Let it flood

The Noardeast-Fryslân Region

As one of several municipalities in Friesland, Noardeast-Fryslân is located in the Dutch Wadden region, an important natural habitat containing rich flora and fauna. In the following, a short overview of ongoing sustainability projects in the Wadden region and Noardeast-Fryslân will be offered and the concept of circular economy will be introduced. As one possible implementation of a circular economy that has been proven to be successful elsewhere, the concept of solidaric farming will be explored in detail and the feasibility of implementing such a system in Noardeast-Fryslân will be discussed. To that end, several interviews with different stakeholders on the topic of sustainability, circular economy, current farming approaches, and solidaric farming will be analysed and the financial viability, risks, and benefits of such an approach contrasted.

Sustainability Projects in the Wadden Region

“The topographical characteristics of the Wadden region have transformed it from a relatively unpopulated region in the north of the Netherlands, into one of the biggest prospective hotbeds for the development of sustainability-focused projects within the country, and also the world as a whole.”

The Wadden region, as its name suggests, is also located next to the Wadden Sea. This and its surrounding regions boast incredibly high levels of biodiversity, and additionally serve as a critical area for the interaction of various fauna, namely ducks, geese and other indigineous birds. As a result it was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Presence on this list results in legal protection from international treaties, and therefore prioritizes the sustenance of the region. All in all, the preservation of the Wadden Sea Region, and the areas surrounding it are of universal mutual interest.

The fostering of socio-economic development in the Wadden region through “Sustainable Tourism” is a method that was undertaken only as recently as 2014. Since then a variety of sustainability-centric projects have arisen with the aim of promoting high quality sustainable tourism, products and activities that contribute to the conservation of the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site (Duurzame Waddeneilanden). What is sustainable tourism one may ask? It is outlined quite simply by the concept of visiting somewhere, and not only doing so for one’s own pleasure, but to also positively impact the environment, society and economy of said area.

Holwerd an Zee

One of the most prominent sustainable tourism projects in the Wadden Region is currently taking place in Holwerd aan de Zee. In order to boost the economy, developers plan to use the region’s vast landscape along with an injection of privately and “publicly” raised money to develop the region socially, and in turn economically while simultaneously maintaining the environmental integrity of the region, which is quite the task. Some of these improvements include but are not limited to the creation of a Storm surge barrier after the breaching of the local dike, and the creation of a new and wider Delta dike. (Het Project Holwerd an Zee)

Sustainable Wadden Islands

Other Wadden Region sustainability projects include the “Sustainable Wadden Islands” project. It is a goal of the Wadden islands to be fully self-sufficient with regards to energy and water by 2020. In order to meet this goal, the islands drew up a manifesto in 2007 and have since then tasked themselves with assembling teams that are in charge of initiating, guiding, and developing support for the sustainability projects. These projects to date include the construction of windmills and solar panels, the implementation of energy saving checks for buildings, and the utilization of green gas, water as well as energy (Duurzame Waddeneilanden).

With these approaches in sustainable development arising only as recently as 15 years ago, it is important that the careful and sensible planning of projects that are only beneficial to the region are implemented (Duurzame Waddeneilanden). If done correctly and purposefully, the Wadden Sea’s sustainability and sustainable tourism strategies can be adopted not only in the Netherlands, but elsewhere in the world, serving as an example for others and providing incentives to visit, invest as well as maintain environmental biodiversity and sustenance in the Wadden region for years to come.

The Concept of Circular Economy

“Over the past one and a half centuries, the one-way model of production and consumption has been the norm for industries (Ghosh, 2020). Within such a linear model, the raw materials that are used to manufacture goods are disposed of, whilst the good itself enters a life cycle of being sold, used and finally also discarded as waste.”

The purpose of a circular economy is to disassociate economic growth from excessive resource use, and rather aim for a restorative industrial system that manages waste as a resource for production and hereby ascribes further value to each product (Ghosh, 2020). The concept itself gained momentum from the late 1970s onwards and was based on the German cradle-to-cradle framework. Within this conceptualisation, products are designed based on their effectiveness, and all products, production processes and necessary materials have to be realised in a manner that is safe for human health and the environment (Ghosh, 2020).

Within a circular economy one distinguishes between two types of material flows: biological nutrients and technical nutrients. The former is intended to re-enter the biosphere safely, whilst the latter are produced at a high quality in order to be regenerative and hereby avoid being subjected to entering the biosphere (Oldfield et al., 2016).

The emphasis is placed on achieving zero waste by means of resource conservation through the adaption of production processes, energy recovery systems and the application of used products as new input materials. Overall, such a system has the ability to improve “resource efficiency, resource productivity, benefit businesses and the society, creates employment opportunities and provides environmental sustainability” (Ghosh, 2020, p. 6).

The Circular Economy within the Agriculture Sector

Circular agriculture calls for using resources moderately, which includes the repurposing of agricultural biomass within the food system as renewable resources (Thijssen, 2018).

Solidaric farming - Community supported Agriculture

“Such approaches to farming are aimed at increasing survival chances of small and local farms, decreasing the distance between supplier (farmer) and consumer, and offering greater transparency with regard to production and quality of food.”

The concept of a circular economy can be applied to so-called ‘community-shared agriculture’ (CSA), ‘shared farming’, or ‘solidaric agriculture’ (Fieldhouse, 1996; Cone & Myhre, 2000). According to Fieldhouse (1996), the pillars on which shared farming builds are food security, sustainable farming, and community building.

As laid out by Cone and Myhre (2000), the most basic form of solidaric agriculture requires that, at the beginning of a season or year, a group of shareholders buys shares of a farm and its output, ensuring that the farmer receives sufficient financial means for production. Here, shareholders carry the risks as well as the benefits (Fieldhouse, 1996): on a regular basis, they can collect their due share of produce; however, they are not entitled to a set amount – in case of a poor harvest, all shareholders receive less produce.

Depending on the exact implementation of such a community-based approach to agriculture, solidaric farming allows for the principles of circular economy to be applied. For example, shareholders may pick up their produce in a local farm-shop, where they can receive their dairy products in glass containers that are to be returned, or the farmer can ensure that no plastic wrappings are used. Because of the small consumer-base, the farmer can easily control how produce is to be picked up and how much waste is created in the process. In addition, due to being financially secure, the farmer does not need to use environmentally harmful chemical fertilizer, as the ultimate amount of produce that can be harvested does not determine the farmer’s income. Moreover, the farmer may be better able to optimally plan which crops, vegetables, an/or flowers to plant in order to prevent monocultures and make use of agrobiodiversity.

'Solawi' in Germany

The concept of ‘Solidarische Landwirtschaft’ (Solawi; engl.: solidaric agriculture) is already widely implemented in Germany: the official website (Solidarische Landwirtschaft, 2020a) lists 281 Solawis within the country and even offers a search engine to find Solawis within close proximity (Solidarische Landwirtschaft, 2020b). Solawis focus on the survival of small, local farmers that try to maintain a balance between agriculture and the existing natural habitat, and thereby often do not produce sufficient amounts to achieve financial stability through global wholesale trade.

A Solawi is defined as a union of one or several local farmers and a group of private investors who cover the running cost of production on these farms. In return, the harvest as well as processed foods derived from the harvest, such as bread and dairy products, belong to the investors and can regularly be collected. That way, investors are able to purchase not only seasonal, fresh, and local food, but also enhance their knowledge of agriculture, natural conservation, and food production in general, while the farmers are financially secure for the time of contract (usually a season or a year). In addition to financial security, the farmers also gain the freedom to structure their business as they wish, for example, they may experiment with different crops and produce, engage in more organic farming, and increase animal welfare – practices that are not always financially viable when producing for the global wholesale market.

‘Herenboeren’ in Assen, The Netherlands.

A slightly different concept has been implemented in the ‘Herenboeren’ in the Netherlands (De Herenboeren, n.d.). Members of this community own an agricultural business and employ a farmer to cultivate the fields. A one-time financial contribution buys membership, and a weekly contribution ensures the financial fluidity necessary to keep production up and allows members to collect fresh produce on a regular basis.

Members, as owners, have entire freedom in deciding what produce they want to cultivate and how this is to be done. In addition to a merely business-oriented community, the Herenboeren are also focused on promoting group cohesion by organizing various activities, such as picnics, activities for children, or tours around the farming grounds.

That way, the idea of a community-based approach to agriculture truly comes alive, as not only risks and benefits, but also various tasks that have to be completed are shared across members and farmer(s) and the community comes together for private group activities in addition to merely taking care of the farm.

Thoughts on Community supported Agriculture

However, despite the positive intentions of a community-based approach, not all benefits are necessarily achieved. Indeed, as investigated by Cone and Myhre (2000), positive feelings and reactions towards one’s participation in a CSA increased with one’s own active involvement, such that the most active members had the most rewarding experiences. Therefore, the option of increasing one’s financial contribution in order to ‘get out’ of investing time and effort into helping out with farm work may not lead to the desired outcomes of increased sense of community and relatedness to nature. However, in contemporary society, work-life-balance frequently tips toward the side of work, leaving little leisure and free time, and willingness to invest this precious time in physical labour may be low. Hence, members may not, after a season, consider their participation in a CSA worthwhile and discontinue their membership (Cone & Myhre, 2000). 

The lack of capability or willingness to invest time would also prevent the realization of one of the pillars of shared farming: community building (Fieldhouse, 1996). However, Cone and Myhre (2000) suggest that the main focus within membership groups is a community of interest, not a community of mutual relationships and closeness, and that the main motivation to join a CSA in the first place is the aspect of food security and quality rather than community building. Thus, the benefit of social contact and reciprocity may not be as tangible as previously thought.

Lastly, as discussed by Fieldhouse (1996), despite being a promising venue with regard to the three pillars (food security, sustainable farming, community building), the capacity of CSA to become the predominant manner of farming is limited by the amount of citizens that need to be fed and the number of farmers willing to engage in such a business model, as switching to shared farming also means having to take other people’s wishes into consideration. In addition, completely switching to a CSA approach is unlikely to be feasible for larger companies, as the aspect of community-building would hardly be possible with a vast amount of members, and because the restructuring of the entire business would likely be complicated and costly. Hence, CSA approaches are likely to be feasible in smaller companies and farms and for local farmers who seek a close relationship with their customers, but in order to benefit from all three aspects – food security, sustainable agriculture, community building (Fieldhouse, 1996) – hard work is required from the farmer as well as the members.

Interviewing different Stakeholders

Three interviews were conducted to represent the opinions and experiences of three different stakeholders, namely, the Dokkum city municipality, the Zuvielcooperatie (ZuCo), and an economic specialist. There perspectives on different topics are summarized below, followed by more detailed descriptions of the interviews.

The municipality is familiar with SA concept and has seen its potential. However, they are currently not involved with any agricultural projects and dont have a division for sustainable agriculture. They are unsure about that role the municipality can be as they believe that that is a matter for the farmers themselves to decide. It could be financial (however that is not possible at the moment), as a middleman to bring stake holders and farmers together for meetings regarding the project or as an exemplary role for their people. Dokkum City Municipality

The three owners of ZuCo invented their so-called cooperation because they were personally convinced of the benefits SA can have. They seem to have a rather idealist than profit-driven motivation and their enthusiasm appears to pay off. Not only since they were on national TV, they have a higher demand than supply. Their ambition is to expand their business by delivering management services/expertise in the field to generate similar companies. These could become part of their cooperation. They do see a growing market for SA products but in order to maintain their “corporate identity” and stay authentic, they do not want to increase production and sales of their own products. ZuCo

It’s a niche market for financially stable people (meaning very few people). In the NL its about 3-4% of the total food market without any indication of rapid growth. Its is interesting because the farmer isnt the one with the power, it is the community in which the farmer provides. The community are the ones able to provide necessary resources. Well established farmers are the ones who don’t need such a SA system but rather they are the ones who sometimes wish and are able to apply such a system. Its is more about support from the people rather than land/money issues. SA farms first start out relatively small but require a significant number of consumers from the local community. Prof. Dr. Strijker

For any farmer who wants to begin SA, major investments are required. The municipality estimates they could help stimulate such initiatives with a small investment of around 500 euro/ subsidies. However, the municipality currently does not have the financial capabilities to support these initiatives. Most farmers have long-term contracts with companies for which they produce a set amount of produce, offering them security in their business. Dokkum City Municipality

Due to funding by participant investors, the owners of ZuCo did not have to take any personal financial risk when establishing their cooperation. The participant funding further allows them to easily adjust their production to the market. They do mention that their goal is to maintain a good salary which implies that they are financially well-off. ZuCo

Highly dependent on type of product that is produced such as veggies/fruit/dairy. An estimated investment in the millions is required to even purchase such a farm and that is before equipment, animals, tractors, drainage system, insurances etc. Another dependent variable is geographical location of the newly started farm. A CSA is theoretically feasible as long as there is a large group of consumers who are willing to ‘go the extra mile’ to obtain their products. His estimation: a CSA farmer must be able to earn a gross salary of 50-60 000 euros. A minimum of 50 families investing 2-3 000 euros per year is required to support such a project. Prof. Dr. Strijker

Westerkwartier: collaboration between government, entrepreneurs and education for nature preservation Datumandeel: project between municiplaity and Noorderlijke Friesche Wouden. Dokkum City Municipality

ZuCo would support other similar projects and would want them to join their cooperation, i.e. they would like to make a business case out of their (management) expertise. ZuCo

50 farmers started a cooperative in Rotterdam who decided to stop after 10 years Assen People Prof. Dr. Strijker

1. Strengthening social aspects within a community 2. Develop stable agriculture production chains that could be enhanced by less usage of fossil fuels and pesticides 3. increase in number of jobs Dokkum City Municipality

1. Products of higher quality compared to industrial foods 2. Transparency (which is important for the consumer) 3. Local food serves local people who feel connected to what they consume (“story telling”) 4. No strict regulations that become necessary when industry is large-scale (apart from hygiene regulations) ZuCo

1. Gives farmers access to additional resources, financing and land. 2. Start relatively small 3. Great for consumers who see as the extra time taken not as a cost but as an invest (better connections and more knowledge about their products) 4. Promotes locally grown produce consumption Prof. Dr. Strijker

1. Increase prices for consumers 2. Person dependent 3. Large farms unlikely to participate in SA 4. Highly dependent on variety of crops Dokkum City Municipality

1. Higher demand than supply –> iif you want to keep the corporate identity and stay authentic, you will reach a limit ZuCo

1. Inefficient way of trading between families and farmer 2. Time consuming for consumers 3. Consumers are hard to come by (for investment purposes) Prof. Dr. Strijker

1. Requires major investment and years before a farm (in the north) to be adapted for SA 2. Farmers cannot analyze consumer ants and need wheras supermarkets can making it difficult to compete 3. No financial opportunities to support with subsidies Dokkum City Municipality

1. New national legislations to protect the environment seem difficult to implement as a small business 2. Bureaucratic work can become considerable for a small business 3. Subsidies would be linked to restrictions/obligations ZuCo

1. You need to be able to gather a minimum of 50 families who are willing to contribute at least 2000 euros a year. 2. Information regarding such a system is still too few. info regarding reasonable size, do’s and don’t etc. 3. Difficult to compete with retailers who are very efficient 4. NL’s agriculture sector is highly developed so such a switch within local villages and town would decrease the sector volume 30-40% Prof. Dr. Strijker

Interview with the Municipality Dokkum

The city municipality is aware of the presence of projects related to solidaric farming, but they do not seem to be able to assist or to be involved in such projects due to a lack of resources including, but not limited to, finance and manpower. Several different projects that could be described as solidaric farming; each has their own distinct contributions to the overall sustainability for surrounding areas.

For the city municipality, the most important contribution of solidaric farming is bringing stabilization to the community. It strengthens the social community by actively involving local residents, having residents working in the field as farmers to help create job opportunities, and eventually develop sustainability.

Some downsides of solidaric farming projects can be seen already, but most are still unclear due to the relative novelty of this approach to farming. For example, the prices of products that are produced under the solidaric farming approach tend to be higher due to its labour-intensive nature of production. For such labour-intensive processes, the larger the scale, the higher the cost and thus lower the payback rate. Such a disadvantage already signifies unpopularity for profit-driven investors.

As for the farmer, the initial investment for a farmer is quite large if the project was to be supply-push from the farmer side. In addition to that, the city municipality is not able to provide subsidy; this combination limits the potential of such farming forms. 

In order to raise farmers’ interest in such solidaric farming, they need a promised number of consumers to create a sense of security, to assure their chances of being able to cover the initial investment while obtaining a reasonable salary/income; this could come from a company or local residents. Initiation of such projects should be driven either by enthusiasm or profit; however, the enthusiasm of the local residents remains unclear, adding uncertainties to similar projects, and the estimated payback time does not seem to be able to charm most of the investors.

To sum up, the Dokkum city municipality is not very involved in local projects similar to solidaric farming. The municipality’s stance on such projects is that they should be bottom-up projects because the municipality is not capable of providing subsidies. Regardless, the city municipality would be happy to see the development in these projects, and it is willing to provide necessary assistance regarding quality control and organization of relevant events such as local meetings and discussion sessions.

Interview with the Zuivelcooperatie (ZuCo) Dokkum

ZucCo produces milk and dairy products to sell to the local consumers. They produce milk locally and transport the milk from their farm to their processing sector in the city center. The final product is then distributed through their ice cream shop and other partners, such as local restaurants.

This operating model runs on a centralized management system where three founders share the entire cooperation while holding responsibility in their own perspective sector. A farmer runs the production sector, a cook manages the processing sector, and the third owner manages the business as a whole. This business model forms a sustainable economy within a relatively small community; products are locally produced and locally consumed. Funded by its local residents, this cooperation works for a stable and steadily growing market. 

Attracting its consumers with a favourable origin story, this cooperation has built a firm market in the local community. The driving force for a strong connection is the local residents’ enthusiasm for sustainability, circular economy, and the desire to contribute to something positive. This cooperation does not only sell products but also provides a sense of involvement to their local consumers in the process of building a local community-based agriculture. This sense of participation continues to attract and to stabilize the local community-based agriculture. 

ZuCo plans to expand its business, but not to an extent where it loses its intimacy with its consumers. They want to be able to involve the local residents closely, so the consumers can have a sense of participation in the development of a sustainable economy, which is often regarded as positive and beneficial. It was also thought to be favoured to not have governmental funding because this often comes hand in hand with restrictions.

Though seemingly straight forward, necessary procedures for running a food production facility are to be followed. The main concerns were to obtain permission to deliver products to the city center and to obtain relevant documents to breed the cows. With the current nitrogen emission issues, farmers are strongly restricted in their work, and this causes uncertainties. 

To sum up, the local cooperation connects local residents by involving the residents into a local circular economy, the driving force of the consumers in this model is the desire to contribute to the community positively and to also contribute to this local circular economy while being profitable for the cooperation. The size of this model determines the activity of participants and thus decides its feasibility.

Interview with Prof. Dr. Strijker - Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Groningen

Thoughts about CSA

“[…] you have to talk about a niche, because not everybody sees that invested time as a benefit rather than a cost.” – Strijker

 There are often independent farmers involved in such farming; these farmers do not need complementary factors of production, thus giving them full autonomy in the management of the farm. The driving force for these farmers is often to gain affirmation about their work from their community. The return could be a stronger bonding with the local community, an affirmation regarding their contribution to the environment, or a compliment on their effort to go towards such a path. Therefore, the driving force for this type of farmers is not necessarily financial, but it is more mentally inclined. However, in order to pursue such a project, more basic needs must be fulfilled first; this means that independent farmers must be willing to have a smaller financial income. This might only apply to a small portion of the farmer population.

Does CSA offer a feasible Alternative for established Farms

“It’s not about economic benefits but benefits themselves. All benefits are economic. Even the social ties have some sort of economic value.” – Strijker

Employed and self-employed farmers might have different experiences with CSAs, most probably because of their different driving forces. The majority of the farmers participating in CSA are often employed. In an employment relationship, the size of such a farm is an important factor to be considered; the bigger the farm, the bigger the investment such as land and labour force. CSA is labour-intensive due to their inefficient production ability, when compared to industry based agriculture, bigger sizes often worsen the situation, leading to an increase in the final price. Therefore, the size of the farm needs to be relatively small consisting of approximately 50-250 investors in a community.

Another important factor to be considered is the geographic and demographic characteristics of the community. Geographic location often determines the kind of product this farm produces, and demographic characteristics often determine the actual feasibility for such a farm. The more active involvement from the investors, the more feasible such a farm is. The participation links closely to the size of the investor group: larger the group, fewer the participation, but not too small that the group is unable to provide enough financial support. This balance between the size of the farm and the participation of investors requires more in-depth investigation through scientific methods

Feasibility of CSA

“The financial feasibility depends very much on the geographical context in which you start your business in. In principle, it is feasible, as long as you are able to connect a relatively large group of consumers to the farm who are willing to come once or twice a week to collect their products and not take the easy way and go to the supermarket for a one-stop shop, who are willing to eventually spend a lot of time in the farm with all kinds of festivities and helping with harvesting or whatever. That is the real connection of course, for people to be involved in the farm.” – Strijker

When talking about its economic feasibility on a greater scale for the employment styled CSA, it is rather unsatisfactory. Its inefficient production ability will most likely increase its price and lower its market competitiveness due to a very high implicit cost such as time and labour etc. causing a decrease in the potential market for such a farm. However, it is not to say nobody would want to involve themselves in CSA because a large portion of the return is not quantifiable, and it varies per person, a pleasant mood from working in the field, a sense of achievement or a sense of participation in preserving the local environment.

Challenges of CSA for Governments and our Society

“We as a society should not accept that they have to be farmers with a low income. That would mean that half the farmers in the Netherlands would lose their jobs.” – Strijker         

 

Execution needs emphasis; supporting this idea is not enough; local investors must involve themselves in this project. These problems arise because CSA is still in a relatively novel phase, it does not have a universally successful operating model testified through practice, and this signifies immaturity in its operating system and industry chain. However, the difference between the driving forces for each CSA creates different models, and each different model could contain aspects worthy of learning.

Role of the Local Municipality

“CSA is not a blueprint, but rather invented from the bottom up, so every project has its own specific aspects to learn from.” – Strijker

 

Lastly, regional city municipalities could participate in CSA by conducting research to optimize the farm size by taking different parameters into account, maximizing land resource utilization. A stable macroeconomic environment would also fuel for similar exploration, and it would be great that the local city municipality could offer financial subsidies when needed.

Local sustainable markets have already formed, such as the circular economy between Netherlands and Germany within a radius of 300 to 500 kilometers. However, if a national scale circular economy is not favoured since agriculture is one of the pillar industries in the Netherlands, contributing a significant amount of job opportunities and exports. Therefore, a fully domestic circular economy is not very favourable.