Kortrijk students say co-farming is the future of agriculture


Co-working and co-housing are both on the rise, and if it’s up to three students from Kortrijk, the same will soon be true for co-farming

Farmers, unite

Did you know that even a fallow acre is still a net producer of carbon dioxide? Combine this with the fact that meat production is a major source of greenhouse gases, and it’s clear that agriculture has a huge responsibility when it comes to fighting global warming and saving the planet.

So how can agriculture be decarbonised? That was the question posed in AgriClimat, a competition for Flanders’ students held during the huge international agriculture fair Agribex, which took place earlier this month at Brussels Expo.

A jury of five specialists, including science journalist Dirk Draulans, meteorologist David Dehenauw  and design engineer Serge de Gheldere, took a closer look at the 18 proposals submitted by student teams from schools all over Flanders. 

The winning proposal, called CollAgro, was the brainchild of three students from the Kortrijk campus of Vives University College. The three are doing their Bachelor’s in a new discipline, ecotechnology – one that fits perfectly with the prize question.

“In this discipline, students learn to see the big picture regarding aspects like energy, agriculture, environment, climate, use of materials and recycling,” says Nele Pinket, head of the ecotechnology Bachelor’s degree. “You could compare our students, once they’ve graduated, with GPs. While individual issues in energy, agriculture and materials are dealt with by more specialised people – the brain and heart surgeons, you could say.”

Shared costs

Pinket is convinced that it’s due to this wide range of knowledge that her students won the AgriClimat contest. “The CollAgro project delivers a solution to the various concerns of today’s farmers,” she says. “Waste management, for example, is always a costly business, especially here in Flanders where regulation is very stringent.”

And the rising cost of energy is something every farmer worries about, she continues. “Not to mention the large investments in machinery they have to make to stay competitive on the global market.”

The students came up with an idea that’s already well-established in business and, to a lesser extent, in accommodation: co-working and co-housing. In co-working, typically self-employed people share a working environment. This way they can share the costs of necessities like coffee, printers and an internet connection.

Co-housing is a less well-known concept, in which people live in their own homes but share expensive items. “I was really struck by this concept when I first heard of it,” says Alan Cespedes Arkush, one of the students behind CollAgro. “Ten families buy one lawnmower collectively, or 10 families buy a lawnmower each. Look how much money can be saved on things we don’t use every day.”

Installing a biogas plant is too expensive for small farmers. So a collective acquisition makes sense

- Student Alan Cespedes Arkush

And does the concept apply to agricultural equipment, then? “We started our project by brainstorming around some principal climate-related issues in agriculture,” Cespedes Arkush explains, “and speculating how we could solve them separately. Soon we noticed that we could link most of the solutions to one central concept: a biogas plant.”

A biogas plant, of course, isn’t quite the same as a lawn mower. Cespedes Arkush: “That’s true, but in existing plants there’s often insufficient raw material to keep them running, and installing a plant is often too expensive for small farmers. So a collective acquisition and a collective supply of manure and harvest remainders for the fermentation process seemed a logical solution to us.”

Another advantage of collective acquisition, he says, “is that buyers can invest in more sustainable products with a longer lifetime. That also lowers their carbon footprint”.

Of course, the collective exploitation of a biogas installation is only possible in compact agricultural clusters, with short distances between the individual farms – otherwise the cost and energy required for transport would be too high. For these dense clusters, the students proposed a system of rotational cultivation.

The fertility and productivity of soil increases sharply as alternating crops are used, instead of one monoculture for years. Because each of the farms in a CollAgro cluster has its own specialisation, they can swap their fields among each other.

So what did the three students win? “Oh, that’s a bit of a sad story,” says Cespedes Arkush. “Normally Agribex would have arranged a trip for us to the climate conference in Paris. But due to the attacks and the severe security measures, they cancelled it. However, we were told that they’re planning a similar trip to a foreign destination next year instead.”

Photo © Philipp Schulze/dpa/Corbis

Flemish agriculture and horticulture

Flanders is an important global food exporter. The main agricultural activities differ from region to region – with pig, cow, vegetable and dairy-farming the most important. In recent years, the sector has been heavily affected by the economic downturn and falling global food prices.
Green - Organic farming accounts for just a fraction of Flemish agriculture, but the sector has slowly been growing in recent years.
Greenhouse - Flanders has been a trailblazer in mapping the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Forgotten - Flemish horticulture’s “Bel’Orta” label aims to promote lesser-known vegetables like parsnip, parsley root and kohlrabi.

percent of Belgium’s fruit harvest comes from Flanders

25 982

agriculture businesses in Flanders in 2011

51 530

people employed in Flemish agriculture and horticulture in 2011