“Carbon farming” offers robust basis for sustainable earnings model

13 January 2022 9:30

Ramona Schalkwijk (40) has been managing a dairy company for three years, where she works with her environment to produce milk from wild flower meadows. Her 150 cows graze the pasture and are housed in a modern stable with milking robots. The pilot from the Rabo Carbon Bank is just what she needs. “Thanks to the carbon-credits, I can continue to take environmental measures.”

Cows grazing in a field

“There are many ways to store CO2, hopefully the bank will look at these too”

“Soil management” is the key word for her. She doesn’t just use fertilizing techniques to keep the soil healthy, but also “agro-forestry,” an agricultural system that is combined with the planting of trees. “I feel very lucky to have a fertile clay soil,” she says, “which borders a meadowland area and orchard. As a result, I can use various soil improvement methods. With fertilizer, but also crops. I have planted walnut trees, horse chestnut trees and berry shrubs and then use the leaf litter as compost.”

As well as her work as a dairy farmer, Ramona has trained to be a therapist. As a result of this background, she has a profound motivation to produce sustainable food. “During my studies and work, I learnt how vital good food is for our health,” she explains. “That is why I have chosen these working methods. Keeping the chains short by connecting with nature and producing locally.”

A cumbersome tanker

But not everything has run smoothly. The fact that she invested in a modern stable system ten years ago means that costs are high. Adapting to a more sustainable operation also costs money which is not recuperated immediately. Ramona: “The agricultural sector is like a cumbersome tanker that struggles to change track. My investments in the agricultural transition must be financially sound, otherwise the process won’t be feasible in the long term.” But she is hopeful and still has faith in the route she has chosen: “All the measures I take are valuable and I am sure that my operation will end up being cost-neutral and ultimately profitable.”

She didn’t have to think for long about taking part in the CO2 pilot. “It is a logical step for me as I have spent the last year and a half focusing on soil management,” she explains. “I have already taken measures for storing CO2 in the ground. The idea that I can now link an income to this via carbon credits is great news. I’m killing two birds with one stone. And I can continue to take environmental measures. So it becomes a more sustainable earnings model.”

Know your soil

Her advice to farmers who are considering becoming carbon farmers? “It really depends on your business,” she says. “One may have more opportunities to store carbon than the other. How mineral-rich is your soil? What is the pH-value? It all starts with knowledge. So do your research and know your soil! I once wanted to add lime to my soil but then I found out that it was better to use gypsum. Lime can end up making the soil worse.”

“It is also wise to seek out which creative methods there are for nourishing your soil. Recently, I chatted to a thatcher who can supply me with fertile leaf litter to use as compost. You need to think in terms of this type of opportunity. What can I do to improve my soil? Plant crops, sow herb-rich grasses? There are so many options.”

She would like to let the bank know that it may be rewarding to look further than just CO2 storage in the soil. “If you wish to reach all the farmers in the Netherlands, you need to include all storage techniques. Including agro-forestry. Some farmers, for example, have a sandy soil that is less suitable but they could take part in tree-planting projects. So, try to expand the options so that they become more appealing to all.”

Ramona Schalkwijk with milking cows
Ramona Schalkwijk