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Forgotten vegetables May 24th, 2015 by

When Johan Hons and Vera Kuijpers started their farm “Het Eikelenhof” (garden full of acorns) in 1989 in the eastern province of Limburg in Belgium, organic food was not yet in fashion. Uncertain about the market and with little knowledge available on organic farming, the young couple was convinced that they could make it work. And they did.

Continuous learning about crops, varieties, soil and cropping practices have already allowed the family to live from the farm for more than 25 years. One of the more recent marketing innovations is the farm shop, enthusiastically opened by Vera on Fridays and Saturdays. On my latest visit in mid April, a customer asked Vera where she got rhubarb so early in the Spring. Vera told the following story:

Some 15 years ago, Johan was driving to the North of the Netherlands, when he happened to see a field of rhubarb with plants that were well ahead of his own. Johan’s rhubarb had barely started to come up. He made a mental note and on his way back decided to pay a visit to the farmer. To his disappointment the farmer said something like “There is no way I am going to give you even a single plant.” It was his way of keeping a monopoly on this special, early variety.

Back at home in Flanders, Johan shared his disappointing experience with Vera and they got on with their farming.

But some ten years later, Johan decided to try his luck a second time. On a trip to the Netherlands he stopped at the same house. The farmer was really old by now and to Johan’s surprise said: “You can have my rhubarb, but only under one condition: if you take them all.” The farmer was retiring and wanted to make sure that his rhubarb variety lived on. But the Dutch farmer had three acres (over a hectare) of the red vegetable, a lot of work to dig up and transplant. But Johan rose to the challenge.

Having made up his mind, Johan drove back home, gathered some friends, put his tractor on a truck and began uprooting the large field of rhubarb which he then planted on their own land.

Vera proudly ended the story by saying “We now have the earliest rhubarb in Belgium and supermarkets are lining up to buy our first harvest.”

When her customer asks if she could get a few plants for her own garden Vera smiles and says: “you can try to convince Johan, but I think you may have to wait another 20 years or so.”

Rhubarb has been grown for more than 5000 years, and was first cultivated by the Chinese (who also gave us rice, soya bean and oranges). They used the root as a medicine. Rhubarb only became popular as a vegetable in Britain in the late 18th century (following the trade with China) and has only been cultivated in Belgium since around 1900. People nearly stopped eating the sour stalks during the second World War, possibly because sugar was so severely rationed. Society’s tastes in food do change with time, and old fruits and vegetables have been coming back into vogue these last few years.

Farmers like Johan and Vera are among the thousands of committed keepers of the biodiversity of our planet. By cultivating forgotten fruits and vegetables, family farmers are as important as the sophisticated, expensive gene-banks around the world. Having a special kind of vegetable can help give a farm family a marketing niche, and make it profitable to preserve the variety. Biodiversity is about having your pie, and eating it too.

Scientific name of rhubarb: Rheum rhabarbarum from the knotweed family (Polygonaceae).

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