Organic on a large scale

At more than 1,100ha, BV Erf is the largest organic arable farm in the Nether­lands. Strip crop­ping and robots are not the stuff of dreams here, they are being tested at a prac­tical scale. The Furrow visited this excep­tional company.

It is a quiet period at BV Erf. Most of the crops have been gath­ered and the cover crops are growing. In the barn, a big self-driving harvester is being prepared to lift beet­root, the last crop still in the field. Erf manager Jaco Burgers points to a row of empty stores: “Soon they’ll be filled with the produce from 75ha of beet­root.”

The sound of building alter­ations can be heard in the back­ground. That’s because here, in Zeewolde, work is ongoing on a single central Erf site, including offices and recep­tion space. Jaco is looking forward to being even closer to work soon. “We are still split over multiple sites which have devel­oped histor­i­cally,” he explains. “Our origins lie in the National Office for the IJsselmeer Polders. BV Erf leases land from the state, which it works until it is needed for urban growth or infra­struc­ture. So this reserved land around Almere, Zeewolde and Lelystad has never been leased or sold to farmers since recla­ma­tion (from the sea).”

Strik­ingly, all that land is managed organ­i­cally; some ever since the polder was first taken into use in the 1970s. The busi­ness went fully organic in 2006. “Around that time, more and more became tech­ni­cally feasible, espe­cially in terms of weed control,” notes Jaco. “You had accu­rate GPS systems and conse­quently new devel­op­ments in hoeing systems. We were always closely involved in their devel­op­ment and testing. And we still are.”

BV Erf is exper­i­menting with strip crop­ping on 100ha.

Seasonal traffic lanes

That said, weed control remains priority number one. “There’s more to that than good equip­ment. Good weed control starts with level ploughing, because the foun­da­tions have to be good,” he explains. “We also use controlled traffic systems; we traffic the same lanes from initial cultivation to harvest.” That makes it easier to travel in wet condi­tions, and protects the rest of the land from compaction.

“All the machines we use in the spring are six metres wide. We can keep on top of most weeds with preci­sion weeding equip­ment and camera-driven hoes. And anything left over needs to be done manu­ally.” Depending on the growing plan and the season, Jaco’s talking about around 25,000 manual weeding hours.

Erf prefers to use cater­pillar tracks for the heavier work, to minimise the load on the soil. Pota­toes are planted with an all-in-one system, with the seed­stock planted and ridged in a single pass. It is one of the tasks under­taken by the John Deere 8XR, the first in the Nether­lands, which Erf purchased last year. It replaced an older RT crawler. “The advan­tage of the 8XR is that it handles itself like a wheeled tractor and you can suspend some­thing on the front hitch. We use it for all the heavy draught work.”

Pota­toes are planted and ridged in a single pass.

Staying ahead of potato diseases

For Jaco, proper care of the soil is the first step towards a healthy crop. “A crop must be able to grow steadily, then it’s less suscep­tible to diseases and rot. You often see that organic crops have a lead in the spring due to a wider rota­tion and the absence of herbi­cides. But it is tougher later in the year when the disease pres­sure rises,” he says. “Then we have to rely on healthy vari­eties with good disease resis­tance.”

The potato is one of the most diffi­cult crops to grow organ­i­cally. The disease phytoph­thora strikes virtu­ally every year and can result in a substan­tial drop-off in yield. Organic growers had to kill their crops prema­turely in 2023, because spraying to protect against disease is not possible. “That’s why we aim to have an early crop. That means getting onto the land early with vari­eties that ripen on time and have good natural disease resis­tance,” explains Jaco.

Staying ahead of diseases remains diffi­cult, but our yields are stabil­ising.

Jaco Burgers

“You want to stay ahead of the disease as much as possible. It remains hard, but in our expe­ri­ence yields are more stable. I do think it’s concerning that the organic sector is highly depen­dent on resis­tant vari­eties. Nature is smarter than people, so resis­tance will be broken sooner or later. There is never one single solu­tion. You’re never done.”

Breeding aphids

Erf has been strip crop­ping since 2017, to culti­vate crops as ‘resiliently’ as possible. In this crop­ping method, narrow strips of different crops are alter­nated. The idea, on the one hand, is that diseases and rot spread less quickly. On the other hand, it puts natural preda­tors in a better posi­tion, if they can find nutri­tion and shelter in the strip along­side. Studies are ongoing, but Erf has already adopted the method on 100ha. “It’s still a quest, but we do see the bene­fits. Measure­ments by Wageningen Univer­sity and Research show that fungal diseases spread less quickly, for instance,” says Jaco. “If we suppose this results in a few weeks of extra growth, that’s already a big gain. The biodi­ver­sity has also increased enor­mously, due to the intro­duc­tion of perma­nent flower strips. The strange thing is that, as well as natural preda­tors, we also need aphids for them to eat. You need to create an army of natural preda­tors ready to get to work in the crops. You create a balance.”

The use of cater­pillar tracks is one of the soil-saving tech­niques the company applies.

The narrower the stripes, the greater the posi­tive effects. That is why a width of 6 meters has become stan­dard.

Strip crop­ping is a puzzle

Strip crop­ping is a big puzzle, however, because it needs to be prac­ti­cable. “We started in 2017 with strips in three widths; 24, 12 and six metres wide,” explains Jaco. “Narrower is not possible, as we have to be able to use our existing machines. For the most posi­tive effect, the trick is: The narrower the better. That’s why six metres has become the stan­dard width.”

But strip crop­ping is a disaster in terms of plan­ning and logis­tics, says Jaco, who is not afraid to call a spade a spade. “You have to take every­thing into account. Harvesting root crops is partic­u­larly diffi­cult. If you want to dig up onions, carrots or parsnips the strip along­side needs to have been harvested already, or you won’t be able to drive the trailer there. We some­times have to pick up every­thing from one side because the conveyer can only unload on one side. On the other hand, you can plan a grass clover strip where you have to drive a lot. You have to give it a lot of thought.”

Simply put, it demands extra up-front work. Another chal­lenge Jaco mentions is irri­ga­tion. “You cannot really do much with a reel. I think we’ll have to start working with drip hoses in the future. But germi­na­tion irri­ga­tion is often the most impor­tant thing for us, and you cannot do that with a drip hose.”

So there are plenty of chal­lenges. But will we see strip crop­ping on a larger scale? Jaco feels it is still too early to answer that ques­tion. “I’d be the last to say it makes every­thing perfect. We are sticking with 100ha for now, because there is still a lot to learn.”

Despite state-of-the-art equip­ment, some 25,000 manual weeding hours are required every year.

Mech­a­ni­sa­tion for labour savings

Another devel­op­ment Erf is investing time in is automa­tion. This year the Ag-Bot appeared at the company, a 150hp robotic tractor. The machine is the first step towards lighter mech­a­ni­sa­tion and labour saving. “This year we used it mainly to prepare the soil for sowing and to gain expe­ri­ence,” explains Jaco. “I was amazed to see how much it can do. As long as you refuel it now and again it will just keep working 24 hours a day.”

Thinking further ahead, he iden­ti­fies oppor­tu­ni­ties for auto­mated sowing and hoeing, and for lighter machines. “You could even get to narrower strip crop­ping. But that doesn’t make people super­fluous, by the way; you’ll still need super­vi­sion. All told, it’s still a stupid machine: If a plastic bag slips over a hoe it will not detect it.”

Close part­ner­ships and long-term agree­ments

When asked about the biggest chal­lenge in the years to come, Jaco does not need a lot of time to think about the answer. It is the sales side. The market for organic prod­ucts was posi­tive for a long time, but supply and demand have been out of kilter in recent years. “Histor­i­cally, we are used to fluc­tu­a­tions. That it’s tense at the moment is partly because the number of organic growers has increased,” he explains. “The govern­ment is driving that, too. And more growers have come on board in other coun­tries;  France and Germany were always good markets for us. But local prod­ucts are promoted to a high degree there. That means fewer export oppor­tu­ni­ties for the Nether­lands.”

Erf endeavors to limit risks through part­ner­ships – in the widest sense. As well as close part­ner­ships with live­stock producers, there are long-term agree­ments with buyers and other organic growers in the neigh­bour­hood.

Also in the organic sector it is all about money. Espe­cially now that people have less to spend.

Jaco Burgers

For example, they grow beet­root for a partner company which cleans and pre-cooks them, and puts them in consumer pack­aging. “Our part­ners have a direct line to the super­mar­kets,” says Jaco. “That is an advan­tage. And we have a strong posi­tion due to our large volumes. But that does not change the fact that also in the organic sector it is all about money. Espe­cially now that people have less to spend.”

For Erf, it is all the more reason to keep inno­vating. On the one hand, to keep the cost price down, but on the other to ensure the organic sector stays ahead of the game. “The conven­tional sector is not standing still, we are well aware of that. But I continue to believe in the power of the organic sector.”

Company details

The origins of ERF (Exploitatie Reserve­gronden Flevoland) go back to 1996, when 3,700ha of the former National Office for the IJsselmeer Polders’ land was trans­ferred to a foun­da­tion. The foun­da­tion holds the shares of BV Erf, which works the land until it is needed for urban growth or infra­struc­ture. At 1,100ha, the company is the largest private organic farm in the Nether­lands. The growing plan consists of 100ha of pota­toes, 150ha of onions, 50ha of sprouts, 150ha of beet­root 300ha of grass clover and alfalfa, 100ha of maize for silage, 50ha of sweet­corn, 40ha of parsnips, 50ha of broc­coli and cauli­flower. There are 11 perma­nent employees at BV Erf, supple­mented by self-employed people.