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Dairy   |   Animal welfare

Floating into the future

When Hurricane Sandy hit the United States and Caribbean in 2012 it caused an estimated $70 billion worth of damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure. But it also gave birth to an idea that offers a radical approach to fresh food production and a potential new weapon in the fight against climate change.

Peter and Minke van Wingerden were in Manhattan to see the damage first hand seven years ago, noting how the increase in severe weather events was putting food supply in jeopardy as the resultant floods led to paralysed supply chains and empty shelves. It was at that moment that the Dutch couple came to believe that the whole approach to agricultural production needed to change, and that fresh food needs to be produced close to urban areas to avoid damaging supply gaps in future.

Fast-forward to 2019 and the Van Wingerdens are a few months into making that dream a reality. Their Floating Farm, located in the Port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is described as a world first, producing milk from 32 cows on an offshore platform, milked by robots and all sold locally. The public are encouraged to come and visit as a way of reconnecting people with food production and educating children about where milk comes from.

Cows
Cows have stalls as well as access to a nearby field on land located next to the farm. 

Animal welfare is central to the project. Compassion in World Farming points out that cows in intensive farms can suffer from hard floors, lack of space and poor ventilation, all of which contributes to injury and disease. To address these issues, on the Floating Farm the cows each have their own stalls and are also given the opportunity to roam in a nearby field. Rubber flooring is more comfortable for their hooves, and plants and greenery make for a more natural environment, along with the airier conditions that come with being located on the water.

Co-founder Minke van Wingerden describes the site as an “innovation lab”, trialling different concepts to make it more environmentally friendly, with recent additions being solar panels to power the farm and a rainwater purification system to give the cows fresh drinking water. “It is not yet fully sustainable on energy, but we try to be as circular and sustainable as we can,” she explains, adding that the cows’ manure is used to produce a natural fertiliser.

There are big plans for the future. The business is in the process of moving into yoghurt production, and designs are being drawn up to extend the concept into chicken, as well as fresh produce via vertical farming.

Floating farm
Floating farms can be located close to certain cities and help reduce food miles for some products.

The Floating Farm is well placed in a country particularly open to conceptual agricultural production - the Netherlands already has the radical Kipster project, which claims to produce the world’s first carbon-neutral eggs; the low-impact, roundhouse Rondeel poultry farm; as well as a recently-secured agreement by supermarkets to pay banana suppliers a ‘living wage’.

It might feel like an idealistic project, but Van Wingerden insists that the maths stack up. “We had to attract shareholders, and of course they have a green heart but are also interested in the business case,” she says.

That business case includes being able to defend the concept against wider criticism of the dairy industry and its role in climate change. Critics point to the high levels of methane generated by mass dairy production, as well as the fact that 40 per cent of the world’s cereal grain is used to feed cattle, according to a study in Nature. A recent counter argument focuses on the carbon benefits if cows are switched to a grass-fed diet, though that’s less of a factor with the Floating Farm.

Van Wingerden stresses that one of the project’s major benefits is that by not using scarce agricultural ground the business does not contribute to the intensive agri-industry land grab, while a key selling point of siting the facility near to consumers is that it reduces so-called ‘milk miles’.

Minke
Minke van Wingerden set up the Floating Farm after seeing the shortages caused by broken supply chains. 

Then there’s the feed that the cows eat, which does not drain other precious resources. “We feed our cows from residual products from the local brewery, bran from the mill next door, grass from the soccer fields and potato peel from the local French fry industry,” Van Wingerden explains. The point is that it all adds up to a circular, holistic approach that is more sustainable and kinder on the environment.

“It’s amazing how much international interest there has been,” she says. “But of course this is such a small scale – a larger scale is far more attractive than this as a business proposition. We have to show the world that we can do it and we are now attracting global investors who are willing to make a tiny farm like this on a bigger scale in another part of the world. I think we could see many floating farms in the coming years.” 

Floating farms may not replace ‘big agriculture’ any time soon, but as the approach is honed and developed on a larger scale, it could offer much-needed relief for the world’s under-pressure farmland. And as the frequency of extreme weather events increases, its shorter supply chain and circular energy loop offers an interesting alternative model to keep shelves stocked during unexpected crises.

Comments

Diana J Newson

2 Months 1 Week

The biggest animal welfare issue of dairy farming is separating just-born unweaned calves and despairing mothers, and the sending the calves off to veal crates or even just killing them outright. This does not seem to be discussed in the article.

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Steve R

2 Months 1 Week

Well said Diana, I was thinking exactly the same. Conveniently omit to mention anything about the calves.

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Comments Editor

2 Months 1 Week

Hi Diana, thanks for raising this issue which is another aspect of the dairy farming debate - this article is just focused on dealing with new ideas in agriculture rather than other ethical discussions around dairy farming itself.

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Gillyflower

2 Months 1 Week

I'm sure there will be less compassionate farmers who will copy this model without the addition of a field,local feed from sustainable sources, comfortable flooring,and good ventilation for the cows. They will just see it as a means of saving land and money. The question as to what happens to unwanted calves is still being swept under the table by this industry.

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Michael Barker

2 Months 1 Week

I think this is a really important issue and is one that the owners will undoubtedly be looking at more closely as they grow in size. To start with the focus is obviously on proving the Floating Farm concept as a production model, but it was clear that they do genuinely care about animal welfare and want to create an environment in which the cows are comfortable. There are several examples of how they've tried to do this.

Unlike many other farms they are developing the project as an open and transparent model, encouraging the public to come and see what they are doing, which will bring inevitable scrutiny over their practices, but they don't seem afraid of that and are willing to evolve as it grows as well..

Clearly the wider issue of what happens to male calves is one that the industry continues to grapple with, and, as has been commented on, it's a big topic in its own right.

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Diana J Newson

2 Months 1 Week

Thanks for this comment Michael, but unwanted calves (annually produced, mostly male) are a dark intractable problem with dairy farming, including this dairy farm - due to the biology of the cow. No milk is produced unless the cow is repeatedly made pregnant, and gives birth to a full-term calf, which must be then removed so that humans can take the milk. I don't see that tackling the problem has anything to do with the size of the farm. If the owners did care about animal welfare they would care about the mother/young bond as mothering and being mothered are hard-wired natural behaviours. At the moment their approach to animal welfare is very "pick and mix". I can't agree with you that they "genuinely care" because they've simply done what's easy (eg a rubber floor). I'm afraid this is just another factory farm, with a gimmick. Will they be showing people/children the separation of mother and young and subsequent slaughter (or worse) of the calves? I don't think so. Chasing up what happens to the calves should have been a big part of this story. It's worth looking at the "calf at foot" dairy for genuine progress in animal welfare.

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