Zonnegoed, Joost van Strien
Note: While this case study is of a farm in the Netherlands, there is still a lot of useful information (e.g. farming at larger scales, rotations, stock-free fertility management, and more) that can be applied to Scottish stock-free agriculture despite the obvious differences in climate.
For roughly 25 years now, Joost van Strien has run his 90-hectare vegetable farm, Zonnegoed, organically and just last year he took it a step further, obtaining the Biocyclic Vegan Standard. Farming by this standard means that Joost manages Zonnegoed without any animal-based inputs (e.g. manure and slaughterhouse waste products), nor with any synthetic fertilisers or agrichemicals. Instead, the Biocyclic Vegan Standard seeks to encourage plant-based, closed loop farming through practices like using green manures for fertility, making biocyclic humus soil, incorporating wildlife into the land and much more. Zonnegoed is located in the Flevoland region of the Netherlands, and so, it sits upon sea ground which was only reclaimed about 60 years ago. Since this area of the Netherlands is relatively new and is predominantly used for agriculture, it lacks much wildlife and biodiversity. Yet, thanks to Joost’s management practices like planting trees and wildflower strips, and enclosing most fields with natural borders, his land is far richer in biodiversity than the surrounding area.
Zonnegoed’s biodiversity levels are likely to increase even further as Joost has already planted the bordering windbreaks for a 5-hectare food forest. This food forest is situated at the centre of the farm, meaning all the arable fields share a border with it, which helps increase the proximity of beneficial pest predator species and the connectivity of wildlife corridors. As the name suggests, Joost’s food forest will also supply valuable fruits and nuts. No concrete plans have been made for what species will be chosen, but his preliminary idea is to grow hazlenuts, walnuts, apples, pears, prunes and berries.
For Joost’s arable fields, he runs an 8-year rotation with 3 of these years devoted to growing a green manure mixture of lucerne, clover, grass and other herbs. The remainder of the rotation is occupied by spelt, potatoes, pumpkins, onions with red beets, and carrots with parsnips which are grown for one year each. Due to the large scale of Joost’s farm, harvesting is done mechanically, and while he plans to switch to clean energy for his machinery once it is more feasible, his farm already draws down enough carbon to offset the farm’s emissions, making Zonnegoed carbon neutral! One of the main reasons his soil is able store carbon securely without it being re-released is because only the top 5cm of the topsoil is cultivated when sowing seeds or incorporating green manures for example.
Obviously, growing such a large quantity of crops lifts a lot of nutrients from the soil which subsequently need to be replenished. As expected, the 3 years of green manures is absolutely key in this regard, especially for supplying nitrogen. Although, Joost explained to us that he actually grows more green manure material than he currently needs and so, sells about half of it as feed to other farms until he finds other uses or market outlets for it. Part of the 2020 guidelines for the Biocyclic Vegan Standard allows forage material from up to 40% of the farm’s cultivated area to be sold as feed for the first 5 years after receiving the certification, in order to make the transition more economically viable (See section 3.6.2 ‘Management of forage areas’ of their guidelines).
In addition to the green manures, Joost also receives cut materials (lots of reeds and weeds, and some grass) from a nearby nature reserve which he makes into compost with windrows. Initially, this might seem unsustainable, but the reserve managers need to regularly mow/cut the area so that there is not too much nitrogen to stop wildflowers from growing there. So, essentially Joost is doing them a favour by making use of this resource.
From conducting soil tests, Joost has found that the loss of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium and other nutrients from crop production are all compensated for, thanks to the way he manages the soil. At the same time, Joost has noticed an increase of about 1% in soil organic matter (SOM) content over the years, and suspects this will continue to increase some more. Joost hopes that the further increase in SOM will remove the need to irrigate at all in the future, since the soil will be able to retain moisture better.
Talking to Joost, we were curious as to what sparked his decision to get the Biocyclic Vegan Standard. He tells us that he has been sceptical of the need for animal manure in maintaining fertility for quite some time and that 2 years ago, he came upon a research article that made him decide to stop using manure. The study reported that pesticides were still present in organic dairy manure because the majority of Dutch dairy farmers still use conventionally produced straw, due to the lack of availability of organic straw. By deciding to forego animal manure inputs, Joost could no longer retain his Biodynamic certification which requires that animal manure must be included on the farm. This happened to put Joost’s farm in the rare circumstance of now being stock-free and organic. Upon discovering the Biocyclic Vegan Standard then, it made sense to capitalise on his situation and pursue this certification. While Zonnegoed became certified only recently, Joost hopes that under the Biocyclic Vegan label, his veganic produce will command an equivalent, if not higher, price to his previously Biodynamic produce, particularly once the veganic/stock-free organic market develops more in the coming years. Furthermore, he plans to transition away from exclusively selling to supermarkets and build up more direct sales via an online shop on his website (https://www.zonnegoed.nl/).
We wish Joost and the rest of the team at Zonnegoed all the best with their endeavour into producing under the Biocyclic Vegan Standard!