In preparing for the Wind River Organics research trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, I decided to watch Rick Steves’ “The Netherlands: Beyond Amsterdam” video to better understand the culture we were about to steep ourselves in. It concluded with him explaining that we’d find ourselves exclaiming “Everything’s just so Dutch!”. How right you were, Steve, how right you were.
For some background, this winter Ryan and I had been furiously developing the Wind River Organics business plan in time for submission to the Port’s Request for Proposals. We succeeded in putting together a preliminary plan that would utilize the heat and electricity coming from the CHP (combined heat and power) plant. The next step was funding. But were we ready? Were our figures accurate? We decided that doing a bit of research to check our assumptions was the best path forward so that we could present a solid business plan to potential funders. We scoured the planet for the latest in greenhouse technology and our radar picked up a sea of greenhouses in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Did you know that the Netherlands are the #2 exporter of food by value globally? The US is #1 but we have 270x the landmass of the Dutch!
Thanks to the faith and support of my relatives, we packed our bags and headed off to Belgium and the Netherlands along with a stop in the Midwest before our return to the Gorge. Finding places to visit was made easy with the help of Edson, a aquaculture researcher from INAGRO. He sent us a long list of farms and research facilities to connect to and most if not all were willing to meet with us. We didn’t expect such a warm reception and were grateful for it.
A 40 acre greenhouse would be a surprising sight here in the Northwest, but in the Dutch countryside it’s a common sight, alongside giant windmills and tiny cars. Over 20 years ago, Dutch farmers decided to challenge themselves and declared they’d grow “Twice as much food with half the resources”. They’ve been succeeding and it’s really impressive to see how they’re doing it.
The Dutch have overcome a lot to be the #2 exporter….
-Tight EU regulations on pesticides
-Serious water restrictions – most grow with only rainfall, which is about 40″/year
-Lack natural resources so power and heat are expensive
-Tight regulations on labor
-Lower prices on produce than the US market
Over the course of 10 days, we visited several farms including BIGH (Building Integrated Green Houses), Smart Farmers, Tomato Masters, Aqua4C, and TomW@tt. They were all utilizing either biogas or natural gas CHP plants to power their greenhouses and managed their nutrients and environment in very sophisticated ways. We met with several consultants including Piet and Jan Enthoven, who scrutinized our plans and gave us their suggestions for success. We also toured several government funded research facilities including INAGRO, PCG and the World Horticenter, which is a three-way collaborative hub between a research facility, a university and the Greenhouse industry.
We then headed to the Midwest, where Dutch style greenhouses have been popping up over the past 3 years. It also happens that the Midwest is home to a lot of Dutch descendants. Coincidence? Probably not. We managed to tour a few facilities but noticed that many of the companies in the US were unresponsive and seemed to lack the kind of collaborative “rising tide floats all boats” spirit we encountered over in Europe. The farms we did manage to tour were very helpful and kind and we look forward to growing our network of collaborators in the field (errr…greenhouses) of aquaponics growers in the US. Our Midwest stopover also helped us resolve one of our biggest challenges – snow loads, and we were able to see how growers there were dealing with such conditions. In this respect the Dutch are lucky as they only get about a foot of snow per year.
Overall, Ryan and I came away with in incredible amount of useful information and a large list of advisors and supporters in the industry that we can look to for advice and help along the way. Our business plan is now being adjusted by this newfound Dutch efficiency and when we’re built out and you happen to be driving along Hemlock road, you can see our greenhouse and shout “It’s just so Dutch!”.
Check out our instagram for a few photos and videos from the trip: https://www.instagram.com/windriverorganics/