A new Dutch polder landscape
For the Dutch peat meadow landscape, the race for maximisation of production per hectare is starting to near its finish line, but a future pathway is emerging.
To the untrained eye, the famous Dutch peat meadow landscapes between Amsterdam and Utrecht appear lush and green. A densely populated landscape known for its green meadows, interspersed with narrow ditches, cows grazing, farms here and there and silhouettes of cities and towns on the horizon. It’s part of the delta and wetlands of many European rivers and peat soils rich in organic content .
Looking more closely, the peatlands suffer from soil subsidence, eutrophication, biodiversity decline and a harsh business environment for farmers. Decades of artificially lowering the groundwater table for ever increasing growth in milk and meat production have fed into negative trends which require a agri-landscape level transition. Luckily, the energetic team of Wij.land has created a breeding place for testing innovative and sustainable land use in wetlands of the Netherlands.
Wij.land strives to create healthy and resilient Dutch landscapes where agriculture and nature merge into sustainable business models. They work closely with farmers, nature organisations and others on concepts and business models that contribute to 4 returns of landscape restoration: return of inspiration, social capital, natural capital and financial capital. They work according to Commonland’s 4 returns® philosophy.
- The Dutch peatmeadows are vital production areas for dairy and meat products in the Netherlands. To be able to produce milk and meat you need dry soil for these specific cows to be able to graze. For this, the peatlands are drained with ditches and the groundwater table is actively lowered.
- Decades of artificially lowering the groundwater table in peatlands has caused peat oxidation which emits greenhouse gases and other problems arise as the land ‘sinks’ (soil subsidence). As a result, meters of soil have ‘sunk’ and foundation of houses erode.
- Biodiversity has declined rapidly throughout the last decades due to intensified agriculture. Also, eutrophication of the water bodies in the area is a result of too much manure and chemical fertilizers. This triggers rapid growth of aquatic plants and algae blooms that results in a decline of oxygen and diversity of life in the water.
- The business environment for farmers is harsh. While milk prices stay the same, farmers are under pressure to produce more and more milk per hectare.
- Wij.land mobilises, connects and guides. They empower farmers to test new pilot concepts, for example for natural soil management, new grazing strategies, increasing biodiversity and closing nutrient cycles. Pilots that turn out to be successful can then be scaled up.
- As a team, facilitate relationships and innovation between farmers, nature conservation organisations, entrepreneurs, policymakers and many other stakeholders.
- Their activities serve to develop 4 returns business models for sustainable land use. It all starts with an idea that is tested on a small scale (pilots) with farmers, scientists, ecologists, policy-makers and entrepreneurs. If the pilot is successful, the idea is taken further and scaled-up.
- Through their pilot fund, wij.land supports farmers financially. They ensure to connect the right people, experts and organisations to make each pilot and project a success.
- Their transition fund helps farmers that wish to transform their farm into a more regenerative farm. Their team helps them by developing the new business plan and connects them to land owners, investors and experts to work out the specific regenerative practices.
- Harvest of Tomorrow: Obviously, Wij.land’s work is not taking place in isolation and connects and contributes to several converging processes stimulated by an innovation hub aiming to collectively find a future-proof path for Dutch Agriculture (see also For Tomorrow’s Harvest).
What we have achieved so far
Mobilizing people on the landscape
In two years’ time, Wij.land mobilized and inspired over 200 community members, 40+ farmers, the Dutch Nature Conservancy (Natuurmonumenten) and entrepreneurs to join them in experimenting and taking action on finding alternative, future-proof land-use models.
This bottom-up approach – often starting at the kitchen table – involved deep listening to the stories of the landscape actors to investigate where they see challenges and opportunities in the landscape. A key insight has been that good listening is sometimes more impactful than providing funding for activities. For example, even though the funds per activity in the soil pilot fund have decreased, the farmer group is still expanding. This 1-2 years ‘sensing into the landscape’ phase was followed up by a set of pilots and activities on the ground.
Wij.land set up a pilot fund to kick-start and facilitate as much action on the ground as possible. Through this approach, the ‘learning by doing’ was especially powerful and resulted in a lot of cross-fertilization and inspiration throughout the landscape resulting in the first contours of a wider movement to collectively search for alternative land-use models.
Soil as a key driver to participate
Throughout 2016-2018 Wij.land and its farmers realized that soil improvement is the key to a farmers business and, more importantly, it sparks a lot of interest amongst other farmers. Their ‘soil trajectory’ resulted in a group of >35 farmers currently involved in sustainable soil management on approximately 350 hectares.
The chosen soil methodology aims to restore the balance (chemistry, biology and physiology) of the soil, to restore overall soil fertility and productivity with no/minimal chemical inputs. In addition, over 1000 tons of nature cuttings were processed into bokashi by several farmers which is used as soil amendment, improving below- and aboveground biology.
These improved soil management practices will have an assumed positive effect on not just the soil, but also on biodiversity as there is a close connection between below- and above ground biodiversity. Also, there is an expected improvement in water quality as the leaching of nutrients in the soil will decrease. For a selection of 60 parcels, Wij.land will extensively measure, monitor and film the results over time.
Role of business
“For us, it’s about finding a balance, we now farm extensively and don’t have to push our land anymore which makes for a more calm farming business, more in balance.”
- Wilko Kemp, farmer in the peat meadow area.
Wij.land is currently testing and trialing several business models, including:
- From tenant to partner: a new form of collaboration between nature organisations that own land (natural areas) and farmers that manage these lands. In this new form of collaboration the farmers obtain more responsibilities and long term security of leasing the lands, for which in return they adopt more sustainable practices on their own land.
- Improve the soil biology on agricultural lands and in natural areas by looking at the balance in the soil and by replacing chemical inputs with natural ones.
- Biomass recycling: Process grass cuttings from natural zones, locally on farms, for example by making a soil improver or pellets.
- Encourage farmers to do more to improve biodiversity on-farm. Supported by Contribute, Wij.land has set up a Biodiversity fund to fund biodiversity-enhancing measures and track change over time.
- Pilot & Transition fund: Wij.land’s pilot fund supports farmers financially. Focus lies on connecting the right people, experts and organizations to make each pilot and project a success.
- Financial incentives: Development of landbank to get investors to fund land which can be leased with agreements on nature inclusive land use measures.
- Experiment with new harvests that match a higher water level, such as azolla, an aquatic crop.
Work on new, business models between farmers and entrepreneurs, that enable farmers to transition to regenerative businesses. Including support to new “spin-off” business initiatives such as Ptthee, Boeren van Amstel and Bodemliefde.
From a 4 returns holistic perspective, what could be potential outcomes at a landscape level in 20 years?
This Landscape has the potential to turn the losses from degradation into 4 Returns. The ENABLE team identified potential 4 return outcomes at a landscape level over period of 15 to 20 years.
Return of inspiration
Lives of people and their sense of purpose in the Netherlands have significantly improved as a result of the project, people are engaged and participate in and initiate 4 returns initiatives throughout the land. High valuation of farmers and nature conservationists in their profession.
Return of Social Capital
500 farmers are in transition towards regenerative farming practices, with financially sustainable business models and long-term job creation. Several connections (short value chain) have been created in between the countryside and the cities, thereby more than halving average food kilometres.
Return of Natural Capital
Restoration of ecological functions on 125.000 hectares, with positive effects on soil fertility, water quality, biodiversity and CO2-emissions. Land-use is in balance with the carrying capacity of the ecosystem.
Return of Financial Capital
Several scaled up 4 returns business models and enterprises in the landscape. Landscape restoration has become a mainstream investment.
In the western peat meadows, the landscape where Wij.land works, there are water and nature areas (natural zone), peat meadows (combined zone) and economic zones (cities and peri-urban areas). Planning of new nature areas is in progress and also the mapping of the zones has just begun.
Wij.land is focusing on the peat meadows (combined zone) in working together with farmers to improve their practices (mostly by implementing regenerative dairy farming practices); This is where Wij.land builds and enforces partnerships between farmers and nature conservationists to optimally combine their efforts in the area.
More about the landscape
Hectares: 125.000 ha