In the middle of the workshop, two stripped vans wait until they are ready to make a big trip. Around them are pieces of wood and all sorts of tools. The occasional sound of a circular saw can be heard, along with a happily barking dog. Here, on the outskirts of the town of Boxtel in Brabant, alumnus Maarten Bellaard (33) is accompanied by his dog Trom as he builds camper vans: converted vans in which you can travel, sleep and even cook.
At the age of 15, Maarten says he was already ‘doing a bit of tinkering and working on mopeds’. However, in 2008, he chose a different path when he began studying Law and Business Economics in Rotterdam, with extra courses in philosophy. Eight years later, he also picked up a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Law from Leiden University.
But he discovered he did not really want to pursue that route. “I thought the legal theory issues were interesting, but not the jobs”, he concluded after internships at offices and a stint at a law firm in Rotterdam. “I can’t sit on my bum for eight hours”, he says. “I felt confined, and I missed the freedom you have as an entrepreneur.”
Later on, as a freelance programme creator and debate editor, including at Studio Erasmus, he still was not fully in his element. “I felt the need to try something different, because I didn’t feel like doing something that didn’t make me happy.” One thing that still made him happy was working with his hands. “Only then did I realise that a hands-on job was also an option.”
Meanwhile, he and his girlfriend were ‘itching’ to trade Rotterdam for a more natural environment abroad. In 2017, Maarten therefore decided to study the senior secondary education programme in Biodynamic Agriculture, with the desire to become a farmer in Norway afterwards.
That desire also meant building his first home-made camper van. He and his girlfriend regularly travelled through Norway in that van, looking for a farm to work on. And they found one, surrounded by nature on an island off the west coast. A Dutch couple there was looking for people who wanted to buy their goat farm. Six months later, in 2019, Maarten and his girlfriend packed their things and set off to become goat farmers.
Most beautiful place ever
They initially worked together with the Dutch owners, with the aim of taking over the farm completely later on. Every day, Maarten would milk the goats, mow the grass and chop wood, which he then sawed into firewood in the sawmill. “That’s also where I picked up my hobby, which taught me better woodworking skills.”
Maarten lived and worked on his own piece of land three times the size of the Woudestein Campus, with a forest, a lake and a stretch of the mountains where the goats roamed. “The most beautiful place I’ve ever lived”, as he describes it. And yet he never bought the farm. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the birth of his daughter caused too much uncertainty. “If you take over that kind of business, you don’t do it for a year or 2 – it’s a 15-year life choice”, he says. “We couldn’t make that choice at the time.”
Once he was back in the Netherlands, first in Barendrecht and then in Eindhoven, Maarten still had a few months of parental leave. “In the meantime, I wanted to do something with my hands, so I started fixing up another van.” He soon discovered that he wasn’t the only one who likes to travel around in camper vans, and he started his camper van business Nieuw Loof in Boxtel.
His days are now ‘super diverse’: from talking to customers to making wooden furniture and installing solar panels on vans. He mainly spends a lot of time ‘fussing over millimetres and fiddling around in crazy corners and spaces’. “It’s the best fun I’ve ever had in a job”, he says. “It’s more intellectually challenging than being a goat farmer. As a farmer, you are bound by certain subsidies and a milk price, but that’s about it. Now I have to figure out what I’m going to do all by myself and come up with my own way to make money.”
And his business is doing well. He is getting more and more customers – ‘mostly adventurous types’ – and two self-employed workers have recently joined him at the workshop. He expects that, together, they can refurbish two vans each month. “I’m working more now than ever before, but it doesn’t feel like it.”
Still, Maarten misses life in the Norwegian outdoors. “That kind of place is in stark contrast to the Netherlands”, he says. He is not exactly sure what his next stop will be. “We came back from Norway to reorient ourselves, and we’re still in that phase.” Still, he does not plan on leaving the workshop just like that. “I’m having a blast right now.”