Season 3

Episode 5 – Sustainable Farming from a Farmer’s Perspective – ft. Chiel van Dijk

Episode 4 Episodes list Episode 6

Farmers feed us and feed the world. In the current agricultural society, it is crucial to understand how farming can be more sustainable in terms of energy input/output and agroforestry (the use of land, in which trees and shrubs are intentionally integrated into crop and animal farming systems) offers a number of environmental, economic, and social benefits.
In this episode, Srinath and Leonie talk to Chiel van Dijk, owner of the Frecklinghof farm in the North of Germany. They talk about what sustainability means for a farm, whether there is such a thing as more or less sustainable, how Frecklinghof came to be, and how Chiel measures the energy output and input of his farm.
Chiel talks about Agroforestry, the way it is implemented on his farm in particular, and the advantages and challenges it can bring to farming in general. Chiel emphasises the importance of small farms as the feeders of people, distinguishing them from the large farms that tend to be geared towards animal feed.

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Srinath: Hello and welcome to Offpsring Magazine the Podcast! I’m your host Srinath Ramkumar. In this week’s episode, it’s a really interesting one, we talk about sustainability again. But we talk it directly with a farmer, who works on a farm, and he tries to apply sustainable practices to his farming. We talked to Chiel van Dijk who runs a farm in the North of Germany. And he talks to us a lot in detail about how his vision of sustainability is, and how he measures sustainability on his own farm, as well as how the world is actually fed by small farmers more than by these large conglomerates. Anyway, it’s a very interesting episode – I think you all will enjoy it for sure so see you on the other side.

S: Chiel, thanks a lot for joining us today on this episode of the Offspring Podcast! It’s a real pleasure to have you with us! So let’s just jump straight in. Maybe you can quickly introduce yourself and what you do?

Chiel van Dijk: yes I’m Chiel van Dijk, I work on the farm with my wife for over 12 years now. We have an organic animal farm. We started as dairy farmers, organic dairy farmers. And we ask ourselves the question: what is sustainable organic dairy production? And that brought us to a few questions that we try to answer now and build our company around it.

S: I mean, that’s very nice. I mean, so you mentioned you started off as organic milk farmers but then now you’re doing a lot more sustainable farming practices and agriculture. So can you briefly explain what sustainable farming is?

CVD: Yeah, I’ve always a small problem with talking about sustainable farming because, in my opinion, we, as a society, we don’t understand the word “sustainable”. When you’re talking with other words, like, “sustainable”: when you take the word “violent” or “peace”, so when I beat you – then I’m violent, when I beat you not so much – then I’m not peaceful, I’m less violent. So when we talk about sustainability, we have to know that we are not sustainable, when we try to be a bit more sustainable we are not sustainable but we are a bit less unsustainable.

S: Definitely, yes.

CVD: It’s important that we understand each other well. Because sustainability: every company says, “we use a bit less plastic or thinner plastic bags and now we are much more sustainable as we were before”. But it’s not true. So I think we have to find a new word for what we call “sustainable” now. And then we can use “sustainable” really for the thing that it is.

S: Okay, so, in terms of farming, so what sets your style apart?

CVD: So yeah, I thought a lot about “sustainable”, what is sustainable in the way of farming that I do. Because it was called “sustainable” when you are organic dairy farmer: they say, “oh, this is a sustainable way of farming”. And I thought about what is sustainable on that what I do? And after a while, I came to the idea that we have to bring back all that we do to the same measure… Einheit? Unit. And the less bad unit I could think about was energy. And then you can compare farms with each other and you can compare your products with other products.

S: It’s a good metric to measure, right? Like, what you consume and what you produce as well.

CVD: Yes, and when we talk about what is sustainable, then everyone can imagine that when you use more than you produce: it’s in definition not sustainable. You can do that organic, you can do that on a social way, you can do that on an economic way. So when we talk about sustainability nowadays, they say it has a social compound, and it’s an economical compound, and it has…  what are the three things of sustainability in Germany? They say economic, social, and … so when the three things are okay – it’s sustainable. But it isn’t. When we use more than we produce, then we are not sustainable in which way. Yeah, so and that was the day that I started to think about different farming and started to make another farm of our farm.

S: Yeah, it’s really nice to hear that it’s a good way, to sort of really think about the practices and the agricultural practices that you’re following. And it actually leads me to the question: so did you find something interesting or a new way, in which you could sort of make sure that what you’re producing and what you’re consuming are at different levels?

CVD: Yes, when you are a dairy farmer and you kept cows to produce your living, so we sold milk, and when you say, “oh, we have to count all our input and output in kilojoule”, then you see that you have really, really bad numbers in your farm. And that’s difficult for a person whose whole life is, “oh, I want to hold calves, and I want to milk cows, and I’m an organic farmer, and it’s sustainable, everyone says it’s sustainable”, but I don’t see it. I don’t see that it is sustainable.

Leonie: Somewhat it reminds me of “donut economics”, right? It’s like, basically, it should be a cycle that everything you use, like… basically, you have the overview of the whole cycle, right, what you produce. As you said, like, for example, for the calves, you also take care of what happens to the calves, right. So everything you produce or you need is, like, one cycle. Basically, you try to not add so much from the outside, I guess?

CVD: Yes, it is when you calculate your farm in kilojoules, you know. I buy 8.000 liters of fuel every year, I use 40.000 kilo watt-hours on electricity, and I buy mineral feed for my animals… and all that stuff is energy. And then you count: I sell so many calves, so many milk, so many cereals – and that’s energy also. And then you see: there’s a lot less energy that I sell as that I use on my farm. And then I started to think: about how can you produce more, as an increase production and decrease the input? And then I came to perennial plants that are the most efficient production units. Because you have to plant it once, most of them you don’t have to give any type of manure or something like that, and then that’s perennial plants are good in composition with other perennial plants, not monoculture but a variety of types. And that’s where the idea of a food forest is is born. And then I thought about: what’s the role of animals, why do we hold animals on our farm then? Maybe we have to switch over to only agroforest farm and no animals. But then, we found out that there are really big amounts of materials that we can use, as food as human beings, in direct way. And animals are really good at making out of useless stuff, for us as humans, really high quality of food. And that’s the role of the animals in the system. So in an agroforest or in a pasture landscape, animals can help us to earn the energy that’s growing over there. And pasture lands are really important fields for our climate: to produce oxygen and fixing carbon in the soil. And when we let all the grasslands grow to forest, what will happen when we don’t keep animals on it: we will have less of that function. 

S: Yeah.

CVD: And that’s why we can say: you can design a farm where you kept animals to use the areas that are really good for direct food production, and you can use that ecosystem functions of pasture lands. And that’s why they are here. And then you have a plus in energy. Because when we let them walk on the pasture, we don’t have to mow it, we don’t have to…

S: So you don’t have to dig it up because it’s, like, the animals do it by their walk?

CVD: Yeah, and we only have to earn the animals.

S: Yeah, so basically they, the animals sort of reduce your fuel consumption and increase production?

CVD: Yes and yes. So that that’s actually when we design the right system, with the right amount of forest and the right amount of pasture, it is possible that we build in 20 years a system that we can keep animals a year around outside: they have cover enough from trees, for sun and rain, and they can feed themselves in a big variety with young trees, and grasses, and oaks, and stuff like that.

L: I guess the right ratio between the number of animals and the area, right, I guess also?

CVD: Yes. So we don’t have to keep animals to produce milk or to produce meat. But we have to use the animals to hold our ecosystem healthy and we have to keep it in a stadium of the highest productivity. So when they eat a young tree or eat the leaves of a big strong bush, so they make a bit of room for a smaller plant that produces fruits or something like that.

L: But how do you determine, like, how many animals should grass on a certain area? I guess if it’s too many animals, right, maybe it’s also not so beneficial? But too little also you don’t use the full potential, right?

CVD: Yeah, that’s what we have to learn. The problem is that, in agriculture, we have split it up: we have people that know everything about chickens and people that know everything about cows or apple trees. But we don’t have much people that know about ecosystems and what’s the role of our farm animals in ecosystems, how do you build an ecosystem by yourself. And that’s a big role for science and a big role for farmers itself – to learn more about how can we farm sustainable. Not only less unsustainable…

S: But truly sustainable.

CVD: Yes, yes.

S: That’s actually a really nice point, like, when you mention that, you know, you try to actually make sort of calculations, based on all of these different parameters that you’re seeing, so it’s a very scientific approach to farming. And actually, it’s quite nice. And, like, one thing that you mentioned that I would like a little bit more clarity on is, you mentioned agroforestry, can you maybe explain what that means? Because that term, I mean, I’m not very familiar with that term.

CVD: Okay, yeah, an agroforest is a composition of different plants that help each other to grow or stay healthy. And it’s designed in a way that we can produce the most amount, the highest amount of food per hectare or per square meter. And it’s not the highest amount of apple, or the highest amount of pears, or the highest amount of grasses, but all together we can produce more in energy, amount of energy, than one hectare of only pears or only apples. And we earn more, harvest more than any type of agriculture, but spread on 600 different varieties of food. But together, it’s more energy than one hectare of Mais (corn) or…

S: Yeah, so I mean, like, because you mentioned that you do it in collaboration with, like, a forest, you know, like right next to a forested area? Because is there, like, a special property of the region next to the forested area?

CVD: Why you use forest you mean?

S: Yeah, I mean what’s the advantage of using the forest?

CVD: Yes, the forest is, using the forest, this is why you can use different layers. When you only have pasture and you concentrate on the highest amount of grass production, then you have one layer from 0 to 30 or 50 centimetres, but above that 50 centimetres, they can grow apples or hazelnuts. And above the hazelnuts, they can grow chestnuts. And above there, you can grow oaks or…

L: So you apply this principle, right, from the forest in agriculture, this is why it’s forest, right? These different layers?

CVD: Yeah, and you have to design a system, that you can can collect as much sunlight as possible. And you use photosynthesis in the best possible way. And a forest edge has the most square centimetre to collect sunlight. And that’s the only input that we don’t have to calculate. Because sunlight is an input in our system. And you can say, “yeah, when you don’t count it, you are not counting fairly”, but when you count it, or when you don’t use it, it wouldn’t be used in any way. So that’s that’s an amount of energy that we don’t have to count as a direct input in our system.

S: Exactly. Because sunlight is, like, it’s something that’s there.

CVD: Yeah, it is there, and when it isn’t there we don’t have to speak about this. So then we have other problems.

S: Much more complicated.

L: Yeah, so it’s learning from nature basically, right? In a way?

CVD: Yeah, it’s using natural processes to produce food.

L: So now we talked a lot about the conceptual ideas, right, but we were also wondering, like, on an everyday basis, how does your everyday work look like, or an example how they look like?

CVD: Yeah, everyday work… Not any day of the year is the same. So I have lots of parts of the farm: that’s a difficulty that comes through when I only have dairy cows – I know I have to make my cows, I have to feed my cows, and, when I’m ready with that, it’s good, and I don’t have to have really much knowledge around it. But when I started to say, “I want to hold my own steer calves”, then I have to think about how do they grow? Did they grow a different way as a dairy cow? And they have to treat it on a different way as a dairy cow. And when I have them big enough to slaughter and no one wants to buy them, because it’s pasture-based meat and it’s not like the classic meat that the big industries know, they don’t want to buy it from me. So I have to do it by myself. But then, you have to think about: how do I sell meat and how do I process meat? And how do I process my milk when I want to sell it? The calves are with the dairy cows in one herd, so we produce less milk but we have higher costs – it’s another quality of milk, but you have to think about all the things. And that’s my part here on the farm – to combine all the different parts and all the different strategies and to see: what do we need now, what’s the next step? And now we have our own slaughterhouse. So I have to start at it, I have to know how to slaughter. I have to think about why we do what we do. And then try to find someone or those people that can do the work on a daily basis. And have to make the next step.

S: Yeah, so it’s a constant learning process? So every day is never the same ,so you always try to learn new things by actually doing them?

CVD: Yes. And it’s, of course, it’s also: I come out of my bed in the morning and I have to look after the animals – I have to feed them or… But it’s what we do together with a lot of people now, yeah.

L: Yeah, I was also wondering, I mean, now we talked about, like, your daily life, do you have an idea how the typical day of one of the cows would look like in the typical herd of the cows?

CVD: Yeah, I have an idea how would they look like. Yeah, I would think it’s a bit boring day, but cows are really good with boring days so they like boring days. You see, when they have a day where something else happens: when they walk through another field or are transported to another field – that’s not really the best day for a cow. The cow can have…

L: They like to chillax.

CVD: When they have food and no direct sunlight, not too hot, not too cold – then the cow is happy with a boring life.

L: But, as you mentioned, most of the cows are actually outside most of the year, right? Or some of them?

CVD: Yeah, yeah.

L: On the fields. Yeah, that’s quite cool.

CVD: So what their experience is in the field… Maybe they see other animals, wild animals walk around.

S: Yeah, I mean it’s quite nice that, like, you have a good balance of all the techniques going on. So, you know, also in terms of a balance, in terms of energy, or, like, in terms of more energy being produced: so what are the major challenges that you face? When, you know, when you originally set out to do this – what were the biggest challenges you faced? And what are the challenges you face now? When, you know, you said you got your own slaughterhouse, so what are the big challenges now with these?

CVD: Yeah, the biggest challenge is to combine the different knowledge that you need and the… Fähigkeiten?

L: Abilities? Capabilities? Knowledge?

CVD: Yeah, so you have to do, to learn it by yourself, or find people that can do it and the way that you wanted to have it on your farm. And you have to deal with governments that make laws and rules that are really based on the conventional way of farming. And they fully have accepted less unsustainable is sustainable enough. So and really sustainable… There are no laws and strategies of the government to implement a real sustainable agriculture or a food production system. And in food production, we are really specialized, so everyone has a really small part of the chain that he’s doing really good, but in really big amounts of processing of food. And that’s a big problem because, when you produce in an agroforest, a bit of these, and a bit of that, and a bit of so… There’s no market for it. You can sell a truck full of cereals but you can’t sell a bag full of cereals here. And so no one wants to buy it and you have to build up your own structure: that you can sell a few chestnuts, and you can sell a few strawberries, or a little bit of milk, and a little bit of meat. And you have to deal with the problems that meat production or a slaughterhouse, you have really much rules and it costs a lot of money. But you don’t have so much animals and you don’t want to slaughter very much animals. But you always have to find the balance between what is economical, what is doable on the economic, rentable. And that’s the biggest thing, what you have to deal with: you have to build your own structure behind your farm.

L: So you are basically mostly in contact with the customers, right? You are not like in contract with some supermarkets, right? It’s more direct.

CVD: Yeah, yeah.

S: I mean that’s actually quite interesting. So you, as a producer, can actually get in contact with the consumer. So as a consumer, will I be able to tell a difference between, let’s say, like, a product produced on this farm and something that I get from the supermarket?

CVD: Yeah, you can definitely taste the difference and see a difference. And you feel a different when you know where it comes from and how it’s grown or produced. It’s a complete other way of experiencing your food than buy it anonymously.

S: Yeah, definitely yeah.

L: I think it also makes a difference, right, if the cows were relaxed during their life right? I think, I believe also that you can taste it if the animals were like in small stalls and under constant stress, right? Or if they had their space to move…

CVD: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of influences on the way we kept animals or grow fruits that influences the quality of your food. So an apple isn’t an apple or a piece of meat isn’t a piece of meat. And you will feel it or recognize it in a way. But that’s a part of science that we have to find a way: how we can measure that type of difference between an apple and an apple.

L: But do you think, for example, would it be doable if whole Germany would, for example, really go into sustainable farming, right? Do you think it would give enough produce to, like, produce the same amount that we currently produce to nurture the people? Do you think it’s possible, or?

CVD: I think we have to ask ourselves the question if we need the amount of food that we produce now, that first of all. And then, we have to ask ourselves the question, when we need very huge amount or the big amounts of energy to produce this amount of food, then we have to ask ourselves the question: where does that energy come from? And when we talk about sustainability or Ausstoß…

L: Do you mean from toxic gases? Toxic output?

CVD: Yeah, CO2, so we always talk about the…

S: Emissions, you mean?

CVD: Yeah, we always talk about the output, the emission of it. But on all the emission, there’s a use of energy before. So when we know to produce one kilojoule of food, in which way fruit or meat or milk or vegetables, we use 10 or 20 kilojoules of energy, then we have to ask ourselves the question: where does that energy come from to produce that amount of food? And then the question – can we produce enough food to feed the world – it’s not really a big, big question. Because when we don’t have enough energy or we can’t do that as society, we can’t have the emissions or so many gases longer. Then, we have to ask ourselves: what is the way to produce food or to use less energy as a society? And when we know for food production, we use huge amount of energy, and we can design a system where we produce energy, where we have more output than input, then we have to do that. And then, when you theoretically, how you say it, in theory, yeah, an agroforest can produce 10.600 kilos food per year. That’s more than one hectare Mais (corn). So the amounts of food that we can produce in a norm on a good ecosystem, good-designed ecosystem, is higher than what we produce now on our fields. And when we think about how do we use the production of our fields nowadays – 80% of the arable farming lands in the world are used for animal feed. Yeah, we grow cereals to feed an animal.

S: Yeah.

CVD: And when we have 10.000 kilos of cereals, we can eat it as human beings in direct way. But we, as human beings, throw it through pigs or cows so they produce a bit more milk or grow a bit faster. But then, we have not a 10th of the amount of food that we had before. So the problem with the world is not to grow enough food, we have way too much food when we remove…

S: At least in the western hemisphere, let’s say.

CVD: No-no, that’s globally.

S: Yeah, globally.

CVD: The most food is grown now on agroforest system. So small farmers feed the world. We always say, “oh, the big farms in Russia, and in America, or Australia – they feed the world”. But when you really see the amounts of people that eat from small farmers – that are more people in the world than they eat from the big farmers. Because the big farmers mainly produce animal food: to grow meat animals and stuff like that. And it’s a ridiculous way of producing food because it costs lots of energy. And the use of that energy… We can’t use it otherwise. And that’s why food production and agriculture is one of the main issues that we have to … entwickeln…

S: Develop.

CVD: Develop as a society. We have to think about: how do we grow our food? And why do we grow our food?

S: That’s a very nice point to ponder so to say… It’s a thinker, right. You really need to… so because every purchase you make of any item for food or for whatever purpose, it’s basically like stamping your ballot box – it’s like voting on, saying, this type I support by giving it money.

CVD: Yes.

S: So, and I think that’s a good point for, I think, most of the listeners to actually understand. That supporting this type of, like, truly sustainable, or not just a little bit unsustainable, a little bit less unsustainable techniques. And I think that’s a good point. So you know, if you want to tell the audience the public something, what would be your word of recommendation? What would you say to the public?

CVD: I would say that everyone has to search in his or her way or a part of work to truly sustainability. You have to think about: why am I doing what I do? And what’s the sustainable or not sustainable issue of my job? And when everyone thinks about that for herself and not always looking to other people and say, “oh, he is he’s very unsustainable and that makes me more sustainable”.

S: Sustainability is not comparative.

CVD: You have to look for yourself and what you’re doing by yourself. And then, when you buy food you have to think about: why do I buy food and where do I buy food? And ask the people – where you buy your food: why are you doing that what you’re doing? Why would I, or should I, buy your food and not food from someone else? And good sellers would say, “you can also buy from someone else, you don’t have to buy it by me, but you have to ask the other the same question: why does he grow the food?” And in everything what you do when you have to: when you build a house – you have to find a builder that you can ask: why are you building a house, and how are you building a house, and why doing it, why you do that on the way you do it? When she thought about it and can explain how and why, then we are on the right way.

L: Yeah, and do you have any advice, like, how people can find a local farmer in their region? Is there some kind of register where it can look or is it more like? You know, can you have any advice: how to find someone in the area?

CVD: No, I don’t.

L: It’s fine. It’s like, whatever you know about, or by chance.

S: No, but I mean, I think this would be a good start. Like, if somebody wants to build, let’s say, like a good database of identifying where, you know, like, good sort of sustainable farming practices are practiced and these farmers are selling, let’s say, at these type of markets…

CVD: Yeah, but difficulty of a database with sustainable farmers is: there are no sustainable farmers at this moment. Yeah, so our farm isn’t sustainable as well – we are working on it And we think that we know what sustainable is and how we work on a farm that could be sustainable in the future. So we can’t make a register of sustainable farms because there are no sustainable farms. Maybe the small farms in Africa or India or in China. And there are lots of sustainable small farms. But not here in our region. So we have to ask on and think about it, and then we can push each other to sustainable way of working and living and producing.

L: Yeah, there’s a work in progress.

CVD: Yeah, but we have to be honest and define the word “sustainable” for ourselves. And now we use the word “sustainable” for marketing and for greenwashing but it is not really.. We didn’t think about it.

S: One more question is: so how can someone find you to buy food from you? Where do people find you?

CVD: Here on the farm, and on the market in Osnabruck.

S: Okay, so the farmers market, yeah? It’s a weekly occurrence, right?

CVD: Yeah, right. So lots of people say, “yeah, you have to make a website and you have to be more present on social media so that people can find you”. But it’s not our goal that most of people find us. As our goal is to think about how we can produce food on a sustainable way, work on that.

S: I mean also people traveling long distances to find you isn’t really sustainable, yes?

CVD: Of course, yeah. So we need local people or people that are in our, in the region for a short time, and say, “oh yeah, it’s nice we learn a lot,” and ask questions to us, why we do it. Because every time that we explain what we do and why we do that we learn and think about it again and again and again. And it’s always, when you think about something a hundred times, that 101 times you think, “ah, it wasn’t a part of that”, was really good thought about, then you see it. It could be, you know, 150 times, but you need to think over it again and again, and the more you explain it to other people… So people don’t have to find us but they have to ask other people: why they do what they do and how they do it.

S: Exactly. all right, that’s a very interesting point, and we would really like to thank you for giving us your time and, you know, sitting together with us, and doing this discussion, I really enjoyed I learned quite a lot!

L: Yeah, me too.

S: And I’m sure that people would also, at least people who are listening, would also try to think about why they do what they do. And they ask this question about what metric do you use to measure sustainability: something that everyone should ask themselves. I think that’s a very, very good point. And on that note, I’d like to thank you for joining us today and it’s been an absolute pleasure!

CVD: Yeah, thank you for your time, too!

S: Well, I hope you all enjoyed this discussion as much as we did. It was really eye-opening, to say the least. Anyway, we have a lot more episodes coming your way very soon on a weekly basis if you’ve not noticed. And if not stay with us and see you in the next few weeks! Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, bye-bye!

Offspring Magazine the Podcast is brought to you by the Max Planck PhDnet Science Communication Group, known as the Offspring magazine. The intro-, outro- music is composed by Srinath Rankumar. And the pre-intro jingle is composed by Gustavo Carrizo. Give any feedback, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to write us at Until next week! Stay safe, stay healthy, bye!
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