October 5, 2023
Climate change and the loss of biodiversity are major challenges for the agricultural sector. Together with VP Landbouw, a direct participation of VP Capital, we therefore searched for a sustainable form of agriculture. By opting for regenerative agriculture, we want to ensure that VP Landbouw becomes futureproof.
The European Farm to Fork strategy, part of the European Green Deal, states that agriculture can play an important role in slowing down climate change. Grasslands, for example, remove CO2 from the air and store it in the soil. However, soil quality is, partly caused by intensive farming, drastically deteriorating.
Regenerative agriculture focuses on restoring and improving soil quality. The farmer does not deplete the soil, but instead restores soil life. As a result, the soil becomes more fertile and stores more water and CO2. Healthy soil life - which harbours countless organisms - is also crucial to addressing biodiversity loss. This is a win-win situation for biodiversity, climate and drought management. The technique is already more widely used in countries like Australia and the United States. Yet even there, the share of regenerative agriculture is still relatively small. According to experts, 1.5% of cropland in the US is farmed regeneratively.
A few years ago, VP Capital and VP Landbouw were looking for good examples of sustainable agriculture. Jobien Laurijssen, Sustainability Manager at VP Capital: “We felt that regenerative agriculture was the most suitable solution because it focuses on soil restoration and biodiversity and does so in a holistic way.”
Besides climate change and biodiversity loss, there are also other reasons to switch to regenerative agriculture. “Customers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact that agriculture has on the planet,” says Jobien Laurijssen. “They want more sustainable products. So, food producers are also asking for it. Furthermore, regulations are getting stricter. The Farm to Fork strategy, for example, talks about halving pesticide use by 2030.”
Manure from our own cows
Since 2022, VP Landbouw has been pursuing a regenerative approach. As Harrie van Puijenbroek, Director of Landgoed Gorp & Roovert -the estate on which VP Landbouw is located- explains: “We have been applying certain regenerative agriculture techniques for decades. The feed for the animals, for example, is largely grown in our own fields. The manure from our cattle is then put to full use in our own arable farming and vegetable cultivation. Hence, the livestock forms an important part of our closed cycle. Because our need for manure in arable farming and vegetable cultivation exceeds the production of our own livestock, we also use manure from some local livestock farmers. In this way, we close the cycle locally.”
To protect the soil, regenerative agriculture places strong emphasis on crop rotation. “We alternate between crops that extract lots of raw materials from the soil – like potatoes and beets – and restorative crops. The latter include grasses, cereals and legumes. Legumes, such as fava beans, are high-protein crops that fix their own nitrogen, eliminating the need to add extra nitrogen (such as fertiliser). This year we will combine a cereal crop with a legume on one plot. This type of mix cultivation is also part of our regenerative process.”
Storing carbon in the soil
By stimulating soil life, regenerative agriculture also enables the soil to store more carbon. That is where VP Landbouw is making extra efforts. “We plough as little as possible and use pesticides sparingly and intelligently,” says Harrie van Puijenbroek. “That way of working stores more carbon in the soil and doesn’t disturb soil life, which contributes to better water management. It also makes the soil retain more nutrients and makes them more readily available for the crops. To store more carbon, we also sow cover crops on all arable plots every year. Cover crops consist of a mixture of different plant species that continue to have good growth in autumn. As a result they keep the land covered to protect soil life during frosts and provide them with food. In spring, shortly before sowing, the cover crops are incorporated into the field so that the plants can serve as a food source for soil life. The extensive root systems of grains and grasses left in the soil also provide food for soil life. In this way, nutrients and CO2 are sequestered into the soil.”
VP Landbouw does not plough 70 of the available 400 hectares at all. The farm has that carbon storage certified, with regenerative cultivation being monitored by means of satellite images and photos. “Based on this, the increase of CO2 storage in the soil and the improvement of biodiversity are calculated. We can sell that impact through a digital platform.”
VP Landbouw also experiments with methods to promote biodiversity above ground. For example, the company sows crops in narrow strips so that any pests and diseases are confined to a single strip. This reduces the need for plant protection products, which is good for biodiversity. As Harrie van Puijenbroek explains, “The crops are interspersed with strips of grass, clover and herbs, which are attractive to hares and deer, as well as insect species. However, the principle is currently being applied on a small scale because it is very labour intensive. Last year, the cow pastures were sown with a herb-rich grass mix and the next step is to plant fodder hedges in our pastures. These provide extra food for our cattle while promoting biodiversity.”
VP Landbouw is going even further this year. They want to have the biodiversity on their sites inventoried. “The biodiversity monitor is an initiative of the province and is specifically aimed at dairy farms. With the inventory, we have a baseline measurement at our disposal that we will use to build a roadmap.”
Embracing a new, restorative vision of agriculture does not mean turning back time altogether; in fact it is quite the opposite. VP Landbouw is utilizing precision agriculture, amongst other things, to be more sustainable. “We like to experiment and are early adopters of new technologies,” says Harrie van Puijenbroek. “For example, all our tractors have GPS and seeding is done automatically. We also use cameras to detect weeds or pests, for example, so we can apply plant protection products in a very targeted and localised way. Precision farming and other technological innovations are therefore making regenerative agriculture much more accessible. Because our employees conduct the experiments together, we notice that the entire company has now embraced the principle of regenerative agriculture.” In 2022, VP Landbouw was awarded VP Capital’s internal Sustainability Award.