Feeding the chickens, cleaning the donkeys’ pen, scooping up feces, changing the hay in the cowshed, petting the horses, watching the cow being milked, counting her spots. It is a completely ordinary day for 3-year-old Katharina. She is one of the forty children scratching around at the agricultural orphanage De Vrijbuiter in Hedel, run by Mathé and Lilian van Goch. Together, they also have a dairy farm with fifty cows, in the same place, right next to the children, who learn everything about farm life in the farm.
And that appeals to parents. Anna (31) and Leo (35) from Zaltbommel take their two children (3 and 1) to De Vrijbuiter four days a week. It’s not next door – 25 minutes by bike or fifteen minutes by car – but they like to talk about it. Anna grew up on a farm. “I had to help look after the animals and harvest vegetables and fruit. As a teenager I hated it, but now I’m glad I know how cheese and butter are made and where meat and eggs come from.” Leo lived in an apartment but spent the holidays at his grandparents’ farm. They both seem to being one with nature and having knowledge of plants and animals is an enrichment for life, so they sought childcare on a farm.
We have a challenging play area, so once in a while, yes, it happens. When you take it, we tell you the risks
The number of farms with childcare has more than doubled in the past ten years, says Monique Litjens, chairman of United Agricultural Childcare (VAK): In 2010 there were thirty, now sixty-five. “And everyone has a waiting list. People are increasingly choosing the outdoors for their children.” According to Litjens, it is primarily ‘conscious and critical parents’ who choose this form of care. “We have 340 parents in our database, and for only five we are the nearest childcare. Everyone drives past another shelter to get here.” This is also the case at De Vrijbuiter, say Lilian and Mathé van Goch.
At their shelter, a five thousand square meter garden has been set up for the children, with a hut made of willow branches, an outdoor kitchen, a lawn with goals (Lilian: “the average shelter really doesn’t have room for that”). spacious rabbit house, a handyman’s hut full of tools. , a bi-hotel and a kitchen garden. Under the large canopy are toy tractors, go-karts, landing nets for catching frogs, rain suits, spare clothes and life jackets. Mathé: “No one stays inside when the weather is bad. In winter, the ditch freezes. The little ones can slide and slide on it, the older children take a sled on the ice.”
In 2009, Lilian and Mathé van Goch started childcare because they did not want to increase the scale of the dairy farm. Lilian had worked in healthcare for years. “We chose to become multifunctional. In our neighborhood, almost everyone has another business in addition to the primary agricultural business. The farm next door has dairy cattle and makes ice cream, further on is a farm with a mini golf course, another organizes company outings, farmer golf and team building activities, and a colleague has a mini camping site in the farm.”
No fixed times
Not all farmers started out of money, says Monique Litjens, who also runs an agricultural childcare facility in Leunen, Limburg. “In many cases it was the farmer’s wife who started something on a small scale, which subsequently grew and has now become professionalised.” Litjens saw how happy her children were feeding the calves, riding the tractor, watching the sun set on the meadow and harvesting corn. “We see what rural life does for our own children and we want others to experience it too.”
You don’t have to train to start a daycare, says Litjens. The staff of the group must be trained. In order to be allowed to be called ‘landbrugsgartneri’ (by VAK), you must meet various conditions. In an ordinary day care center there is at least 3.5 square meters of playground per child inside and 4 square meters outside, in an agricultural daycare it is 4 square meters inside and at least 10 square meters outside. “You also have to have a full-fledged agricultural business that generates significant income. We have a formula for that. We want to stop someone buying a farm, putting three sheep in the meadow and calling it an agri-horticulture because that term appeals to people now.”
The agricultural aspect must be part of the day for the children. “When a calf is born, the farmer is supposed to come with the children.” Children are allowed to get dirty and there are no set times for eating and playing outside. Lilian: “You have to make hay when the sun is shining, farmers say, we do the same with childcare. When the weather is good, we start the day outside. We are open early from 7:15.”
Farm life is not just beautiful, says Mathé van Goch. A few weeks ago, twin calves were born way too early. The vet came and gave them medicine. Yet both died. – The children also experience that. Katharina comes over and says: “It was pathetic”. Mathe: “That’s how life is. If an animal does not get better, it dies. Children might think it’s pathetic, but we don’t hide it.” Catherine nods. Then: “Yesterday we went to get eggs. And hit. We boiled the eggs and put them in the salad. But I don’t like salad at all . I washed the salad, it had sand on it. And brought hay to Rita and Balkje. Those are the donkeys.”
One year waiting list
A ditch, large machines and a beehive near small children: how do municipalities and GGD, which supervise daycare centers, think? “Everything must be described in a political plan,” says Lilian van Goch.
How all activities are organized, that everything is fenced off, that security is implemented down to the smallest detail. She and her husband had to write a protocol for every conceivable scenario. Mathé: “Sometimes a child falls in the mud. Sometimes even in the ditch, but with a life jacket. The protocol for this is that a child is then required to shower because some seasons there are snails in the ditch that cause swimmer’s itch.”
In the handyman shed hang screwdrivers, saws, awls, hammers – everything in abundance. Does anything ever go wrong? Mathe: “Of course. If you let children play and explore on their own, sometimes one of them hits their fingers with a hammer. We have a challenging play area, so once in a while, yes, it happens. I know the parents, we tell you about the risks during consumption.”
The hourly price for agricultural childcare is slightly higher than for ordinary daycare centers. “Higher costs,” says Lilian van Goch. Despite this, the waiting list for her is at least a year. If the government’s plans come true, and care becomes largely free for everyone, demand will increase further, says Monique Litjens. “The sector cannot handle it at all.” Many entrepreneurs associated with VAK already have expansion plans, she says, to increase their capacity, but even that will not be enough.
Lilian and Mathé van Goch do not want to become bigger than they are now. Maybe one more group, that’s all, says Lilian. “I want there to be enough time and space for the children to see the countryside whenever they want. When we get much bigger, we have to plan for it.”
Toddlers stand in front of the fence overlooking the fields, watching for trucks going back and forth. Mathé: “Today the manure is spread on the grass that has just been cut. We drive up and down tipping trucks all day long. They love anything that roars and is big.”