Dutch farm floats possibilities of urban dairy production

  • Peter van Wingerden poses with his herd aboard a futuristic three-story floating dairy farm moored in Rotterdam harbor, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)
  • A futuristic three-story floating farm is moored in Rotterdam harbor, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — Peter van Wingerden’s dairy farm smells just like any other farm — the rich aroma of cow manure and grass hangs in the air around the unusual stable housing the cattle. The farm itself is far from traditional.

Moored in a small harbor in Rotterdam’s busy port, the farm is a futuristic three-story floating structure where one robot milks the cows and another automatically scoops up the manure that gives the enterprise its familiar smell.

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Its roof collects rainwater and a raft of solar panels floating alongside produces 40% of the energy the farm needs.

The cows, gazing out over ships transporting gas and yellow cranes unloading ships, eat a mixture of grass cut from a local golf course and the field used by Rotterdam’s top soccer team, grain used by a local brewer to make beer and potato peelings — all automatically cut, mixed and transported to food troughs by conveyor belts.

As countries around the world seek to meet the challenge of feeding growing populations in a sustainable way, Van Wingerden believes the farm, which opened in May and cost about 3 million euros ($3.4 million), demonstrates a new sustainable way of producing food close to where most of it is consumed — in the world’s cities.

“Transporting all this food all over the world is really polluting the world. It’s doing damage to food quality, it creates food losses,” he said in a recent interview. “So we have to find a different model. We have to bring it much closer to the citizens. And that’s what we’re showing over here.”

The fully functioning showcase of circular-economy farming combines Dutch expertise in recycling, building on water and automated agriculture is drawing interest from around the world. Van Wingerden said he is already discussing floating farms in Singapore and China. A group is looking into locating one in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

“We should stop exporting food, but we should start exporting knowledge and technology,” Van Wingerden said.

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When the herd reaches its target capacity of 40 cows — there are currently 35 — it will produce 211 gallons of milk each day.

The farm pasteurizes the milk and turns some of it into yogurt on the middle floor of the pontoon. Manure is processed for use as fertilizer.

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