Two years of Carbon Farming by Vlaams Hoeverund, Inagro and Colruyt Group: a positive review

Two years of Carbon Farming by Vlaams Hoeverund, Inagro and Colruyt Group: a positive review

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

In mid-May 2022, a highly innovative collaboration was launched between Vlaams Hoeverund, Inagro and Colruyt Group related to carbon farming. The partnership aims to fix carbon in the soil through a number of pilot projects adopting smart techniques. Today, on the project’s second anniversary, the team can look back on a great many achievements. This month, for instance, Johan Pattyn in Ardooie finished planting the planned meadow screen consisting of no less than 500 trees and shrubs: a fine example of agroforestry. The plan is to now expand the joint Carbon Farming project in the future, and also look at the option of using carbon farming as a springboard for (an increase in) regenerative farming. Time for an interim review of a remarkable project.

Two years of carbon farming: a positive report with lots of knowledge sharing

Over the past two years, the joint Carbon Farming initiative by Vlaams Hoeverund, Colruyt Group and Inagro brought farmers, retail and a research institute together to intensively share mutual concerns, knowledge and experiences. What’s more, the topic was one that keeps many in the sector awake: sustainability in general, and soil quality in particular.

There were regular constructive exchanges of interesting (cultivation) experiences involving carbon farming, all links in the chain were presented, and the team can look back on a highly instructive period. Partners at Vlaams Hoeverund express their satisfaction. Luc Poppe from Wachtebeke points out: “The feedback we get from our discussion partners is very valuable, the insights you obtain help you adopt a different approach to your business.” Frederik Van De Sompel, cattle farmer from Sleidinge who experimented with wood shavings in his livestock houses, adds: “Despite the fact that analyses do not yet show any immediately noticeable carbon increase in the soil, this still provides a farmer with maximum crop yields: you can sense that the soil is reviving, and that’s a great feeling.” ​

Tom Van Nieuwenhove from Inagro states: “For us, it’s a fantastic source of hands-on experience because the techniques are not confined to a research context, but are applied in actual farm operations. It is also a source of new ideas coming directly from the sector itself, which are tested against existing business practices. Furthermore, it’s a direct way of identifying the problems farmers are facing and working together towards a possible solution or solutions. This gives the initiative a lot of power and potential.”

Carbon Farming: pioneering long-term work with lessons to be learned

The project was new for all parties involved, which meant there were naturally lessons to be learned. For instance, the partners concluded that the way project results are followed up could still be improved. Increases in soil carbon content evolve rather slowly over several years, so it is generally not useful to measure it on an annual basis. Knowing this, alternative observation-based parameters could have helped us evaluate the project’s progress. In addition, there were constant adjustments to the structure and the best way to coordinate the project. Professionalisation of the approach has been a focal point over the past two years. “But that is intrinsic to something so new,” Geert Hanssens, expert in Colruyt Group’s agricultural team, reassures. “We can actually say that real pioneering work has been achieved here over the past year.”

It is being considered whether it may be relevant to involve the links that are currently missing from the whole more closely in the future. With regard to policy, for example, further demonstration of the opportunities could potentially help policymakers align policy more effectively with practice, thus ensuring an even more stimulating atmosphere. Luc Poppe of Vlaams Hoeverund clarifies: “Elements you want to trial as a ‘pioneer’ often still involve a gap in legislation or in the established procedures, creating an extra (administrative) burden to prove that you are not doing things you shouldn’t”. Steven Van Hemelryck, project engineer with Colruyt Group’s Smart Farming team adds: “Moreover, if you are pioneering, there is often no standard or benchmark yet, so there is a risk that your efforts will not count towards later targets that are imposed. We are also going to have to look closely at that as part of this project in the future.” After all, the ultimate goal is to farm as ecologically and economically as possible.

Projects on the move: impressive agroforestry meadow screen in Ardooie just completed

Although it is too early at this stage to make any statements about concrete results, one can look back with pride at the great strides made within the various participating initiatives of the project as a whole. The most recent achievement is the planting of a meadow screen at Johan Pattyn’s farm in Ardooie, a fine example of agroforestry.

As many as 500 trees and shrubs (willow [90], hazel [55], hornbeam [55], rowan [55], alder [55], buckthorn [55] and maple [55]) were planted by Johan in the spring of 2024, over a length of 200 running metres, in two rows. The trees and shrubs serve multiple purposes: as a foraging hedge, shelter for grazing cattle, a habitat for animals (including birds) and capturing carbon above as well as below ground. In addition, the meadow screen has an aesthetic value and when selecting the trees, consideration was given to their regional provenance. And they didn’t rest on their laurels in Beernem, Webbekom, Wachtebeke and Sleidinge either: updates can be found attached to this release*.

Johan Pattyn in Ardooie
Johan Pattyn in Ardooie

Carbon Farming project as a springboard to regenerative farming

During the course of the project, we found that many of the measures taken by farmers to engage in carbon farming already have a place within the broader framework of regenerative farming. One example is growing maize in mixed cultivation with climbing beans, which is ideal for nitrogen fixation. Steven van Hemelryck: “Therefore, extending the project to regenerative farming is a logical next step. By doing so, we could reap the full benefits of the applied practices on soil quality and soil health and not just limit them to potential carbon storage.” Colruyt Group has also established a plan to carry out a pilot test for regenerative farming on its own land. The conviction is that this form of farming will be an essential part of sustainable and financially profitable farming in Belgium in the future.

* Update on other projects that are part of the collaboration (See PDF attached to press release of 12 May 2022 for the first intro to these projects: Unique cooperation: Vlaams Hoeverund and Colruyt Group join forces on Carbon Farming


  • Winter barley by farmer Jos Raeymaekers (Webbekom): Jos found a solution to use winter barley ‘Galileo’ to ensure the soil would be covered for a whole winter: good for overall fertility and contributing to carbon storage. The intent of the test with hybrid winter barley is to introduce more variety to the crops. The process is as follows: in spring (April), winter barley is cut and harvested for silage (as fodder crop). Afterwards, the winter barley sprouts again and provides grain for harvesting in summer. This creates the opportunity to grow more cereal crops that make a very positive contribution to soil health. The past few years have taught us that the combination is extremely climate sensitive. For example, in 2022, the spring was very dry and the winter barley was unable to reach full development after being cut. In 2023, the spring was very wet and it wasn’t possible to cut the winter barley. In 2024, the sprouting winter barley was unfortunately drowned in water. Despite offering good potential in theory, this combination turns out to be extremely weather sensitive, which represents a major limitation for its more extensive application.


  • Field with barley/vetches/peas and along the outer triticale with vetches (2.2 ha) at Luc Poppe’s farm (Wachtebeke) & project with the maize and climbing beans. The Carbon Farming projects in Wachtebeke from 2022 to 2024 demonstrate a progressive approach to sustainable farming. By integrating crops such as barley, peas, triticale, clover and vetch as precursors and maize with climbing beans as the main crop, these projects aim to improve CO2 sequestration through increased crop diversity and the use of legumes that sequester carbon and nitrogen in the soil. The innovative use of symbiotic relationships between plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria also reduces the need for synthetic fertilisers, promoting a more environmentally friendly farming model.


  • Sorghum cultivation at Claudio Saelens’ farmon 1.2 ha (Beernem); In the context of crop rotation and looking for climate-resilient crops, this was an ideal opportunity to experiment with Sorghum. Sorghum went into the soil after a late cut of grass. Sorghum needs plenty of water after sowing and first roots deeply. Only then comes the growth phase. We experienced a very dry summer. Unlike maize, the plant recovers after a period of drought and develops further. The volume was similar to maize, but the feed value was quite a bit less. On that front, there may be better varieties on the market.


  • Project with wood shavings at Sandra Patyn and Frederik Van de Sompel’s farm (Sleidinge): wood shavings have a great impact on CO2 storage. Sandra and Frederik set up a pilot project to use wood shavings from their pollard willows as bedding in the cattle pens (3 ha). To be applied to the fields afterwards as farmyard manure. Wood shavings from shredded wood can contribute to improved soil quality by being used in composting. In recent years, the combination of farmyard manure and wood chips ensured organic matter was built up in the soil of their plots. This resulted in a massive silage maize yield of 60 tonnes of fresh matter per ha in 2023, with fantastic digestibility and a huge cob share. This maize plot also proved to be a lot more drought-resistant, as the soil proved to retain more moisture during droughts thanks to the organic matter. An additional yield of 3.7 tonnes/ha of potatoes (Fontane variety) was obtained in 2022 compared to an adjacent plot, where organic matter is still being increased. It was also noticeable that the potato ridges had also grown in immediately. Conclusion: building up carbon and structure in the soil are super essential for soil quality.
    • As part of ‘Go for food’ at the European Food Summit in Roeselare, the couple had the opportunity to promote their project using wood shavings as bedding for stables - which is thus applied as circular agriculture in a closed livestock farm. “It has undoubtedly inspired others: indirectly, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has dusted off the idea of using wood shavings as a carbon applicator, partly because of our project,” Frederik proudly reveals.