Life is always risky

Exploiting the potential of fish farming is complex. It requires technical skills, being attentive to the needs of the fish, and a willingness to invest and to take risks. It may require that you find ways to make consumers curious to taste your product, to learn more about it, and to buy it. Dutch eel farmer Paul Meulendijks goes all in on this variety of parameters.

Paul Meulendijks, owner of eel farm Rijpelaal.

“I am proud of my farm and my products. Experience, transparency, and quality are central to this”, says Paul Meulendijks, 36-year-old, married, father of 3 boys, owner of eel farm Rijpelaal, situated in the south-east of the Netherlands.

I do it my way

In the 1980s, founder of Rijpelaal Johan Meulendijks ran a mixed farm with pigs and cows. In 1988, he decided to add eel farming to his business and soon, Meulendijks found himself studying fish farming at the secondary agricultural school in Helmond. During the start-up years of eel farming, he met all kinds of technical problems. Over the years, Johan Meulendijks applied many improvements to the eel farming system. In 1997, Johan Meulendijks decided to focus solely on fish farming, sold his agricultural assets and invested in the construction of a new eel farm, processing facility and an on-farm shop.

Paul Meulendijks stepped into the eel farm in 2006 and took over Rijpelaal completely from his father in 2019. He helped in the company from an early age. “I grew up with it. I learned a lot from my father, we do many things in the same way. Raising eel is also my passion”, he tells. “We eel farmers have some principles in common, yes, but each one also has his own idea of what is best his or her system. We live under a motto of ‘Do not teach me what is best to do’ – I do it my way!”

Will the eel survive in the wild?

“Eel will not survive in the wild if we stop ‘everything’ in the eel sector”, says Paul Meulendijks. “I am convinced that a broad variety of initiatives is needed for closing the life cycle of the eel, as the eels cannot do it by themselves any longer: restocking of inland waters, help the eel to migrate despite the existing migration barriers. And eel farming is vital to this!”

10-15 % of the eel at Rijpelaal - around 400,000 eel fingerlings per year, in average - are sold for restocking projects supported by various stake holders.

Expanding production capacity

“I do not want to look back when I am 45 years old and think ‘Why did I not act or invest …?’”, Paul tells. With an educational background in international trading and whole selling, Paul is aware that the more on-site processing they can do the more value is given to the eel they produce, and the more people can earn their living by working on the farm. Now, 80 % of the eel stock farmed at Rijpelaal are processed here.

To fully exploit their processing facility, Paul recently decided to expand the eel production capacity by investing in another eel farming site only 30 minutes away from the Rijpelaal site. A former pike perch RAS farm is being re-build from scratch, reusing whatever is suited for farming eel. Plan is that in January 2024, this farm site will be stocked with glass eel, to grow fingerlings, that at the end will go for slaughter at the Rijpelaal premises.

It will require three more fish farming employees to run both eel farming sites and, as Paul underlines, this has the additional benefit that now they will be more persons to feel responsible for the well-being of the fish and to handle emergencies.

Sales promoting initiatives

“The more direct sales to consumers we can do, the better”, Paul tells. “’Be careful what you do and start up!’ my father taught me, but he let me do it my way. We have a good mix of reaching out to consumers. It costs money and efforts, but the good feedback from customers shows that there is room for our kind of initiatives.”

“We expanded our on-farm shop offerings, we have a snack bar and a terrasse where people can have their eel snack and a coffee. We do online sales, via our web shop – that is an easy way to service consumers, especially the younger ones. We are on social media – my sister does this, and it is a good way to reach people.”

“Rijpelaal is sponsoring a football club to promote eel farming and our products – people watching highlights of football matches in Dutch tv can see our banners on the side of the field, informing about our web shop. As a result, sales in our webshop have significantly increased, from 80 visits/day it raised to for instance 2000 on a match day, and 200 on a quiet day.”

Big scale transparency

“We want to give our customers and visitors as much insight as possible and involve them in our company”, Paul Meulendijks tells. And transparency towards the public there is! First Sunday in May 2023, more than 5000 people from all parts of the Netherlands followed the invitation to attend an Open Farm event at eel farm and smokery Rijpelaal.

Paul Meulendijks and his team have done the Open Farm every 3-4 years since 2000. A lot of marketing had been made in the run-up to this event: mouth-to-mouth, flyers, online campaigns. The farm usually employs 33 persons – two in the farm, the others working with processing, driving, farm shop sales and working as weekend-extras. This very special day, they were 65 persons, well prepared to welcome the crowd, to answer any questions, and to make it an enjoyable day with treasure hunts and goodie bags for the children, guided tours to learn about the nature of eel, farming eel and processing it and to make people taste eel dishes.

A risky business

“I am proud of my tasty eel products, my eel are farmed in a sustainable, animal-friendly and species-appropriate way. I recognise that some of my initiatives for the sale of eel might seem outside the box and risky, but this is my way of life. I am an eel farmer, dedicated body and soul, and I take risks. Life is always risky.”