In the South Limburg town of Schin op Geul stands the organic dairy farm 'Natuurlijk Felix' run by Felix Huntjens. The farmer brings together three loves: cows, organic farming and nature. Since February, he is one of three farmers in Limburg participating in a course on regenerative agriculture, a production method in which natural resources are enhanced rather than depleted and improvement of soil quality is central.
Soil as a foundation
Regenerative agriculture is a form of agriculture in which the quality of the soil is seen as the basis, not only for the production of food, but also for tasks related to climate, landscape, biodiversity and water. The Germans Friedrich Wenz and Dietmar Näser developed a course with which they have familiarized thousands of European farmers with the method in recent years. Felix Huntjens signed up for the Dutch edition, hoping to get his soil more balanced and thus generate better yields. "In recent years I noticed that less and less was coming from the soil. The drought was a big culprit, but it could also be that the crops are not rooting deep enough, so certain elements are not absorbed," Huntjens told Biological Limburg.
The Huntjens family has fifty dairy cows and fifty young cattle. Since the introduction of the super levy, their livestock has not grown. On the one hand because the family can hardly expand at the current location (the historic Miljoenenlijn cuts right through their home plot), on the other hand growth does not fit in with their business philosophy. They don't want to expand at all costs. "We pay attention to size. What can we handle? What is a healthy milk yield for our cows and what fits within the nature, the environment and the small scale of the South Limburg landscape?"
While the number of cows remains the same, Huntjens' agricultural area has grown. For example, he grows the ancient grain rye for Gulpener, a collaboration that led to the award-winning beer Strong Rye Tripel. The new proportions made Huntjens curious about increasing the proportion of organic matter in the soil: "As an organic farmer, I don't use artificial fertilizer. In addition, my acreage has grown, but the number of cows has remained the same. So I have less manure to distribute per hectare, which makes it even more important that the soil functions well. Organic farmers simply have fewer resources to correct."
In the meantime Huntjens has had four theory days and two practical days. Very interesting, but also very complicated, he thinks. "How everything in the soil is connected is a very complex process. Regenerative agriculture is a production method that strengthens natural resources, stimulates the revitalization of soil - in a natural way - and improves soil quality. To achieve that, you try to increase biodiversity to create fertile land and capture CO2 instead of emitting it."
Regenerative farming is therefore also known as carbon farming. In extreme weather conditions, more carbon retention in the organic soil helps to retain more water, which can lead to more yields. You do this, for example, by keeping the land cultivated throughout the year. For those who want the detailed explanation, Huntjens recommends this video:
This spring, Huntjens has already taken the first step by treating his cows' manure to promote fermentation. "By adding carbon and manure microbes, less ammonia is released into the barn," he explains. "So if I'm going to make a change, I'd better take the bull by the horns right away." The organic farmer has treated one part and not the other, so that he can see the effect afterwards.
Huntjens realizes that the learning process doesn't stop when the course is over. "It would therefore be nice to continue sharing my experiences with other 'carbon farmers', farmers who apply this method. In a study club, for example," he adds. To conclude, Huntjens has a tip for fellow farmers who still need inspiration: watch the documentary Kiss the Ground!