Solar farm The Blue Gate in Beek en Donk was completed in September 2022 and will generate energy for about 3,000 households per year. The plan for this Solar Farm originated in 2019 when landowners Tonny and Leanda Meulensteen- Verhoijsen contacted Green Trust. 'We asked an independent energy expert which parties were reliable to work with. The names of Green Trust and Pondera were mentioned. At the time I was an councilor with the municipality of Laarbeek. Pondera had already advised the municipality on the possibilities for Solar Energy, so Green Trust was the only option,' says Tonny at the round table in his home office. 'The first meeting with Green Trust immediately gave us a good feeling. In Oosterbeek, the whole team had just had an extensive lunch together and was cleaning up, which is surely a good sign for a company. During the process this feeling never went away'.

From cows to Solar Energy
We are warmly welcomed at Tonny and Leanda's farm and immediately receive an invitation to admire the milking robot in the cowshed after the interview. Of course, we don't say no to that. ‘We have lived here since 2001, before that we lived across,’ Leanda tells us while pointing to the window, ‘If you look outside you can see between the trees the roof of our old house.’ Tonny was born and raised in Beek en Donk. Leanda is from Someren-Eind, but has now also lived in Beek en Donk for 30 years. Together they have had the company Leato where they keep cows for more than 20 years. 'That name is an amalgamation of our names. If you're smart you give your wife one more letter,' Tonny jokes, after which Leanda corrects, 'It just sounded nicer, don't believe it.'

'We have always had cows, but we have halved the number in recent years: from 100 to 50 cows and from two to one milking robot.' Leanda explains that the milking robots save a huge amount of work, but since their arrival, the children's involvement in the farm has decreased. 'The distance with the cows just got bigger, possibly that's why our children don't want to take over the business,' she says.

'If we still want to run full production now, we have to invest about one and a half tons to reduce nitrogen emissions. We don't want that, so we have halved our livestock production. Besides, until recently Tonny worked as a councilor at the municipality, if he had been allowed to continue for another four years we would have stopped with the cows altogether. Unfortunately, he had to quit after the council elections last year, so we decided to continue for a while.' After downsizing the livestock, there was a large piece of land left, so Tonny and Leanda decided to invest in Solar Energy. 'With the proceeds from the Solar panels, we still have good steady income,' Tonny says. 'Everyone can think about this however they want, we have sometimes been told that people think it is a waste of agricultural land, so do we, but for us this is economically the best choice.'

Green Trust developed the whole solar farm project at Tonny and Leanda's request. 'It would have been most interesting financially if we could have done this ourselves, but we do not have the necessary knowledge. That's why we chose to rent out our land. That way we don't have to worry about it.'

That doesn't mean they had nothing at all to do with the development of the solar meadow. 'It was a good interaction,' Tonny explains ', my knowledge as a counsilor and that of Green Trust in Green Energy is a good combination. We complement each other and thus achieved the intended goal.''

Tonny did receive questions about the possible conflict of interest he might have as a counsilor with the spatial planning portfolio. 'Before the project started, I sent a letter to the city council asking if it would be weird if we made our land available for a solar farm. There was no negative response to this. Then there was also an investigation about my behaviour in the whole process This showed that there was no conflict of interest. In addition, I never participated in meetings where our solar farm was discussed, in order to avoid possible conflicts of interest. He also explained the issue to Green Trust, and together they discussed how they would handle it fairly.

'I think the great thing about Green Trust is that they were able to put themselves in our positions very well,' says Leanda. 'I also like that Green Trust made sure that people from the neighbourhood were involved in the process and didn't feel like anything was being imposed on them. Everyone was able to provide input. Green Trust is honest and open: the company does what it says. So far, we have not had any setbacks; it’s a solid party. If you, as a landowner, want to make the most money and take a big risk, then you might have to go with another party. But then again, that means you run more risk. There are a lot of cowboys on the solar panel market.

Before we head outside to take pictures and get the promised tour, we talk about entrepreneurship. 'You're seeing a big turnaround now, because so many cow farmers are having to quit. They are looking for alternatives for their land and buildings, just like us. We have just been at the front of the line. As a business owner, you keep seeing opportunities and possibilities and you must think in a timely manner about how to keep your business healthy. That's not always easy and the parties you work with have to work out well. We ended up with Green Trust via via. Before we partnered with them, we checked with several contacts to see what kind of party it is. We really recommend this to other entrepreneurs: seek advice and experiences from others. When you rent your land to someone, it's like having someone in your backyard. If you walk by there every time with a bad feeling, it doesn't make you happy anyway'.

When we take a look at the solar farm after the interview, two cyclists walk across the solar farm intersection looking around with interest. Leanda approaches them to ask if they might have a flat tire and if she can help. When the tires are still full, she takes the opportunity to enthusiastically explain what happens at the solar farm. Tonny, meanwhile, proudly goes on about their business. At the intersection, between the farm with cows in the meadow and the solar panels, you can see what makes their business strong: with one proud leg in the future and with the other proud leg in what they have already accomplished.

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