Joost Pennings Joost Pennings

Part-time farming with an ancient family recipe

Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Wednesday, 15 February 2012 09:10

This was an excellent year for farmer Joost Pennings. His sugar beet harvest alone weighed many millions of kilos. “And they’re perfect: hardly any lateral roots and you can really see the sugar in them.” A part-time farmer and professor of Marketing and Finance at Maastricht University (UM), Pennings comes from a long line of farmers who have worked the land since the 14th century. He is passionate about continuing the family tradition.

The Pennings’ family farm lies on the plateau just outside the town centre of Doenrade. Joost Pennings was born and raised there, but now lives with his wife and three children in Lanaken. One day, they plan to move back to the farm, where his parents still live and work. That process is a gradual one. For now, he shares the practical side of running the farm with his father. “As a commercial farm we grow corn, wheat, barley and sugar beets for large multinationals. This means we try to stay as efficient as possible by producing the largest possible yield at the lowest possible costs. The tragedy of the agriculture business is that it requires huge amounts of capital but only produces small returns. You have a lot of assets, but they’re all in the ground, which results in relatively small profits. From a purely economic perspective I’d have to say: ‘Sell it all, put the money in the bank and even with today’s low interest rates you’d still earn more.’ So you really need to have a passion for this business.”


As a boy, Pennings knew he would eventually take over his parents’ farm, but he also had other ambitions. “I wanted to be an opera singer, but my voice wasn’t good enough. If it had been, I might have been a part-time farmer and opera singer instead. My father always gave me the freedom to choose my own path; he thought I should do something I enjoyed.”

Pennings eventually settled on agricultural economics in Wageningen, and graduated from there with his PhD. He then spent ten years as a professor at the University of Illinois, in the US. “It was a fantastic time. America is the absolute mecca of science and agriculture. Everything happens on a much bigger scale there. The University of Illinois even has its own airport.”

But he came home, because farming is in his blood. Four years ago, Pennings was appointed part-time professor of Marketing and Finance in Maastricht, and also works as an extraordinary professor at Wageningen University. So how does the scientist relate to the farmer in him? “I love them both. I really enjoy the peace, nature and freedom of the farming lifestyle. But after my rounds in the fields, I’m happy to head to the university to teach a class and sit behind the computer with my financial-economic formulas. As a scientist, my work revolves around the agribusiness and food sector. So when it comes to designing research models and interpreting results, my knowledge of primary production and the Brussels regulations comes in handy.”

Hamster fields

To survive as a farmer, according to Pennings, you must be an all-round entrepreneur and well versed in technical, legal and financial-economic matters. Just last week, he and his father visited the Argitechnica in Hanover, the largest agricultural fair in the world, to learn about the latest technological developments. “These days, everything is controlled electronically. Tractors drive themselves. Although we certainly need this technology, machines can’t take over everything. Farming is a highly detailed business. Preparing the seedbed is very precise work, as is ploughing, because the soil structure and sowing times are crucial. That type of knowledge is passed down through generations. That’s the farmer’s secret.”

Of course, certain things do change over time. Take climate change, for example. “Spring starts earlier now and is much drier. We now harvest our wheat in early July, whereas 15 years ago that would have been in August. This affects the crop and any potential diseases. We’ve also become more environmentally friendly: we only spray a 20th of what we used to 20 years ago.” The role of the farmer is changing, too: Farmers these days are increasingly called on when it comes to conservation efforts. There is a barley field behind the Pennings farm that will never be harvested because it is reserved for the hamsters in the area. “We made a financial assessment of the area and the government offered us a good price. So in addition to producing goods, we also began producing natural products as well.”

Top region

For Pennings, the harvest is the best time of year. This is when, in the most literal sense, you reap what you sow. And this year’s revenues were not bad at all. “We usually harvest about 11,000 kilos of wheat per hectare, whereas in some Eastern European countries they only harvest about 1000 kilos. It all comes down to soil quality, climate and knowledge. According to the US Department of Agriculture, which assesses soil samples from around the world, the plateau surrounding South Limburg’s Doenrade is one of the leading regions in the world. This is also true of Dutch farmers. The language of the dairy farming industry in America is Dutch, because the sector is dominated by Dutch people. The level of knowledge is extremely high: almost all young farmers have degrees in agricultural engineering. We’re the third largest global exporter of agricultural products after the United States and France. So we really know how to use the limited amount of land we have.”

However, because land is so scarce, it is also extremely expensive. The profit margins are therefore smaller than in Romania or the United States, which sees many young farmers leaving the Netherlands. But to Pennings, the future looks bright. “You never know how things will go, but right now there are plenty of reasons for me to expand the business here in South Limburg in combination with my academic career, my other passion.”

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