Zef Soogelee proves: nature-friendly farming is also smart farming

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3 February 2021

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It is impossible to drive past the Hemels Vlees location: the wooden house where Zef and partner Ingrid Vreke live and the open stable are real eye-catchers along the fields of Ransdaal. It suits the owner: Zef Soogelee is someone who likes to do things differently. Nature and landscape are important values in the production and sale of his Christmas trees and beef. And the pleasure radiates when he talks about it.

It started with his parents' old farm, converted into accommodation for groups. But Soogelee's heart is not in tourism and recreation. "Tourism is very fleeting, people are there for a while, consume all kinds of things and away they go again. Nowadays you see many farmers expanding their business, but I wanted to return to agriculture. You can make a great living with a small business, as long as you start marketing your own end product. It takes years to get to a finished product, but if you add 3 weeks to sell it yourself, you have a much better margin." Soogelee has about 70 cows and about 70,000 Christmas trees. Last year he managed to sell the meat of about 20 cows and about 5,000 Christmas trees were sold. It gives him a turnover of € 15,000 per hectare, a dream for many farmers.

Nature-inclusive farming, according to the customer's wishes

Soogelee loves nature and the landscape and focuses on consumers who think that is important too. Because fair is fair: the consumer decides. "I discovered that more and more consumers have an eye for nature-inclusive farming and animal welfare. They want the cows to walk outside as much as possible and not to eat soy. That's why I built an open barn where the cows can bridge the height difference between yard and pasture via a staircase. The cows get beer malt from the Brand brewery, corn and barley from farmers in the village and rapeseed meal instead of soy. I want to keep the chain very simple and orderly." Soogelee also goes for the conscious consumer when growing his Christmas trees. "I put in sheep that eat the weeds around the trees instead of having to spray. That's how I'm going more and more in the ecological direction."

"With a small business you can make a great living"

Small business is freedom

Soogelee consciously chooses the freedom of small-scale farming and business. "Not laws and regulations are the framework, the customer is the framework! The whole nitrogen discussion does not interest me, because I work with small numbers. I therefore have the flexibility to adapt quickly to changing consumer needs. A farmer with 300 cows who is still paying off his barn for years does not have that luxury. But of course I don't only look at the consumer, but also at what suits me. For example, I definitely don't want a farm store. I want to be free to go where and when I want. People can call half an hour in advance if they want to pick up the meat. Usually they can just do that."

Learning from customers and colleagues

Soogelee sells his meat packages of 5, 10 and 20 kilos not only in the region, but also delivers 6 weekends a year in the Randstad. The contact with people is something that makes Soogelee very happy. "When I have driven around for a weekend to deliver our meat packages to people, I am a happy person. The conversations and the appreciation, that's what gives me energy. And I already enjoyed marketing when I was still studying at the HAS. Building a network, getting publicity, finding the right channels: you are constantly learning and you see your turnover grow! But marketing is also difficult and expensive. I recommend everyone to join an entrepreneurial club where you can learn from others. For example, I have learned a lot from other Christmas tree growers around the country and have been able to double my sales with them. I also enjoy passing on that knowledge to others and sparring with colleagues. I recently advised a cherry farmer in the neighbourhood to place a few large signs along access roads. We get a lot of customers with it and it's a relatively inexpensive means." Hemels Vlees continues to be marketed primarily online through its website, with newsletters to regular customers and Google ads. "The online marketing I outsource, that's really a trade. I learned that too: you shouldn't want to do everything yourself."

"I doubled my turnover by learning from other entrepreneurs"


Soogelee dares to claim that his farm makes an indispensable contribution to the flora, fauna and landscape. "If you can operate on a small scale, more biodiversity is created. The animals run outside and develop into strong, healthy animals. This way of working also creates more interaction between farmer and consumer. We are never finished and continue to develop. We are now going to plant more trees that fit into the original landscape. You don't need a subsidy for that if you see it as part of your business. I see it as an investment that you finance with the sale of your products. I think you should try to do things right and beautiful. People also often think that this house and stable are enormously expensive. But it's not expensive at all. We have done a lot ourselves and now even live and work energy-neutral. The other stable is still made of iron, but we're going to replace that with a wooden version as well, to match the rest."

The home of Zef Soogelee and partner Ingrid Vreke


Also Soogelee sometimes wonders how to proceed with his business. "You know, it's all in your head. When Hornbach started with Christmas trees, my first thought was: I can pack, then there's no market for me anymore. But then I realized: Hornbach asks € 40 for a Christmas tree, so that's my starting price, because I offer more species that are grown in a more nature-friendly way. And again we make people so happy! Choosing the tree, waffles and mulled wine with it, that makes it something unique. The same goes for the beef. You might think: there are more and more vegetarians, is there still a market for my meat? But Hemels Vlees is not just any meat, it is quality meat from animals that are well cared for and have had plenty of space and exercise. People are happy to drive a detour for that. If you change your mindset, you can achieve so much more. So I'm also not afraid of anyone copying what I do. You learn from each other, but you still do what suits you and your business. On the contrary, I think that we as farmers in South Limburg should work together and can string a chain of South Limburg pearls. If we bring each other to the attention, we will all benefit."

"I'm not afraid of anyone copying what I do."

Marry product search

In the meantime, Soogelee has passed 60 and is slowly looking forward to a successor. "I have about 4,000 customers for the Christmas trees and about 1,500 buyers for my meat. So whoever takes over will get a flying start. In the meantime, we continue to develop; I still have all kinds of ideas. The new wooden shed will be connected to the other one. Christmas trees can be sold on the pointed roof, so it will temporarily become a real Christmas barn. I can totally see it! Soogelee encourages young farmers who have doubts about the future of agriculture. "I would do it again in a minute. The variation, the freedom, being outside in nature, the happy customers, playing with your business: it's the best thing there is. As long as you stay away from low-margin products, where the customer determines what you get. That takes all the air and flexibility away from the farmer. Education should also pay more attention to this: instead of making students cost-conscious, they should make them yield-conscious. I advise farmers to look for a high-margin product that makes them happy. Really: there is still so much to discover and marvel at!"

The 7 entrepreneurial tips of Zef Soogelee

  1. Go for direct sales to consumers and invest in your own marketing and sales, then you can generate much better margins.
  2. Nature and landscape are not cost items, but are important added value to your product. So invest in them yourself and dare to ask an appropriate price.
  3. Think carefully about what type of consumer and what way of working suits you and design your business accordingly.
  4. Spend time on learning from other entrepreneurs, you will always earn back double.
  5. Call in specialists where necessary, you don't have to be able to do everything yourself.
  6. Change your mindset: don't be afraid of competition, but look at what you can learn from it and then put your own spin on it.
  7. Choose a margin product, that way you retain your independence and freedom.

For more information or to contact Zef Soogelee: www.hemelsvlees.nl