Prof­itability and social expec­ta­tions in harmony

From pioneering renew­able projects to local focused marketing, farmers across Europe are inno­vating in the drive for sustain­ability, but for Dutch farmers – cost is key.

Farmer Jan Reinier de Jong installed 200 solar panels on his farm build­ings 10 years ago, making him one of the first in the Nether­lands to do so. Today there are 1,060 panels on his build­ings, gener­ating 310-kilo­watt peak (kWp). And storage has grown since investing in 295-kilo­watt hour batteries in 2015, to an impres­sive 126 lithium battery cells today, giving him the choice of deliv­ering elec­tricity to the market when the price is high, or using it to run his potato storage facility.

“I saw, and I still see, the future in renew­able energy,” he says. “And now the busi­ness is at the fore­front of sustain­able energy.”

Mr De Jong is the fourth gener­a­tion to work the 130ha farm in Odoorn, Drenthe, where he grows starch and seed pota­toes, brewer’s barley and sugar beet. Envi­ron­men­tally friendly agri­cul­ture is very impor­tant to him. He owns a 20ha Daalkampen solar park, and was co-initiator of the solar farm pool in his munic­i­pality.

The role of agri­cul­ture

The UN Climate accord states warming of the planet must be kept to less than two degrees Celsius. EU Member States have committed to reducing CO2 emis­sions by at least 40 percent by 2030, and by 2050 energy consump­tion must be entirely based on renew­able sources.

In a recent energy webinar, senior researcher in Urban-Rural rela­tions Andries Visser notes, that if we want to achieve all of that and give tomorrow’s gener­a­tions a future on this planet, everyone will have to contribute, including agri­cul­ture. “We need to generate a total of 35 Terawatts (TWh) of renew­able energy on land,” he says. “Our calcu­la­tions show that we can produce 11TWh if we place 1,000sq metres of solar panels on every farm in the Nether­lands. If, in addi­tion to that, we place a 25m to 35m tall wind turbine, we can generate an addi­tional 4TWh to 5TWh. Which means the agri­cul­tural sector can generate half of the total amount required.”

The farmer is a fore­runner in sustain­able energy.

Elec­trical irri­ga­tion offers bene­fits in several areas for Jan Reinier de Jong.

Renew­able power irri­ga­tion

The energy tran­si­tion offers oppor­tu­ni­ties for agri­cul­tural entre­pre­neurs, not only in the produc­tion of renew­able energy, but in the util­i­sa­tion of that energy on farm.

And Mr De Jong seized that oppor­tu­nity in 2018, by investing in irri­ga­tion which runs on the power from his solar panels. “To be honest, we didn’t irri­gate before that,” he says. “We would have one bad year out of five and consid­ered that to be an oper­ating risk.” But after the drought of 2018, when yield strug­gled to reach 25 tonnes of seed pota­toes per hectare – half of his usual yield, he decided to invest in renew­able powered irri­ga­tion.

I say, and see, a future in elec­tri­fi­ca­tion.

Jan Reinier de Jong

“With the invest­ment in wells, pumps, pipes and reels all powered with renew­able elec­tricity, we can irri­gate precisely, across 95ha of the 130ha farm,” says Mr De Jong.

Social entre­pre­neur­ship

Mr De Jong is pleased with the advan­tages in irri­ga­tion. “The bene­fits are clear to me. It is cheaper than irri­gating with diesel, the pump requires less main­te­nance and there is less CO2 and nitrogen emis­sions. We irri­gate exactly where we want to, so we save water – that also has a social impact.”

But it must deliver returns, he empha­sises. “It’s great to be socially respon­sible, but ulti­mately it’s about the finances. I want to improve our oper­a­tions and be more prof­itable.”

However, as water becomes scarcer, and legis­la­tion more complex, can his invest­ment be recov­ered? “You can choose to dig your own well. This requires a permit, but then you are your own boss,” he says. “The costs are around £5300, but, when you amor­tise that over 20 years, it’s doable; espe­cially if you’re talking about a reason­ably large area of farm­land.”

Tom and Ellis Lugten­berg are changing tack.

The dairy plant

Tom and Ellis Lugten­berg, from Olst, Over­i­jssel, have run a small dairy processing plant on their land since the begin­ning of 2023. They started the enter­prise in part­ner­ship with a restau­rant and can process 1.1million litres of milk into yogurt or butter annu­ally. In the first year, 80 000 litres of milk came from their own 150 Meuse-Rhine-Yssel (MRIJ) cows.

Making our own dairy prod­ucts makes us less depen­dent on the milk processor.

Tom Lugten­berg

But there is still capacity for other inter­ested parties, explains Tom. “We have set it up on a large enough scale to produce not just for indi­vidual consumers, but also for bigger customers, like hospi­tals and schools.”

The Lugtenberg’s see this as the future of their busi­ness. “By processing our own dairy prod­ucts, we add value to our unique produce, making us less depen­dent on liquid milk sales, and giving us a more stable income stream,” says Tom. “That makes it possible for us to invest in sustain­ability, farm more exten­sively in harmony with nature, and focus on local produc­tion.”

With their vision, the Lugten­bergs are aligning well with the wishes of society.

Social pres­sure

“Soci­etal demands are going to play an increas­ingly large role in agri­cul­ture,” says Willem Lageweg, director of the Food Tran­si­tion Coali­tion (TCV) and who is actively involved in the Farmers Council. “The Nether­lands Envi­ron­mental Assess­ment Agency has esti­mated the envi­ron­mental costs of agri­cul­ture in the Nether­lands at seven billion euros annu­ally. Add a further £7.8 billion in health care costs that are the result of unhealthy eating, making a total of £14 billion in the National Budget, that must be paid by the taxpayer, and it’s clear why social pres­sure on farming and food processing compa­nies will only increase in the future.”

They have been processing milk from their 150 MRIJ cows into a variety of dairy prod­ucts since the begin­ning of 2023.

Farmers and the agri­cul­tural industry will have to be more alert to changes in society and respond to them. The TCV and the Farmers Council, for example, call in their Managing Space mani­festo (Managing Space, see sidebar) for a more multi­func­tional way of farming, that can help stabilise farm incomes, and helps farmers receive more appre­ci­a­tion from society, explains Mr Lageweg. “Produc­tion alone is no longer the future for most Dutch farmers.”

Change of plan

Recog­nising the changing land­scape first, was Tom’s wife, Ellis. “We have always had an inten­sive farm, and for six gener­a­tions, the focus has been on achieving a high price per litre of milk per cow,” says Tom. “But Ellis came from outside the sector, and having studied retail manage­ment, began to ask ques­tions.

“We started exper­i­menting with a more exten­sive approach using less fertiliser and more herb-rich grass­land. And what did we find? The less silage we needed, the more sustain­able it was as well as a saving in fuel.”

The intro­duc­tion of phos­phate restric­tions also contributed to more sustain­able oper­a­tions. “As a result, we are keeping less stock and we keep our cows longer,” he says. The average age at cull is now around eight years. In the Nether­lands, the national average is around six.

“And although our milk produc­tion per cow may well be less, because we keep them longer, our cows give just as much as the national average over their lives. We are at 42,000 litres per cow over a life­time, and the national average is 35,000 litres per cow,” says Tom.

The Lugten­bergs have discov­ered that sustain­ability and returns go well together. “With a vision and mission that meet the wishes of society, we can earn a good living.”

Managing Space

The Food Tran­si­tion Coali­tion (TCV) and the Farmers Council drew up a mani­festo: Managing Space. Which assigned a clear manage­ment role for the govern­ment. “The Nether­lands is small and densely popu­lated,” says co-initiator and TCV board member Willem Lageweg. “In short, our posi­tion is that func­tion follows soil. That means that we should produce in areas of fertile agri­cul­tural land. In less produc­tive ground, we can give prece­dence to other uses, like nature and housing.”

He sees a manage­ment role for the govern­ment in that process. “The focus must be placed on farmers who want to change – we’re talking about struc­tural change. Increasing atten­tion is being given to the area-focused approach, and we think that is the right way to go.”

In addi­tion, tech­no­log­ical inno­va­tion is an impor­tant pillar, he says. “Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion is one example, as is data. We must see how we can limit nega­tive impact, like nitrogen emis­sions, with the help of data. Tech­no­log­ical devel­op­ments should concen­trate on achieving that.”