Promising opportunities for soil-improving crops

Client:Ministry of Agriculture (LNV)

CategoryRural Areas

How can farmers earn a good living through agriculture that also benefits the soil, climate, and nature? In this project, commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, we investigated how the soil-improving crops fibre hemp, field bean, sorghum and oats being grown on different soils can actually achieve this. These crops may not currently match the competitiveness of high-yielding (grub) crops or common crops such as winter wheat. But by addressing certain challenges, fibre hemp and field beans can be integrated as additional crops into a farmer’s rotation.

How can farmers grow more soil-improving crops?

The main obstacle is the insufficient crop balance of most soil-improving crops, causing them to lag behind. The balance of these crops is typically lower than that of other agricultural crops like potatoes and sugar beets, making it less appealing for farmers to incorporate multiple soil-improving crops into their cropping plan. In addition, there is a significant disparity in earning potential among the various species within the category of soil-improving crops. Therefore it is essential to increase this potential of soil-improving crops. One way to achieve this is chain development, which involves setting up, professionalising and streamlining chains in which the crop can be marketed.
This involves both creating supply chains for the purchase of the harvested product as well as setting up chains for paying for the social value attained from cultivation. Developing these chains enhances earning opportunities in various ways, such as boosting product prices through increased demand, reducing costs through economies of scale, and generating new revenue streams. Some soil-improving crops still have untapped potential. Wheat, for instance, already has a large-scale and professional supply chain, whereas those for sorghum and fibre hemp are not yet fully established.

Download the report here

Improving the earning potential of soil-improving crops

While investigating different soil-improving crops, we identified common bottlenecks and opportunities related to the earning model applicable to all the crops of focus. In addition to providing specific recommendations for individual crops, the report includes four general recommendations aimed at addressing these challenges and optimising the earnings model for soil-improving crops.

The government can play a role by subsidising the “unprofitable top.”. Entrepreneurs may hesitate to invest in processing new crops without a clear profit, especially during the financially challenging transition period. Subsidising the less profitable aspects mitigates this risk, fostering market creation, innovation, and overall profitability. Surprisingly, this approach is not yet integrated into existing subsidies for the agriculture and food sector.

Compensating farmers’ above-legal contributions to biodiversity, water, and soil. Introducing payments for ecosystem services, with a focus on targeted initiatives, enhances both social and ecological value. However, there is a need for a comprehensive vision and government tools to effectively reward these services.

Encouraging multiple chains. This provides farmers with more options, avoids over-dependence on a single system, enhances cultivation resilience to economic fluctuations, and fosters synergy between seemingly competing chains. This results in the creation of shared benefits, such as increased funding for breeding.

Coordinating initiatives by facilitating partnerships between different actors interested in branching out. This includes low-threshold facilitation and encouragement of local “grassroots” initiatives.

Fiber Hemp

Fiber hemp is an extensive crop that currently produces decent yields comparable to winter wheat. By enhancing its balance, there are great opportunities to increase the cultivation of this crop across the Netherlands. It thrives in dry, sandy soils, particularly in areas like eastern Brabant around De Peel, where it requires little water nor fertiliser. The fibres from this crop can be turned into eco-friendly insulation material, storing CO2 absorbed during the plant’s growth for an extended period. To scale up the cultivation of fibre hemp, the market for the product must especially be increased and its resources mobilised. The main recommendations for this are:

• Boosting the market by taking on the role of the government’s first buyer. This involves incorporating criteria for bio-based products in tenders for the final product, and compensating for carbon sequestration as an example measure of the social value achieved through cultivation.
• Creating a level playing field for fibre hemp insulation compared to conventional insulation materials by rewarding the positive social effects of the product and pricing the negative effects of production of conventional insulation materials.
• Exploring how cultivation thrives in different crop rotations and in different areas, for example, how cultivation can be used as extensive cultivation in buffer areas.

Field Bean

Field bean is a protein crop with many promising applications, but its overall performance is still fairly low and can fluctuate considerably. This crop, capable of fixing nitrogen, requires minimal fertilisation and even contributes nitrogen to adjacent crops, making it suitable for nutrient-poor, sandy soils like those in the Veenkoloniën region. The field bean can be processed into many different products, including protein-rich meals, textures for meat substitutes, or even protein isolate or concentrate. While the crop can be marketed in various chains, not all of these chains are equally established. To develop them, there is a need to expand the sales market, encourage entrepreneurial experimentation, and address resistance. Additionally, more research is still required.

The main recommendations for this are:

  • Promoting the different markets for field bean, for example by facilitating local partnerships, encouraging collaborations between arable and livestock farmers and supporting logos and sustainability labels.
  • Exploring how to incorporate the crop into different crop rotations and how to increase its yield by conducting variety trials. Then also disseminating this knowledge to farmers and crop supervisors.

Featured image: ©Ruud Morijn, iStock

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