Peter and Minke van Wingerden are farmers in the Netherlands. Peter was in New York City after Super Storm Sandy in 2012 and was disturbed to see how flooding prevented people from having access to fresh food. He realized then that the same thing could happen in many places around the world as the effects of a warming planet — rising sea levels and more powerful storms — become more prevalent. When he got home, he designed and built the first floating farm in the Netherlands.
He and his wife live in Rotterdam, a place that has been adapting to flooding for centuries. 90% of the city is below sea level and many of its homes and commercial buildings float on the water that is a constant part of life in that city. A trained engineer with a background in property development, Peter decided after he returned from New York to put his expertise to good use by designing and building a 929-square-meter floating dairy farm.
Today, the couple’s Floating Farm bobs in the harbor at Rotterdam, where it is home to 40 Maas-Rijn-Ijssel cows, who collectively produce some 200 gallons (757 liters) of milk a day. In addition to helping nourish the local community, the waterborne farm is playing a part in the global conversation about how the climate crisis is pushing farmers to reconsider how — and where — they produce food, according to The Guardian.
Building A Floating Farm
The Van Wingerden experimental farm floats on pontoons, rising and falling with the tides, which in Rotterdam fluctuate about eight feet each tidal cycle. The rubber-floored barn occupying the top level of the structure is where the cows are robotically milked, mucked, and fed. They can also walk down a gangplank to a waterside patch of pasture. The middle level is where the milk is processed into butter, yogurt, and other dairy products.
It is on this level where rain and desalinated seawater are purified for the cows’ to consume. Their manure is processed into fertilizer that is used on local soccer fields. When those fields are mowed, the grass clippings return to the Floating Farm as feed for the cows.
At the bottom of the structure is a naturally cool space used for ripening up to 1,000 wheels of gouda-style cheese — some flavored with curry, others with wild garlic — and all of it for sale through the farm shop. In other words, it’s a circular system that is self-sustaining — not just ecologically, but economically.
The Van Wingerden floating dairy farm was a new twist. Should a weather crisis arise, a waterborne farm isn’t necessarily stuck in place. An urban farm that serves city dwellers also reduces carbon emissions associated with food transportation. Furthermore, a farm that floats on water also helps to take a little pressure off the “global land squeeze,” a term conservationists use to describe the ever growing tension that arises when a finite amount of land results in an increasing amount of wild terrain being given over to agriculture in order to serve the appetite for “food, feed, fuel and fiber,” explains Janet Ranganathan, the managing director for strategy, learning, and results at the World Resources Institute, a global research-based NGO that focuses on sustainable land use.
The van Wingerden model is ripe for reproduction, which is exactly what the 14-member Floating Farm team is working on now. Plans are in the works for a floating vegetable farm to move into the space next to the current Floating Farm. Permit applications are also out for similar structures in Dubai, Singapore, and the Dutch cities of Haarlem and Arnhem.
“To showcase how easily adaptable a Floating Farm can be, we are building a second farm for eggs and vegetables,” the van Wingerdens say. “The possibilities for food production and innovation is endless. The Floating farm can be tailor made with a variety of food products and is at the same time extremely scalable. The modularity of our concept on the water is one of the strategic advantages compared to land based buildings.”
Those new ventures will apply the lessons learned from the original Rotterdam project constructed by Peter and Minke van Wingerden. “You need to build a house in order to know how to build a house,” Peter says. Some of his key takeaways have been practical, such as those to do with mechanics on how farm materials flow through a waterborne structure. He’s also learned a great deal about dealing with bureaucracy and entrenched thinking.
The biggest obstacles he sees ahead are not financial or physical, but rather political and administrative. “As a world, we are in such a need to find solutions for the upcoming 30 years,” Peter says. “One of the biggest challenges we come across worldwide is regulations. Cities need to have disruptive thinking. Cities need to have disruptive departments. Cities need to have areas where you can say: OK, this is the experimental zone.” What Peter and his team are pulling off is of a different order than your typical sustainability measures. “We are not innovative,” he says. “We are disruptive.”
Floods, extreme heating, megadroughts, and even rising night temperatures have sent the food system off its axis and cost the US farm industry alone over $1 billion, The Guardian says, but the race to outsmart the onslaught of extreme weather is well under way.
A team of scientists in Mexico is developing wheat strains that are climate resilient. Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont, Colorado, is a test bed for the emerging method of agrivoltaic farming — a space-efficient system that allows for solar arrays and traditional farming to coexist on the same patch of land. Proponents say this multi-tasking approach results in a greater crop yield than traditional farming. “If you have a strong ecological system underneath the solar panels,” says Byron Kominek, Jack’s third-generation owner, “you’re able to have a win-win for climate change.”
On its website, the company says, “Agrivoltaics is the co-location of agriculture and solar energy infrastructure whereby the micro-climates created by the solar panels provide benefits to the vegetation or animals beneath and around them. Jack’s Solar Garden is the largest commercially active research site for agrivoltaics in the USA! Come visit us to learn more about the micro-climates we have created and the crops we are growing!”
Joshua Faulkner, a research assistant professor and the program coordinator for the University of Vermont’s farming and climate change program, says extreme weather has rendered the world of farming unrecognizable from what it was only decades ago. “Farmers used to be able to count on certain things being normal, like dates of planting and dates of harvesting. Over the past 10 to 15 years, these assumptions have been thrown out the window and farmers are having to rewrite the book.”
Without food, civilization stops. No factories are staffed, no ships cross the oceans laden with goods from foreign lands, no products get purchased online or in stores. And yet the world’s population keeps increasing while the amount of arable land shrinks. If we are to survive as a species, we will need to adapt our farming techniques to a hotter, drier world. The Floating Farm in Rotterdam shows one way to do that by creating a circular system that uses no land.
We better get busy figuring this out. If nothing else, the flooding in Pakistan should be a bright red warning flag that changes are coming and we aren’t ready. Nature doesn’t care about how things used to be or the easy country charm of living on a farm. We owe it to ourselves to learn from the Floating Farm experiment, before it is too late.
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