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More and more farmers are harvesting houses from the land
By: André Oerlemans
More than half of Dutch farmers expect to grow fiber crops within five years that contractors and project developers can use to build biobased. This spring, six BouwBoeren sowed 25 hectares with elephant grass, sunflower crown, sorghum and hemp. Developers such as Ballast Nedam are ready to start building with these materials.

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'Houses grow here', will soon be written on more and more signs along the Dutch fields. At the BouwBoeren, houses are already being harvested from the land this year. This spring, they sowed 25 hectares of fiber-rich crops at six locations around Utrecht and in the West Betuwe. In the autumn, 250,000 to 300,000 kilos of biobased material will be harvested. One house can be built with the proceeds from each hectare. So this year 25 homes. Next year the BouwBoeren want to scale up to 95 hectares and in 2025 to 300 hectares.

Alternative revenue model for farmers
BouwBoeren is an initiative of the brothers Luc and Wout de Wit. Luc has been a circular project developer for fifteen years, Wout has been a biobased architect for twenty years. They always had to get the sustainable building materials they needed from abroad. The platform wants to get those raw materials from its own region and at the same time offer farmers an alternative revenue model. The brothers started in 2021 and later Patrick Willemse also joined. This year is the first trial harvest. “The Netherlands has 1.8 million hectares of agricultural land. If we use 5 percent of that for biobased cultivation, we will already have 100,000 homes,” says Luc de Wit.
First building panels from our own processing plant
To process those crops immediately, the BouwBoeren have built a mobile factory: the BioBased Factory. “This kind of processing capacity did not exist before. We developed this machine ourselves and it will convert the crops into semi-finished products. It has to run in September,” says Luc de Wit. The final link is to process those semi-finished products into products that the construction industry can actually use. They worked on it for a year and a half. During the Provada real estate fair, the BouwBoeren presented their first products: prefab, biobased, demountable panels for timber frame construction. These are blown full of fibers on the construction site and then used for floors and facades of homes. “TNO and Wageningen University & Research (WUR) have already done tests with it. We will start production for the market at the end of this year,” says Wout de Wit.
Bringing farmers and builders together
And who is going to build with those materials? The new platform WeGrow can play an important role in this. This is an initiative of project developer Ballast Nedam, entrepreneurial collective LTO Companies, sustainable construction consultancy Merosh and knowledge platform SWP, with Rabobank as a founding partner. WeGrow also presented itself at the Provada. The aim of the platform is to bring together farmers who want to grow crops for construction with builders who want to build biobased. Among other things, by sharing knowledge through company visits, podcasts, conferences, network meetings and daily content via the website and social media. “There are already many initiatives in the market, without us knowing it. As a platform, we want to show all those good examples and thus organize an acceleration in the transition of the construction sector,” says CEO Onno Dwars of Ballast Nedam Development.

Hemp for insulation
One of those good examples is the arable farm of the Van Kuiken brothers from Wierum. They sowed 40 hectares of fiber hemp in May and entered into a local partnership with construction company Dijkstra Draisma. He will use the fiber hemp to sustainably insulate 200 homes.
Construction sector in a time crunch
By building biobased, CO2 from the air is stored in the crops and then in the buildings for a longer period of time. According to Dwars, the construction sector will face a CO2 lockdown in a few years, just as it is currently facing a nitrogen lockdown. In order to comply with the agreements in the Paris Climate Agreement and to prevent the earth from warming further than 1.5 degrees, the construction sector may still emit 15 megatons of CO2. This is currently happening mainly through cement and concrete production. “That means that practically speaking we may have until 2028 to continue building the way we are doing now. So we don't have time. Within ten years we have to get it done and build biobased”, says Dwars. Because construction projects are spread out over a longer period of time, he believes the sector should already start with this en masse.

Don't wait for Dutch farmer
But if Ballast Nedam starts building biobased, the developer will run into all kinds of problems, particularly in the field of regulations and permits. The company also has to buy many biobased raw materials across the border, because they are not yet available in the Netherlands. In Germany and Austria in particular, farmers grow much more biobased raw materials for construction. Dwars: “We simply buy where it is available. If it is not available in the Netherlands, we will cross the border. We can't wait for the Dutch farmers. Then we get stuck.”

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Business model for the farmer
Is biobased cultivation an interesting revenue model for farmers? Do they get a fair price for this or are they squeezed down to the last penny? So far there is little interest. “If 100 of our 30,000 members are involved, that is a lot. We will be happy if dozens join us for pilot projects,” says Lars Hillewaere, business developer carbon farming at farmers' collective LTO Companies. Yet farmers don't have blinders on. A recent survey by LTO shows that 50 percent of farms plan to switch to the cultivation of biobased raw materials in five years' time. Conventional agriculture is under pressure due to nitrogen, especially in livestock farming. Half of the farmers also live below the poverty line.

The cultivation of fiber-rich crops for construction is environmentally friendly, has low CO2 emissions, requires relatively little labour, manure, water and pesticides, can take place on non-productive land and is resistant to extreme rain and drought. "It's good for the farmer's earnings model, because it means less work and lower costs," says Hillewaere.
Chicken and egg
According to him, farmers currently do not have enough certainty to start with it. “There is a chicken-and-egg problem in chain formation,” says Hillewaere. “Farmers want to produce it, but they want to be sure that they have sales for a good price. On the other hand, construction companies want certainty about the supply of raw materials if they are going to build with it. When they both look at each other, nothing happens. Someone has to take up that gauntlet.” According to him, that is one of WeGrow's tasks. Because there are plenty of opportunities. “We see that the demand for these raw materials is growing faster than the supply. That is why prices will rise sharply all over the world in the coming years.”

Recycling everything is not enough
Why would the real estate sector step in here? Because the Netherlands must be a circular economy by 2025. To become CO2 neutral and at the same time be able to build 100,000 homes per year, says consultancy Merosch. “A huge task that sometimes gives you a fright, but we can come a long way,” says director Ronald Schilt. “One of the most important components in this story is the material. How do we get that environmental impact down? We can recycle everything to the maximum, but even if we reuse all the buildings and real estate we have for new real estate, we will still be short of 80 percent of our raw materials. Are we going to use environmentally polluting raw materials with an enormous CO2 trace or are we going for circular biobased materials? So that offers opportunities for the real estate market.”
Invest more in biobased real estate
The number of types of biobased materials that builders can use is almost endless. Achmea Real Estate had suppliers of these types of materials hold a pitch for three days during the Provada. From bricks made from loam and hemp to sheet material and panels made from fungi, seaweed, reed, vegetable and garden waste. From carpet tiles and floors made of waste and hemp to insulation material made of cork. All of this was incorporated in the Achmea stand. It was completely biobased, except for some rented furniture. “We want to encourage the entire chain to build more biobased. We want to invest more in biobased real estate and so do our clients, but then it has to be there,” says spokesman Erik van der Struijs. Achmea Real Estate itself invests in two projects where (partly) biobased construction takes place: One MilkyWay in The Hague and the Roosenboom in Roosendaal. The contract for the latter project was signed during the fair.
  • winnie nguru

    51 w

    Good effort

    • Tabitha Kimani

      51 w

      The commitment is really encouraging.

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