Dutch man promotes ag options

Multifunctional farms

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Maarten Fisher is teaching a multifunctional agriculture course at Flathead Valley Community College. 

Twenty-five percent of all farms in the Netherlands are multifunctional agriculture enterprises, generating $600 million a year for the Dutch economy.

The Netherlands can give Maarten Fischer a lot of the credit for those numbers; now he’s living in the Flathead Valley and hoping to see local farmers and ranchers embrace some of his ideas.

Fischer is Dutch but moved here within the last year with his three children and his wife, Ida Basko, a Flathead native to whom he’s been married since 2003. In November he joined the staff of A-Plus Health Care, where he is acting as a day activity program manager.

In his relatively new position, he’s working to introduce the idea of care farming to the local health care arena.

Care farms are used successfully in the Netherlands, with more than 1,000 agricultural entities providing work for people struggling with situations that make traditional employment difficult. They might have developmental disabilities or mental health issues, be recovering from addictions, or just re-entering society from prison.

Fischer, 38, is also heading up a multifunctional agriculture course, beginning Jan. 31, through the Continuing Education Center at Flathead Valley Community College. The course is based on much of what Fischer worked on in the Netherlands, where he pioneered a multifunctional farm program that began around 12 years ago.

“It was hard to see farms doing a lot for the community, but not making the money doing that,” he said.

Prior to moving to the United States, he had been program manager for a multifunctional agriculture task force, a four-year, 12 million-euro program through the Dutch Department of Agriculture. Before that he had managed a national multifunctional agriculture cooperative to support the entrepreneurship of members and market creation.

Fischer has a master’s degree from the University of Amsterdam in econometrics, the study of statistical models of logistical problems. He also has a history of working on farms, something he did throughout his college years to get away from the city. He worked on a farm in Ireland that he said had “all kinds of services for visitors.”

He said he believes that everyone can use a respite from city life, and he sees that farms have much to offer to visitors willing to pay to spend time there. Farms that take advantage of multifunctional programs can be located near development or on distinctly rural landscapes.

The European government has been a strong supporter of the concept of keeping farms profitable in any way possible. This is especially important in a place such as the Netherlands, Fischer said, a country one-tenth the size of Montana but with 15 million people.

“If you want to keep land in agricultural use, for the landscape and for the identity of the region, how do we provide strategies for farming to grow as well as other development?”

A growing eagerness from society to have a connection with its food sources presents increasing opportunities, Fischer said.

“I’ve seen campgrounds, B&Bs, farm golf games, education farms, parents putting kids in day care on a farm,” he said. “It can be used as a place for people to recreate and recover. It can fill a huge need for the community and give farmers a way to expand their businesses without losing the core of the agriculture. And if a farm is multifunctional, it has a higher chance of being taken over by children.”

When Fischer moved here, he wasn’t necessarily planning to continue his work in multifunctional agriculture, but he has received such an enthusiastic response from local farmers and ranchers it’s reinvigorated his interest in the concept.

FVCC secured a grant for "Multifunctional Farming: Creating New Markets for Your Business” from the Montana Department of Agriculture. The course will also be a blueprint for anyone else who is interested; the curriculum and syllabus will be published and available for free.

The care farms program that Fischer is working on with A-Plus could also be models for possible adaptation. Since A-Plus has offices throughout the state, Fischer said other branches might try out similar programs should the Flathead Valley model be successful.

“These programs give people a sense of purpose and control,” he said. “They can decrease the need for care and allow people to stay in their home without being institutionalized.”

A-Plus clients are generally homebound, and Fischer said owner and CEO Kris Carlson was very interested in his ideas to increase their quality of life.

“She’s seen so many people taken care of in the home that are stuck with nothing to do,” Fischer said. “They have no place to exercise, they’re lonely and depressed and they just sink deeper into depression.

“America is a country where independence is important, it seems that this would be a great place to expand on the model of care farms,” he said.

Fischer said he’s heard “an overwhelming excitement” about his proposals from people working in the mental health, developmental disabilities and veterans communities. Some local farmers and ranches are already signed up to start with Fischer’s program. Fischer said they will be paid for the use of their farms and their supervision, and the clients will be expected to contribute in a genuine way.

“It will be real, with them doing things that really need to be done, but at their own pace,” he said.

Fischer has been impressed with the ease with which he’s been able to accomplish what he has in such a short time in the Flathead Valley.

“Everyone’s connected, it’s very tight knit,” he said. “This would have taken three years in the Netherlands, but the community wants to make the Flathead a good place. It’s very open and friendly and I’m feeling so welcomed.”

Business reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or by email at hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com.

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