Unique cooperation: Vlaams Hoeverund and Colruyt Group join forces on Carbon Farming
Concrete pilot projects with Flemish farmers to fix carbon in the soil
Thursday, May 12, 2022
Today, the cooperative Vlaams Hoeverund and Colruyt Group are presenting their own pilot projects on Carbon Farming. The retail group and the Flemish cattle-breeders, already important partners in the agro-food chain, joined forces to fix carbon in the soil by means of various smart techniques. Colruyt Group provides inspiration, advice and financial support, and the farmers get down to work with creative crop rotations, among other things. A much-needed initiative in the context of maintaining a healthy soil. The test project is co-supervised by Inagro.
Carbon Farming as a Sustainable Course
Today in Flanders, and by extension the whole country, there is an important opportunity in building up the carbon content of the soil. Soils with a good organic carbon content are more resistant to erosion, have a better water balance and are more fertile. It also provides better protection against drought or flooding. A carbon-rich soil works like a sponge: it retains water better in dry conditions and lets water through better in wet conditions.
"Carbon farming means taking carbon out of the air and ‘storing’ it in the soil. There are several innovative techniques and smart applications for carbon farming, from organic fertilisation and more diverse crop rotations to agroforestry. We are also exploring the possible revenue models that can be linked to this in our Belgian agricultural sector, but we have also noticed that incentives for active soil management are sometimes lacking," explains Franky Coopman, soil consultant at Inagro.
The challenges are real. And to tackle them, it is often good to join forces. That is exactly what Colruyt Group and the farmers within the cooperative Vlaams Hoeverund, as partners within the agro-food chain, have done. For some time now, they have been working together on various pilot projects to practice Carbon Farming on a few Flemish fields. "A good example of a possible business model within the agro-food chain itself," says Franky Coopman, who is helping to supervise the projects.
Vlaams Hoeverund (VHR) is a cooperative that unites Flemish cattle farmers, and has done so since 2019. Together they bring high-quality beef to the market. Since its inception, they have worked closely with Colruyt Group on two important pillars: quality and sustainability.
Vlaams Hoeverund has been working on its own initiative for a long time on making cattle farming more sustainable, for example in terms of circularity, and was therefore certainly interested in setting up things around Carbon Farming as well. In addition, as a retailer providing thousands of customers with fresh food on a daily basis, Colruyt Group has the ambition to continue to dedicate itself to sustainable agriculture.
This Carbon Farming story is about a real interaction, a partnership in which both parties together want to set a fundamental movement in motion. Today, Colruyt Group mainly has a stimulating and advisory role. "Colruyt Group mainly aims to achieve a sustainable movement; we want to provide that 'spark': we help look for solutions, techniques and crop rotations that also offer added value for farmers. Things that maximally meet their needs, so that the continuity of their business is also assured. We also provide financial support to cover extra costs and/or to help compensate for lower yields - this way, the threshold is partly removed. We really want to lay foundations here and make a structural contribution. Bringing something meaningful to the outside world, meaningful to different parties", says Geert Hanssens, expert in agriculture at Colruyt Group. He is in regular contact with the farmers of Vlaams Hoeverund.
The further development of the ideas and the implementation are entirely up to the farmer. They do it all themselves, it is their achievement, and that is the added value of the project.
Luc Poppe of Vlaams Hoeverund says: "This story is literally taking place in the field. It is moving fast, we are constantly learning and updating, literally with our feet in the soil. And it is nice to know that we are not alone, and can continue to inspire and stimulate each other. Reliability and openness in communication have been central to the cooperation from the very beginning - it is particularly interesting for Vlaams Hoeveru nd to be able to liaise with the experts within Colruyt Group".
Concrete Belgian Carbon Farming projects*
In the past year, some very concrete projects were started within Flemish Hoeverund: pilot projects that apply alternative crops, crop rotations, combinations of crops and techniques to keep carbon in the soil. Together, the initial state (baseline measurements) was determined, the frame of reference given, and progress monitored. It is quite an authentic way of working, tailored to the farm, and that gives a lot of energy to all parties.
- Winter barley by farmer Jos Raeymaekers (Webbekom): Jos committed himself to mow a cut of winter barley 'Galileo' (3.5 ha). The barley was mowed 2nd half of April 2022, and was stored in bales as fodder for cattle. Afterwards, the mown winter barley can shoot up again, in order to provide a good yield of grain in the summer. In this way, the soil is covered for a whole winter, which benefits overall fertility and contributes to carbon storage. "This practice seems very interesting to us, on the one hand to work on carbon storage in the soil and on the other hand to break the limited rotation of grass - maize - grass", says Jos.
- Sorghum cultivation at Claudio Saelens on 1.2 ha (Beernem): Sorghum is a type of grass and can be sown in the spring after grassland. First, two grass cuts are made, which provides a cover for the winter. Afterwards, Sorghum can be sown at a minimum soil temperature. This is a protein-rich food source and can be fed to the animals after ensiling together with maize.
- Planting extra trees for extra shade for the cattle at Johan Pattyn (Ardooie)
- Shredded wood project at Sandra Patyn and Frederik Van de Sompel (Sleidinge): Wood shavings have very good effect on CO2 storage. Sandra and Frederik are setting up a pilot project to use wood shavings from their pollarded willows as litter in the cattle pens (3 ha). Afterwards, it is spread out on the fields as manure.
- Field with barley/peas and along the outside triticale with vetches (2.2 ha) at Luc Poppe (Wachtebeke). These are mowed and ensiled in mid-May and serve as protein rich feed for the growth of young cattle instead of feeding soya to the animals. After the harvest, maize is sown in combination with runner beans, again to be less dependent on protein imports (soy). In addition, the aim is to work without artificial fertiliser: after all, both the peas and the runner beans are able to form a symbiosis with nodule bacteria and thereby make atmospheric nitrogen available for plants. Neighbouring plants can also benefit from this conversion.
Potential of Carbon Farming
In these pilot projects, the evaluation of the ecological and economic yield is also included. Luc Poppe: "However, carbon farming is something you have to look at over a period of at least 10 years; the profitability builds up slowly. It is a work of several generations that is being started now". Suppose you apply Carbon Farming techniques to 100ha for 10 years (at 2 tonnes of CO2 per Ha per year), then about 2000 tonnes of CO2 will be stored. That is the equivalent of what 20,000 trees take out of the air in CO2 over 10 years. Or it is equivalent to capturing the emissions you would have if you drove your car 200 times around the earth.
In annex, you can find an overview of the projects, more in detail