The story

Dutch farmers have always had to work with water. Now, in order to develop resilient and adaptable farming practices, research is being done on how best to farm on peat meadows while maintaining a high water table. A diverse group recently visited the Peat Meadow Innovation Centre to learn more about the possibilities of swamp farming.

On a sun-drenched autumn day, wearing waterproof boots, a motley crew of farmers, consumers, entrepreneurs, processors and policymakers set off into the Zegveld polder to learn about “swamp farming”. In short this means: farming with a high water table. At the Peat Meadow Innovation Centre (VIC) in Zegveld, thirty kilometers south of Amsterdam, the possibilities of this type of farming are being researched. The VIC experiments different methods such as: various cow breeds, diverse crops and water infiltration systems.

This excursion is the last edition of the Grond Verbond (Ground Connection): an alliance between farmers and citizens to take care of the landscape together. Last year, citizens submitted ideas for landscape restoration at De Groene Griffioen farm. Many of the ideas were based on the idea of rewetting peat meadows. It is clear that this a subject very much alive and kicking and that consumers see a benefit to it!

But what are the consequences? Can we still produce food? Which crops? And is it attractive for farmers to do so? The organisations Wij.land, MOMA and the Grond Verbond therefore organised this excursion to the Veenweiden Innovatiecentrum in Zegveld with people from the entire food chain, hoping to get answers to these questions.

“Every problem once started as a solution” – Roelof Westerhof, VIC

At the start of the day, Roelof Westerhof, Innovation Manager of the VIC, first explains the historical perspective: many centuries ago, even before Mansholt’s famous ‘never hunger again’ plan, peat meadows and bogs were drained to produce food. What a wonderful solution it was back then to drain marshes to produce high-quality food! This is how the current peat meadow landscape came into being. And Dutch farmers still produce millions of litres of milk per year from cows in the peat meadows.

But the limits of draining are now apparent. Extensive draining results in soil subsidence and the emission of greenhouse gases – problems which are becoming more and more urgent. Increasing the level of ditches and groundwater seems like a logical solution. By raising the water level, peat oxidisation is reduced and even halted. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions and slows or stops soil subsidence.

A field research plot to measure soil emissions from peatland (Image credit: Wij.land)

We do not yet know exactly what the optimum water level is to combat greenhouse gases. After all, completely flooding peat meadows and creating marshes also results in methane emissions. International research indicates an optimal water level of approximately -20 cm below ground level. At that level, greenhouse gas emissions seem to be the lowest. The VIC does not yet know exactly whether the soil subsidence can be stopped completely. For this, more needs to be learned about, among other things, soil chemistry.

Peat meadow farming = horticulture, arable farming and cattle breeding

The visit to VIC take us to the peat bog farm, the dairy farm and the cattail (typhus latifolia) field. We also see a field with elephant grass and cranberries. Roelof describes it as follows: “We are actually doing both horticulture and arable farming as well as cattle farming here. And we are also responsible for water management. That task normally falls to the water board, but we manage the level here ourselves (in consultation with the water board).”

The peat bog resembles a marshy vegetable garden. Some crops are even completely in the water, like watermint. We see fruits (e.g. blueberry, blackcurrant and cranberry), herbs (e.g. arrowhead, water mint), but also starch suppliers, such as wild rice and water nut. Not everything is a success, but for the short time it has been planted, it looks good.

The peat bog farm is like a conventional vegetable patch, but with crops grown in and underwater (Image credit: Wij.land)

We walk on to the dairy farm. For many farmers, the main question is whether it is still possible to keep cows on a peat meadow with a higher water table. The VIC has gained experience with three different breeds of cow (Jersey, Blaarkop and Holstein), different types of grassland (including herb-rich), and two different water table heights (a normal level of -50 cm and a high level of -20 cm). A water table of -20 is quite a challenge for cattle farming. Especially, according to Roelof, during wet summers, although this level is easier to maintain in dry summers. However, it is still too early to draw conclusions.

Roelof is less enthusiastic about the cultivation of cattail. He adds, however, that other people think differently. There is disagreement on the extent to which and the speed with which we can solve the challenges at cultivation level and product development; and whether or not is it possible to compete with other crops in the new biobased economy. The cattail holds up poorly in the long term (it is a pioneer species) and empty spaces are already appearing in the field. Although recent aerial photos show that some places are also growing back. However it is not yet clear why.

Elephant grass can be used as a material to manufacture various products like paper (Image credit: Wij.land)

The cranberry field of the VIC is only 200 m2. During the first years, Roelof was sceptical about the crop, because the cranberries kept getting overgrown by weeds. But an innovative grower in the Krimpenerwaard – an area east of Rotterdam – has developed a good yield of cranberries after several years of high weed pressure. It turned out that the weed pressure diminished after some time, due to acidification of the soil. Roelof: “It’s also nice when you’re not right for a change!” The VIC is now working with this grower on a cultivation manual for cranberries.

An important lesson for all innovative crops is that it takes time. As an example, Roelof explains that it took 15 years before farmers could successfully grow maize in the Netherlands. “Therefore, do not expect that after a few years you will be able to achieve great yields with a new crop. So, do not give up too soon”.

A lot is secretly happening already!

After all the impressions in the field, we discuss open questions and next steps. Everyone agrees that we have to work together, because every player in the entire food chain has a role to play to get such a big change off the ground.

And while we are discussing this, we also discover that a lot is already happening unnoticed. For example, there is a Food Swamp project of 300m2 in The Hague and the initiators are currently exploring a three-hectare project on regenerative farm De Eenzaamheid. The tea makers from Wilder Land tell us that they are developing a tea with meadowsweet grown in the Food Swamp. Land van Ons recently purchased a piece of land on which they are going to practise new forms of peat farming. Herenboeren Groene Hart also want to plant a wet plot with species that thrive on it.

In short, a lot is already happening! The conclusion of the visit to VIC is that we can learn a lot from each other and work together. Because there is still plenty to learn and improve, and it is certain that in the future we will see and hear a lot about exciting peat meadow innovations.

Coming together as a group showed that a lot is already happening in with swamp farming in The Netherlands, and it will only increase in the years to come (Image credit: Wij.land)

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