There’s rice growing in Skenderovci?!?!
There is hardly a person around Pakrac and Lipik these days that has not heard of Bart Meijer, a Dutchman we already welcomed to these pages back in 2015, when Marko Barčan, reporter and editor at the time, interviewed him. Back then, Bart was looking for a way to settle in Croatia with his family, as he was unable to find a job in his country due to being too old and not employable enough, as he described it. Totally opposite to the immigration trends at play both then and now in our country, he decided to relocate and start from scratch. In a move that required a lot of courage and effort, he sold everything he owned in Netherlands, and reinvented himself in Slavonia of all places.
Four years later one could say he succeeded in his plan. Having settled in the hamlet of Skenderovci, in the municipality of Lipik, with wife Jessica, son Bram and daughter Maria, he is growing permacultural, organic crops and is pursuing the development of some new, fresh ideas within his company, Permakultura Zlatna jutra (Golden Acres Permaculture).
According to him, the location is ideal, far from pollution and pesticides, which completely cleared any symptoms of asthma in his daughter, and allowed her to stay off any medication for her ailment only five days after settling in the area. Their arrival brought a population explosion of sorts to Skenderovci, doubling it over night as the last, 2011 census lists only four inhabitants in the village.
Although this was not my first contact with Bart (I met him earlier in town), he recently stopped by the Compass news room to let us know about some agricultural news he had, which could also be of use to others in the Lipik and Pakrac area. This led to us arranging an interview at his estate in Skenderovci, in hope of informing a wider audience of what he is doing and maybe enticing others to try the same.
A few days later I contacted Bart, and we settled on a time to meet. As the road was in poor condition, to put it mildly, and I lack an off-road vehicle fitting for the conditions, Bart gave me a lift from the memorial in Skenderovci up the winding road to his place, two kilometers away. As he drove, he explained that the road was filled and repaired less than a year ago, but the alluvial waters mercilessly demolish it again. The constant repairs his vehicles need are a major drain on his resources, as the broken down Fiat Panda parked by the road soon proved.
As soon as we arrived my host offered me home-made brandy, like a true Slavonian. He proudly pointed out it was a bit of a curiosity, saying he was certain I never tried mulberry brandy. Truth be told, I have not tried it yet, nor have I heard of anyone in the area using the fruits of that neglected, ancient tree to make brandy. Once upon a time it was called a “summer treat” by our ancestors, who also benefited from the healing effects of the syrup made from its fruit and infusions from its leaf and root bark.
There will be enough mulberry brandy to sell, as well as plum, apple and cornelian (dogwood) cherry brandy, once they start up production. The local tradition of alcohol production, as well as over a hundred fruit trees on Barts land, make this a logical decision. His orchard contains old varietals of apples and pears one cannot find for sale any more, as well as mulberry and dogwood trees, and he aims to collect more and form a nursery and a plant bank for old fruit tree varietals. The land was left to nature for years, he says his orchard turned into a “jungle”, and he spent the last year painstakingly clearing his way to the trees by hand, using a trimmer and chainsaw, or even vehicles. Many more remain to be reached. In order to speed up the process and in accordance with the ideals of permaculture, he bought sheep. They eat the bush, clearing a path deeper into the orchard day by day, while also fertilising the land. And they breed too!
This is nothing new, “Ask your grandma!” says Bart, as these are techniques our ancestors used.
The cleared bush gets ground down and used to fertilise the land, returning the nutrients to the soil, as it would be a shame to burn it away. Bart plans to use the space under the treetops in the orchard to grow other, mutually supportive crops. He intends to sow corn, which will support the growth of special Croatian corn-beans once the stalk develops, while pumpkins will grow below them, their large leafs shading the ground and blocking the growth of weeds.
The soil is healthy and free of pollution, full of life, with scarabs and Easter butterflies often seen around. Along with all the good news, there is some bad, says Bart as he points out the ailanthus trees along the road. This invasive species comes from China and is almost impossible to eradicate. This is hardly a problem for Bart, who describes himself as almost painfully persistent.
He has plans for the old house and stable that share the same plot of land with the orchard, saying that a minor investment can turn them into accommodation. This would give visitors in search of rural tourism a chance to detoxify away from modern life and technology.
Along with all that, he is currently doing some research work, which was the initial motive behind his invitation. Upon hearing where Bart came from, his next door neighbour in Skenderovci told him he was nuts, and many more may think the same when they hear Bart is currently planting and growing – rice!
Yes, rice. He is currently testing ten or so varietals. They were planted in gardens near his house less than two weeks ago, protected with an electrified fence to keep them safe from wildlife, wild boars more precisely. “The problem with germinating rice is that the soil has to have a certain level of humidity and the temperature has to be above 20 degrees Celsius, which is almost impossible here,” says Bart.
“This is why we tried two methods of germination, in the soil and just in water, with replanting afterwards. Both methods were successful and we replanted them some nine days ago. It took a while since we did it all by hand, as this is just a test after all, but they are doing great as you can see. They took root and are not easy to pull out, and they have also tripled in size since we replanted them, says Bart, describing the process while showing me strong, young plants.
The volatile weather over the past few days with strong winds and a lot of rain did not discourage the young rice plants. The old mulberry tree did not fare well, as the strong winds knocked it over, blocking the road to the other end of Barts estate.
The basic idea for this year, as far as rice is concerned, is to figure out whether these rice plants will grow at all, as these are special, upland/dry land rice varietals. With the climate changes taking shape, there is an issue of future water shortages, or floods, which would drive the need to relocate rice crops to higher elevations and highland areas.
Research into these rice varietals have been going on for two years now, ran by 22 small farmers all over the world. With Bart joining them, they are trying to ascertain the yield of each varietal and which soil suits them best. “The results have been excellent so far, I am extremely pleased with how things are going. The seed produced by just these two gardens (out of almost a dozen) will be enough to sow an acre of land.” If things go according to plan, along with the option to sell seed to hobby growers, the price of produced rice is three times that of wheat. Since it is also organically grown it has an added value in the market. If there are others interested in participating in the project they are free to join us, and I will gladly purchase anything they produce.”
It would be very interesting indeed if this area became famous for growing organic Croatian rice. The plans are very ambitious and it remains to be seen how things will turn out, as Bart reminds me this is just the start of testing and perhaps a great story for this part of Croatia.
As he shows me around, I can clearly see that Bart is fully at home here, trying to live in harmony with the nature. He is truly living the ideals of permaculture, and is trying to make full use of them in the space he has right now. One can clearly see it took a lot of effort to get things where they are now, and it will take even more going forward. This is nothing new to Bart, he worked in permaculture both as a hobby and professionally, so the knowledge is there, as well as the will and courage to embark on this journey.
After the giant leap of moving to another country, the task ahead probably seems like just a small step on the path towards his goal. May good fortune follow him on his journey, as it often favors the brave.
Author: Tomislav Ević
original article: https://compas.com.hr/clanak/1/7005/u-skenderovcima-raste-ria.html