Successful agricultural partnership in Limburg: Colruyt Group and the Odeurs brothers work together on the crops of the future

Successful agricultural partnership in Limburg: Colruyt Group and the Odeurs brothers work together on the crops of the future

Thursday, March 30, 2023

In Kerkom, close to Sint-Truiden, a constructive cooperation between family business Odeurs and Colruyt Group has been in place for two years now on a cluster of farmlands. Where Colruyt Group provides financial support and makes its farmland available, the Odeurs brothers add value with their extensive knowledge of land, crops and agricultural machinery. The cooperation also leaves space for innovative projects. In fact, a pilot project is currently up and running with the support of agricultural expert Arvesta to explore the options of growing black beans as "food of the future". A beautiful and positive case that shows how truly Belgian initiatives are developed, while contributing to the sustainability and innovation of agricultural land, crops and cultivation concepts. And at the same time a unique way of working together, with a lot of potential for the future.

Promising cooperation in Kerkom, Limburg

Two years ago, Colruyt Group bought good quality agricultural land in Kerkom, near Sint-Truiden. This purchase fits in with the retail group's ambition to invest in Belgian agriculture by – for instance – investing in its own farmland. In doing so, the focus lies explicitly on cooperation with farmers: together building initiatives that contribute to the sustainability and innovation of farmland, crops and growing concepts. This is unique for a retailer.

The farmer’s expertise, experience and input is essential in these partnerships. That is why Colruyt Group is always on the lookout for interested professionals. In this story in Limburg, several farmers spontaneously came forwards. The modern family business Odeurs, with experts Gunther and Koen Odeurs at the helm, were selected as independent entrepreneurs to be partners for further processing and optimising this cluster of adjacent land in Kerkom. In 2020 a cooperation agreement was concluded. Meanwhile, the brothers, who are experts in their field and whose specialisations include potato cultivation, set to work with great positivism and enthusiasm, together with the specialists within Colruyt Group’s agricultural team.

A win-win for both parties

The land of the Odeurs brothers is located next to that of Colruyt Group, which allowed for increased efficiency: the same machines are now used on a larger area, for example. The farmers thus enjoy economies of scale by working the extra land at their disposal and can generate additional income without having to invest in fields themselves.Gunther Odeurs, who - besides being a farmer - is also a lecturer at the agricultural college: “As independent farmers, we grow various crops on Colruyt Group's farmland. This cooperation allows us to expand the activities of our own farm, without having to make heavy investments in fields ourselves. Clear agreements and regular consultation form the basis of this partnership.”

In this cooperation, each partner retains its individuality, which is very important. We consult each other about everything, experts talk to see if they are on the same line, without timidity or barriers. Where Colruyt Group provides the financial support and makes farmland available, for example, the brothers can make the difference with their extensive knowledge of the land, crops and agricultural machinery. The advantages for both parties are numerous: financial security for the farmer, knowledge and (regional) expertise for Colruyt Group. Gunther Odeurs: “We are proud that customers can buy our products, including potatoes and carrots, in Colruyt and OKay stores. And that we can contribute to a long-term vision to ensure the future of Belgian agriculture.”

Saskia De Block, responsible for agricultural policy at Colruyt Group, adds: "The way we work together is very special. Together with the brothers, we decide which crops to grow on our land and look at how we can work together with various agencies to optimise biodiversity and care for nature. We make crop rotation planning together – relying on the expertise of both parties – we discuss farm management and also think about how to face various challenges, such as this year's drought and its impact on certain crops. Together, we also take advice from well-known scientific institutions, in the context of new techniques and methods. We are also open to innovations towards the future.”

Innovative crops in Kerkom: future-proof farming together with Arvesta

A number of unique agricultural projects are also underway in Kerkom, with a view to the future. Gunther Odeurs: “Both Colruyt Group and we attach great importance to sustainable agriculture. That is why we are working on innovative cultivation techniques for healthy soil and more biodiversity.”

Innovation projects are also on the cards today. In this area, the partners are assisted by agricultural expert Arvesta, which provides advice on growing black beans. This is part of the trend to eat more legumes, as the 'sustainable food of the future'. Black beans are nutritious and healthy, and can serve as a natural meat substitute. Already very popular in South America, these legumes have a dense, meaty texture and a flavour reminiscent of mushrooms, making them popular in vegetarian dishes.

The Odeurs brothers envisage growing the black beans on a 5.3 ha plot and Arvesta will take care of the commercialisation of the crop. They are considering if black beans could eventually be purchased by Colruyt Group and sold in the group's stores - this initiative fits perfectly into the group's ambition encourage consumers to eat more plant-based proteins (instead of animal ones - Green Deal Protein Shift). With this cooperation, Arvesta wants to support farmers in the transition to sustainable protein crops and ensure good returns.

Focus on the local anchoring of supplies

Colruyt Group says that cooperation models such as with the Odeurs brothers in the Limburg cluster are an important lever to work even more with local farmers and pool expertise to provide a local offer – organic where relevant. Saskia De Block: “We like to stress that one of our key commitments in the cooperation models on our lands is that farmland also remains farmland. The purchase of land such as here in Kerkom fits in with Colruyt Group's ambition to focus on Belgian agriculture, to keep our offering as Belgian as possible, to offer it locally, to safeguard it, and to literally anchor it. By purchasing agricultural land, we can actively contribute to sourcing Belgian agricultural products and to making agriculture in Belgium more sustainable.”

[On the pictures you can see Gunther Odeurs (green shirt), Koen Odeurs (blue shirt and shorts), Frank Vierendeel (blue shirt) and Saskia De Block]

Background: agriculture at Colruyt Group

In 2017, the first steps were taken towards a sustainable agriculture policy at Colruyt Group. Working on a more sustainable range, for us that means creating added value in several areas at once, in particular the environment, health, society and animal welfare. Quite a task, since we count some 3,500 private label products in food alone and the journey from raw material to finished product can be long and complex. We therefore achieve the best results by taking action together with several links in the chain. This is why more direct partnerships have been set up with farmers and cattle breeders, benefiting not only themselves, but also consumers, animals and the environment.

As retailers, we are an integral part of the agri-food chain: we guarantee food supply and bring agricultural products such as vegetables, fruit, potatoes, dairy and meat to consumers. So we have traditionally been intimately intertwined with the agricultural sector. Today, we work directly with 600 Belgian farmers through various projects. And indirectly, with as many as 6,000. We want to anchor agriculture locally as much as possible and therefore work closely with farmers. The cooperation takes place in various ways: in chain projects, innovation projects with actors from the agri-food chain and on our own farmland.Colruyt Group looks back on an interesting and eventful agricultural year, in which several new collaborations saw the light and became increasingly concrete: