand was a daring step, particularly in the early 90s. It’s hard to imagine when standing before supermarket shelves filled with today’s sprawling selection of dairy products, but back in those days the range was quite limited. According to Van der Schans, his parents’ unwavering belief was that if you deliver a quality product you won’t need to compete on price.

The family had never developed and built a brand before, but the project aligned with their ideas of self-reliance and autonomy.

The story behind the product

Halfway through the nineties, which saw an increasingly demanding market with many new products introduced, the family began to realize that simply making a quality product was not enough. “We started to talk about the origin of our products and gave the family-run business and packaging an overhaul,” recalls Van der Schans, adding that the zeitgeist was also on their side. The largest Dutch dairy producer had just introduced the evocative ‘Boerenland’ (‘Farmer Land’) line. Consumers caught on to the distinction which generated a demand for something ‘extra.’ Van der Schans says, “Nowadays shoppers want the story behind the product – what it is, where it came from and how it was made.”

“Nowadays shoppers want the story behind the product”

- Willem van der Schans, Den Eelder

Generating energy

Den Eelder presents itself as an independent brand of quality products strongly focused on animal welfare and the environment. Although creating a good product is still their first priority, Van der Schalk says that they take steps each year to make the business more environmentally friendly. Three-quarters of the electricity they need is generated on the farm itself. In fact, everything is done at or around the farm, from the process of turning milk into a wide selection of products to the packaging.

Den Eelder’s success as an independent dairy brand is partly thanks to foresight and perseverance and partly to the luck of a changing market. Van der Schans concludes: “The trend among consumers has transformed in recent years. Where people used to want food from far flung shores, they now prefer the familiarity of local produce.”

This interview is part of the Growing Ideas series, in which we take a look at the future of food and agriculture and offer a platform to innovative companies in the sector.