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Even circular agriculture can’t exist without mechanisation


26 March 2020

The Netherlands must become a global leader in circular agriculture by 2030 – that’s the goal set by Carola Schouten, Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. In other words: our agriculture must economise and apply a sustainable approach to natural resources such as the soil, air and water. What does that mean for manufacturers of agricultural machinery in the long term? According to Niels Havermans, Director Sales & Marketing Europe for Ploeger Oxbo Group, this is a ‘nuanced story’. 

Mechanisation has been a significant driver, over the past few years, for the intensification of agriculture. Do you see the role of mechanisation changing or reducing now there is a greater focus on making agriculture less intensive? 

“Let me say, to start, that we are most definitely an advocate of an agricultural system that is as nature-friendly as possible. I think, however, that the situation in the Netherlands should not offer a standard for the rest of the world. What is ‘intensive’ here, is normal for countries with a lot more space and not excessively ecologically damaging. We sell our harvesting and fertiliser injection machines on the global stage so our horizon is much broader than just the Netherlands. That said, we are increasingly fitting our machines with a wide range of sensors that enable very precise agricultural practices.”

Could you provide an example? 

“The latest generation of machines for injecting fertiliser are fitted with sensors that continuously monitor the level of nitrogen and potassium in the fertiliser in the tank and, on that basis, determine the optimum quantity of injected fertiliser. And our machines which spread solid fertiliser granules do so on the basis of a weighing system that is incredibly precise.” 

Circular agriculture devotees focus on dry animal manure, compost and crop residues to stimulate soil life, and certainly not on mechanical slurry injection. Is that not a threat to your business?

“Injection is the best way to apply liquid manure, in my opinion. The big problem with fertilisation is the evaporation of ammonia. By injecting the manure, you prevent 95% of the nitrogen in the manure from evaporating. So there are two aspects to consider: there is no nitrogen burden for nature and you don’t need to apply the injected nitrogen on agricultural land as artificial fertiliser either. Let me put it this way: if we didn’t inject in the Netherlands, the nitrogen problem would have been a huge issue years ago. In Germany, there are in-depth discussions about the leaching of nitrogen into groundwater. We were talking about that issue in the Netherlands 15 years ago; thanks to accurate application, we already have that problem pretty much under control. So, in that sense, every injection machine that we sell equates to progress compared to how things used to be. But we still have a lot of ground to cover, in a commercial sense too.”

What do you make of the demand for strip farming, forest gardening, food cultivation interwoven with wild plants, and similar? Is there room for harvesting machines in these types of concept? 

“We follow these ideas with interest. The point is that they tend to be charming and idealistic but fail to offer an answer to the question of how we can feed the world’s population. We must beware of too much hobby-farming within agriculture. Given the challenges we are facing, intensive farming is absolutely vital. What we can talk about is how you do this in a way that is as sustainable as possible. I know, from our customers in the Netherlands, that there are ways of doing this in a very responsible manner: they grow different crops each year in a field and then repeat the cycle after eight years. This allows them to counterbalance the intensity of the crops. They are also using crop protection agents in a much more deliberate way; this is vital because our customers’ customers, i.e. the vegetable processors, are increasingly focussing on ‘zero residue’. And the analysis methods for detecting residues are becoming ever more accurate. We are also seeing more customers transferring to organic growing. It’s oversimplifying the issue to say that all conventional agriculture is ‘too intensive and therefore bad’. It’s a nuanced story.”

In another interview with you, I read that a lot of vegetables that we see in the fruit and veg department in the supermarkets have been picked by hand in low-wage countries. Will that change as a result of circular agriculture?

“I fear not. Flown-in ‘fresh’ vegetables, in my opinion, are not the most sustainable option either; the best option is frozen vegetables and conserves that are locally harvested in-season and then processed within hours, retaining all of the products’ goodness. So, our machines are the most effective method for harvesting these products.”

So, for the time being, will we continue using increasingly large machines which compact the soil? 

“As long as the machines are driven by people, yes. This is a seasonal task and, during the harvest period, you don’t have an endless supply of drivers. Every driver must make scale increases; we’re just following the market in this regard. In terms of compacting the soil, smaller machines would be better although there are other aspects to this too. Many machines now use caterpillar tracks which distribute the pressure. Tyre technology has also improved hugely compared to previously. So I’d say, the more modern the machine you’re using, the more responsible you’re being. Many of our customer are medium-sized companies who are careful growers who absolutely take ecological aspects into consideration.”

Also read Circular agriculture: a new direction for Dutch farming?
Also read ‘Ploeger Oxbo: innovation in the field’