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Planting polder rice barefoot in the mud: ‘Searching for the agriculture of the future’

After decades of intensive farming, the peatland area is under pressure. Researchers, farmers and policymakers work together in the Polderlab to identify future-proof types of agriculture. ‘It’s unbelievable how quickly the system bounces back without intensive fertilisation.’

Researcher Maarten Schrama stands barefoot in the mud in the swampy meadow in the Vrouwe Vennepolder. ‘Just try walking here wearing boots; within just a couple of minutes you’ll have lost them,’ he says. ‘And you can also feel that the water is the right temperature for the rice plants.’  Schrama is planting rice, together with farmer Sander Roeleveld and researchers from Leiden University and Wageningen University & Research (WUR).

Maarten Schrama

‘If we carry on as we were, the ground will subside even further and everything will be under water.’ 

For decades, the meadows have been pumped dry to give a high grass yield.  The combination of low groundwater, heavy fertilisation and single-crop vegetation is disastrous for the climate, biodiversity and the soil. ‘If we carry on as we were, the ground will subside even further and everything will be under water,’ says Schrama. ‘Here in the Polderlab, we are researching how we can do things differently. Not only in this meadow, but throughout northern Europe.’

Future-proof agriculture

One of the possibilities for future-proof agriculture is to cultivate rice. Last year we experimented here with the first rice fields, which attracted a lot of media interest. Unfortunately, the  extremely wet summer meant that little rice was produced. But, the failed crop has not dampened Schrama’s enthusiasm. ‘This year we planted 32 different rice varieties, including from Japan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Italy and Sweden. There must be a couple of varieties among them that will do well,’ Schrama says with a smile.

Farmer Sander Roeleveld planting the new rice.
Farmer Sander Roeleveld planting the new rice.

Later this month, fish will also be introduced into the rice fields.  The African catfish provides natural fertilisation with its poop. It also protects the rice by eating weeds and insects. And once the rice has been harvested, it will be the turn of the fish. ‘We experimented with it last year. The fish went to a smokehouse in Roelofarendsveen; they tasted great.’   

Looking for the right rice variety

The search for the right variety of rice should ultimately lead to a rice field that can be sustained for several consecutive years. That is particularly important to reduce CO2. emissions. ‘A lot of the emissions take place during ploughing and preparing the ground,’ Schrama explains. The coming years will show how much the emissions are reduced.

Cranberries are also cultivated in the Polderlab as well as rice. The first sprigs of the cranberry bushes can already be seen in one of the meadows, which is mainly covered in peat moss. ‘You wouldn’t think it, but this could well be the future of agriculture,’ says Schrama. ‘The peat moss provides the right conditions for the cranberry plants to grow. The moss also works as a kind of carbon pump. CO2 is absorbed from the air and stored in the ground. And the ground will also rise, after decades of subsidence.’  The Netherlands is an excellent country to cultivate cranberries, although they’re hardly grown at all at the moment, Schrama explains.

‘This is almost impossible anywhere in the Netherlands'

This experiment in the meadow is possible because it is a joint effort involving citizens, farmers, researchers and policymakers.  Schrama: ‘This is almost impossible anywhere in the Netherlands. You’re not allowed to dig up soil, grow tall crops or raise the water level. Policymakers too have to work with us, otherwise farmers won’t be able to cultivate these new crops. Because the local authorities are closely involved here and they come and see what we’re doing, they understand what we’re up against in the licensing procedures. The rules are still far too geared towards the average usage, the status quo.’

A field with cranberry plants and peat moss. ‘You wouldn’t think it, but this could well be the agriculture of the future.’

For this change to succeed, it needs interdisciplinary cooperation. 'Things have to be different, but then you also have to dare to change the rules nationally and provincially. That’s why this is a huge interdisciplinary project, and it also involves people like public administration experts and anthropologists.’

For many people, a changes in how the landscape looks is unacceptable.’ 

Walking along the cranberry field, Schrama points to a meadow further up where a group of researchers are sitting on the grass talking to one another. ‘They are social scientists, and we need them because how can you change the deep-rooted tendency to keep everything exactly as it is? For many people, a change in how the landscape looks is unacceptable.’

Researchers from different disciplines work together in the polder lab.

It is clear that there are still quite some obstacles on the path to the future. ‘If just one aspect doesn’t work, it’ll all come to nothing. That’s why five different disciplines are sitting together in the meadow. This transition can only be successful if everyone participates.’

The Polderlab is a collaboration between Leiden University, the Land van Ons citizen cooperative and the municipalities of  Holland Rijnland. You can find more information on  the website of the Polderlab.

Text: Tom Janssen
Photos: Monique Shaw

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