Testing the water with a new way of feeding cities
In an old port to the west of Rotterdam’s centre on a stretch of scrubland overlooked by warehouses and cranes, there’s a buzz of excitement.
What was once an area for loading and storing fruit from ships — and more recently home to detention boats for refugees — is about to be transformed into a farming project the likes of which have never been seen before.
Six years in the planning, the footprints of the world’s first floating dairy have just been laid, and people are understandably intrigued.
“We had to open a visitor’s area because we were getting so many questions,” Minke van Wingerden of Beladon, the property company behind the €2.3m project, tells the first agricultural journalists to visit the site. “People want to come and see what’s happening.”
From the make-shift visitor’s tent — resplendent with bunting, hay bales and upcycled wicker furniture — visitors can see the 25m² concrete platform which was dragged into position by barges earlier this month.
The first layer of a three-tier futuristic construction, it will eventually include an education and visitor centre, function room, waste water and manure recycling centre and a dairy processing facility.
The glass-covered top layer will be home to 40 Montbeliarde cattle, who will be shaded by trees and shrubs growing on the platform, milked by robots, and allowed cross a bridge onto dry land to graze on pasture by the water’s edge.
Sustainable urban food
It’s a plan which has been greeted with a fair amount of scepticism, but Beladon is confident it will reconnect people with food — and be a roaring business success.
What’s more, it believes it could be rolled out globally across coastal and delta cities, feeding the world’s urban dwellers.
“We have less and less land, and most people want to live in cities,” Mrs van Wingerden says. “We have to deal with urbanisation so cities can grow.
“In future we will live in space, but in the meantime we have to look for other solutions. Floating [food production] creates climate-adaptive solutions.”
It’s often said that there’s a fine line between genius and madness, and it is possible that dairies like this really could be part of future sustainable food systems.
Increasing the amount of food produced in a city would reduce the number of food trucks on the road, helping to reduce carbon emissions, while offering more space to produce food.
And as many city-dwelling children grow up without knowing where their food comes — from never mind stepping foot on a farm — having a doorstep dairy will at least teach them that milk comes from cows.
But is it too much of a gimmick to really, as Beladon calls it, ‘transfarm’ our food systems, never mind really deepen consumer understanding of agriculture?
Bridging or deepening the divide?
While the developer might describe the dairy’s glass-fronted design as ‘iconic’, it’s so far removed from a normal dairy farm that it will undoubtedly paint a false idea about what farming really looks like — potentially deepening the divide between farmers and consumers.
And how will local residents — who have no experience of rural life and the smells that accompany it — feel about living so close to a dairy farm?
“A neighbouring asparagus packer was concerned about the smell, but we pointed out that delivery trucks come by every day and he doesn’t notice the smell from those,” says Mrs van Wingerden.
That’s one neighbour appeased, but whether those living in the planned housing developments in the area will feel the same remains to be seen.
And all of these issues are before the project’s scale and cost is addressed. The floating dairy plans to produce 1000 litres a day — a drop in the ocean (pun intended) when it comes to what the city needs.
The costs of dairy farming
Unsurprisingly, the relatively small quantities of milk, cheese and yoghurt produced on-site will be sold direct to consumers at a premium.
“The price will be higher than regular produce, but we are not just thinking about the price of food — we are thinking about the price on the earth,” Mrs van Wingerden says. “If we can reduce CO2 production the price is worth it.”
It’s an admirable concept, but will people be prepared to pay those premiums regularly, and how inclusive is it to produce a product which many less-affluent city-dwellers would be unable to afford?
With no clear indication of the dairy’s cost of production, and with the company’s own money behind it, the developers haven’t had to prove to the bank that it can be profitable to secure investment.
By designing a quirky dairy that people have to pay to visit — and has a rentable meeting centre inside — Beladon doesn’t need the food system to be profitable, which is one of the biggest problems farmers are struggling with.
For now, this is an experiment that many will keep an intrigued eye on, but whether the venture gets enough consumers on board to keep it afloat is something only time will tell.
A version of this article first appeared in Farm Business