23 Nov

La Ferme de la Bourgade: the best of both worlds

Moressée is a hamlet in the middle of the Ciney, Marche-en-Famenne and Durbuy triangle in the heart of the Famenne. A few small woods punctuate the gently undulating meadow and field landscape. The soil is fertile. The main economic activities are therefore agriculture, but also tourism. This is where Jean-Marie Leboutte passionately breeds cattle of the 'White-Blue Mixte' breed, while his Dutch wife, Suzanne, develops tourist activities. It's safe to say they complement each other perfectly.

The 'White-Blue Mixte' is an old breed that is at home in the region. But it is also a bit of a forgotten breed - endangered even. Through clever crossbreeding and thorough breeding, breeders succeeded, with the support of science, in developing the muscle mass in an impressive way, which led to the creation of a new breed: the Belgian White Blue - a real meat breed with a particularly high yield. Its meat is very lean, tender and juicy thanks to its fine muscle fibres, so it is highly sought after by consumers and meat producers, even worldwide. 

Mission 'Save the White-Blue Mixtes

But the original breed - the White-Blue Mixtes - was under pressure. In Wallonia there are barely 3,600 cattle left, in Flanders 400 and in the north of France another 600. Around the turn of the century, the "Bluesel" project got off the ground with support from Europe. Subsidies and specific breeding programmes were introduced to reverse the downward trend. This helped to put the breed back on the map. But the struggle is far from over. Jean-Marie and the remaining breeders of this beautiful breed have joined forces and are doing everything they can to promote it and at the same time make it better known. 

A dual-purpose breed

"It is such a beautiful, authentic breed, a dual-purpose breed even - suitable for both milk and meat production," beams Jean-Marie. The cattle love grazing. As soon as the weather allows it in spring, the cows go out to pasture, where they can enjoy the juicy grass. In winter, they are kept in a large open stable. They walk and stand where they want and lie on a thick layer of straw. Talk about animal welfare! 

Ideal for organic farming

"Because the 'Bleues Mixtes' are so undemanding, it is a breed that is particularly well suited to organic farming," Jean-Marie explains. And so he switched over completely in 2016. Chemical fertilisers and concentrates have not entered the farm since then. "Everything our cows eat - grass and cereals - comes from our own fields. We are therefore completely independent of external supplies when it comes to feeding our animals. And because it is a breed that rarely gets sick, we hardly ever have to use antibiotics - except when there is no other option," says the farmer, who has made 'organic farming' his top priority ever since. It was quite an investment to make the farm organic. But Jean-Marie is happy to have taken the step: "We have become much more independent. The yields went down, but the profitability has gone up, because we get better prices for our milk and meat."

Milk and so much more

Suzanne, his wife, likes it all. Organic, respect for nature, short chains are also her thing. But she is afraid of large animals. She is a city girl: born and raised in The Hague. She came to the Famenne as an au pair more than twenty years ago and bumped into her current husband at a village festival. She fell in love, married and stayed. But the fear of cows never completely went away. And so she chose another sustainable activity on the farm. She started processing milk into butter, buttermilk, cream and cheese - not just any cheese, but the 'Pavé Bleu' - a soft blue-veined cheese. How could it be otherwise on a farm that is all about the 'White-Blue Mixtes'! "The cheese is closely linked to the breed," says the diligent Dutchwoman with a wink. She opened her farm shop and saw that people from the surrounding area increasingly chose products from their own region. And the tourists? They liked it too - even more. They consciously go in search of it. Meanwhile, the products from the 'Ferme de la Bourgade' are available in many local shops and specialised organic shops throughout Wallonia and Brussels.

Farmer's golf - a real hit

Suzanne also started receiving school classes and showing them around the farm. And she launched farmer's golf - an outdoor sport originating from the Netherlands and derived from traditional golf. Just like in golf, the aim is to get the golf ball into the hole with as few strokes as possible. The only difference is that the club consists of a wooden clog on a shaft, the leather ball looks more like a handball than a golf ball and you do not play on a short mown golf course, but you follow a course of ten holes right through nature... and even among cows. In between, a nice picnic or a drink, neatly arranged by hostess Suzanne, and the fun among friends, colleagues or family members is guaranteed. Moreover, at the same time you can make a nice walk through the hilly fields of the Condroz.

Holidays on the farm

Welcoming and pampering people. That was and still is Suzanne's thing. And when she saw that it was catching on, she wanted to throw herself into it even harder. After all, the farm had everything that busy city people need to relax: life on the farm, beautiful nature all around, and plenty of space. When the cows moved into the new barn in 2007 and no longer needed their former accommodation, Suzanne and Jean-Marie decided to renovate the building. They set up two large holiday homes - one for 19 and one for 21 people. These can be combined to make one large house with 40 beds, ideal for family reunions or for a getaway among friends with children. Guests can either cook for themselves or have Suzanne pamper them culinarily, as there was also room for a cosy restaurant (only for groups of 10 people or more and on request). Suzanne herself is at the cooker, of course. She uses regional products and preferably meat and milk products from her own farm. The absolute topper? The 'Big Jean-Marie'! A hamburger pur boeuf 'Wit-Blauw Mixte' - what else? - with a melted slice of 'Pavé Bleu' and pepper sauce. Mouth-watering! 

Holidays for single parent families

But Suzanne keeps innovating. For two years now she has been offering holidays for single parents with children in collaboration with the tour operator "Tomeeto". Full board, so the parents don't have to do anything. Just put your feet under the table. For the rest it's just a matter of doing nothing, catching up with other adults and in the meantime watching the kids having a great time. For them there are group activities: tractor driving, farmer's golf, crate climbing, kayaking, walking, picnicking, swimming and playing in the river, campfire, handicrafts, making your own pizzas, making butter, milking cows, ... And playing around, of course. Because isn't a farm the place par excellence to let children play and discover freely?

The dream of farmer Jean-Marie: being fully autonomous

And so the farm developed into a place where livestock farming and tourism can coexist in perfect symbiosis. "The farm is still the main source of income, even though the share of tourism is growing from year to year. In the meantime, tourist activities already account for 30 to 40 percent of the turnover," Jean-Marie explains. But he does not want to stop there. As an enterprising entrepreneur, he too has many plans. And what does he dream of? "One day to be completely autonomous. To produce everything we consume ourselves, up to and including the energy needed to run the entire farm." And in doing so, he is even thinking of having his own biomethanisation plant. "We are too small as a farm for that. But why not together with others?", says the farmer looking forward to a perhaps not impossible future.



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