In Rotterdam, there is a three-storey dairy farm on the water that is a brilliant example of the circular economy in action. It also offers a model for how dairy farming can cope in the era of climate change when the world’s waters are rising – not to mention the possible transformation of chicken farming and vegetable production.
The floating dairy farm had its genesis in 2012, when Peter van Wingerden, the chief executive of the Dutch property development company, Beladon, was in New York working on a floating housing project on the Hudson River. While he was there, Hurricane Sandy flooded city streets and crippled transportation. Soon, fresh food disappeared from stores. For Peter, it underlined the need to produce food as near as possible to its consumers. “So the idea came up to produce fresh food in a climate-adaptive way on the water.” It combines two areas of particular Dutch expertise – farming and maritime expertise.
His team started working on a design soon afterwards, and the Port Authority of Rotterdam gave Beladon space to build a prototype. In 2018, its floating platform was barged to Rotterdam from northern Holland. The 4,843-square-foot farm floats with the tides on concrete pontoons anchored by two steel beams driven 65 feet into the seabed in one channel of Rotterdam’s Merwehaven harbour, in a vibrant area of the harbour called the Makers’ District.
The US $2.9-million project had to be viable from the start because it did not get any subsidies. The farm is set to turn a profit for the first time at the end of 2021, with consumers willing to pay 1.80 euro ($2.12) a liter for milk produced there, compared to around one euro at a supermarket.
In keeping with the principles of a circular economy, the farm aims to be completely self-sufficient in energy, water, and feedstock. Food for the cows comes from brewer’s grains from Rotterdam breweries, bran from Schiedam windmills, grass from nearby sports fields and potato peelings from a local processor, collected and delivered in electric trucks by local ‘green waste’ firm GroenCollect. The farm also grows duckweed, which is fast-growing and hgh in protein and can be nurtured with cow urine, in four or five vertical platforms under special LED lights. An automated feeder brings their food. Rainwater is collected on the roof, filtered with a membrane technology, and then provides drinking water for the cows. And power comes from a floating solar array. Farmer Albert Boerson monitors the cows via an app on his smartphone when he’s not on site.
The red and white Dutch-German Meuse-Rhin-Yssel cows are stabled on the top floor, and there is a walkway so they can spend some time on land in a nearby field. Robots milk them, collecting on average five gallons per day from each cow. When it reaches its planned capacity of 40 cows, it will produce roughly 800 litres of milk per day. Their milk is turned into cheese, yogurt and butter on the middle level, and the cheese is matured at the bottom in the cool space below the waterline.
The stable was designed so the cows are comfortable. They have double the space they would get in a regular stable, their floor is made of rubber and the stables have rubber poles so the animals will not hurt themselves. The 5,700 or more pounds of dung they produced is collected by a robot and dumped down a shaft to the first floor below, where it is turned into pellets that provide fertilizer for the soccer fields and parks that provide th grass for food, and urine that is cleaned for use as technical water.
The cheeses, yogurts and pellets are sold at a roadside shop alongside fare from local producers, as well as in 23 outlets, including restaurants, in the city – delivered, naturally, by electric vehicles. And in keeping with circular principles, it sells its products only in Rotterdam.
The company is planning to build two more floating platforms next to the dairy farm, one to grow vegetables and another with chickens to farm eggs.
The prototype farm has attracted growing international interest. “Van Wingerden says Beladon is in discussions to build platforms in Singapore and the Chinese cities of Nanjing and Shanghai—though it’s undecided whether the farms will be for cows, vegetables, or eggs,” Hakai reported in 2019. Cape Town, South Africa, and New York City, Los Angeles, and New Orleans in the US, also have expressed interest.
“We have created an engine,” Peter says. “You put the plug in, and it runs — and it can be done everywhere because the characteristics of water are almost the same everywhere. The wind can be a bit more rough or less, and the waves can be higher or lower, but it’s almost the same.”
Apart from the food it produces, Peter sees the farm’s educational value, especially for children, as one of its greatest virtues. “It’s important to show people in cities that agriculture is our daily food source,” he says. Forty volunteers help at the farm.
“We hope to make many more floating farms, but also welcome others copying us or coming up with concepts contributing to these goals,” he says.”Healthy, sufficient food production is key to a better, cleaner, safer world.”
The Floating Farm is among a number of innovations coming out of Rotterdam, a city that is investing heavily in design and technology, says the design magazine de zeen. Studios in the city are experimenting with robotic construction and wind power, as well as floating architecture, and it is hoped the Floating Farm will encourage more people to think about the possibilities offered by floating buildings.
And finally, just in case you were wondering – Do cows get seasick?“They won’t here,” says Minke van Wingerden. “In Friesland, where I come from, sometimes they bring cows from one place to another on a small barge. [The floating farm] will be very stable. When you are on a cruise ship, you aren’t seasick.”
Floating Farm website.
The world’s first floating farm making waves in Rotterdam. BBC, Aug. 17, 2018
The world’s first floating dairy farm. Freethink, Sep. 4, 2019.
Floating Dutch Cow Farm Aims to Curb Climate Impact. VOA News, Sep. 4, 2021
Floating farms point the way to alternative food ecosystems. Wired, Feb. 18, 2020
Moo-ving to the future? Cows try ‘Floating Farm’ in Rotterdam. Reuters, Oct. 1, 2019
Dairy farming at sea. Hakai magazine, Jul. 3, 2019
Floating Farm in Rotterdam is now home to 32 cows. Dezeen, 24 May 2019