Growing Ideas: Fruit farm opts for the city

Lisan and Wil Sturkenboom ran a fruit farm in the Dutch countryside, but wanted more variety and client contact. When they found out Amsterdam city council was looking for agricultural entrepreneurs to invest in urban land, they jumped at the chance.

Lisan and Will Sturkenboom started their their inner-city farm four years ago, naming it Fruittuin van West (‘Fruit Garden of the West’). Today, it comprises an orchard, store, and café that draw in a variety of visitors of all ages.

The 20-strong staff consists of paid employees, trainees, and volunteers. Some of the volunteers are people with psychological problems. “We're good at farming, not at playing the psychologist,” says Lisan. “But they prefer it that way. We also take on people with learning disabilities who are supervised by a self-employed professional.”

What is Fruittuin van West?

“Most of our 6.5-hectares is taken up by an orchard, where we grow 25 different kinds of fruit. Broiler chickens and laying hens roam around amongst the trees and shrubs, which ensures that the plants get natural fertilization.

“Visitors to Fruittuin van West can pick their own produce or collect eggs, they can have a cup of coffee in our café and do their grocery shopping in our organic store. We also have a meeting space that businesses can rent.

“We provide workshops as well, and we regularly have performances by musicians and theater companies. One company recently performed its play, ‘Back to the Cherry Orchard’, right here among our own cherry trees!”

What is your biggest challenge?

“Our farm is biodynamic, which means we have to meet strict standards. We’re allowed to spray with natural products, but it's even better to try to make sure that our trees are strong and resilient. Last year we had problems with codling moths, a real nuisance, and our apple harvest was poor as a result. This year we had quite a few earwigs on the cherry trees, so we took branches with earwigs on them and laid them by the apple trees in the hope that the earwigs would eat the codling moth eggs.”

“We want to be self-sufficient, but I don't know if we'll succeed”

- Lisan Sturkenboom, Fruittuin van West

What else do you have planned?

“We would like to become self-sufficient, but I’m not sure if we'll succeed. We've already come a long way. In winter, the floors of our building are partially warmed by heat recovered from the motors of our refrigeration units and from our compost. And we have our own water source. At some stage, we also want to purchase solar panels.

“When we started here, it was just pasture land, but this year we hope to make a profit for the first time. The winter is always a difficult period for us. That's why we grow endives and shiitake mushrooms, so that our visitors can also come and harvest produce in the winter. We run cheese-making workshops and all sorts of activities to make it appealing for people to come. People often have no idea how lovely it is here in the winter.”

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

“We had no prior experience of setting up a store or cafe. We thought, we'll do it ourselves using common sense, but we underestimated how difficult it would be. Maybe we should have brought in an old hand to help us out from the very beginning. And yet I think that if we were to do it again, we would still do it all ourselves. That has to do with keeping down costs, but also with our hardheadedness as entrepreneurs!”