Green Lab Rotterdam excursion – inspiration for all

On 12th to 13th April RUW went on a city trip to Rotterdam with 26 WUR students. We visited a number of awesome urban agriculture initiatives, each one with its own objective and means of existence, ate at the heartwarming Hotspot Hutspot and got inspired by the enthusiasm and faith of our hosts. Thank you for having us!  – by Annika Meuche, Ilsa Phillips & Darja Tretjakova

Day 1: Rotterdam Municipality / Edible Rotterdam (Eetbaar Rotterdam) / DakAkker / Uit je Eigen Stad

After picking up our bicycles we were welcomed at the community centre het Nieuwe Banier for the presentations of Rachna Deenstra (Municipality of Rotterdam) and Paul de Graaf (Eetbaar Rotterdam).

Paul de Graaf giving a lecture on Rotterdam urban agriculture at the Nieuwe Banier
Paul de Graaf giving a lecture on Rotterdam urban agriculture at the Nieuwe Banier

Rotterdam is an interesting case when it comes to urban agriculture. The city has been almost completely destroyed during World War II, and successful recovery required active participation and positive attitude towards the future from the citizens. The city government is thus more involved with its citizens than any other city and is more prepared to take up a challenge or try something innovative when the citizens initiate something. In Rotterdam, many different citizens are engaged in urban agriculture activities, often using low-tech resources. The municipality tries to support these initiatives, not financially, but by giving them space and providing an overall sustainability framework (e.g. city works intensively on circular flows, recycling, biodiversity, climate adaptation). Besides the gardens and small vegetable farms, there are also several famer markets, mainly supported by the increasing interest of consumers in local food. The municipality links these to other areas such as health, education, quality of space, vital regional economy (need for new innovation) and support of regional food council. For example, schools are encouraged to go to the urban farm to teach the kids healthy food choices. The mission is to solve problems in the city first and by doing so contribute to solving of the global environmental problems. It is still difficult to make a living off urban agriculture, so most projects are run by volunteers.

Edible Rotterdam (Eetbaar Rotterdam) is an urban agriculture network that began in 2007 with an expert meeting with entrepreneurs, architects and researchers. The goal is to connect agriculture to the city and to close the food cycle, which is currently not the case. Paul de Graaf explained that there are different types of urban agriculture (e.g. forest gardens, rooftops, hydroponics and aquaponics) that could potentially contribute to urban food production, and each can be used according to the urban environment. There is, however, a lack of investment. It is hard to get private funds to invest in public space. Urban agriculture as a business model can be self-operating, as it is beneficial for health issue, city image and other social issues, but the small scale is often problematic to make the projects economically sustainable. Furthermore, more policies are needed; organizational change should be more directed to reach the benefits of all partners. Labelling the urban produce as organic is difficult, however due to the closeness to the customers it is generally not even needed.

After a short bicycle ride we reached the DakAkker; the largest in EU, a roof garden on top of a 23-meter high, 7-storey building, which otherwise houses creative companies of different profiles. From 2012, they grow vegetables, herbs, fruits, edible flowers and also keep bees here. The produce is sold to people in the building and markets. The roof is pretty weak, and our hosts had to be creative: the soil substrate consists of a lot of organic material and lava stones (light-weight, yet porous and fertile), deeper soil is found on the perimeter of the roof, where it is contained in Styrofoam boxes. We find out that the city is a good place for the bees, because people now grow flowers throughout the whole year. The bee-keeping goes by bio-dynamical rules, i.e. mess with the bees as little as possible. The bees fly to a distance of about 3 kilometres from the beehive and have produced 40 kilograms of honey last year. They also have to get creative with funding: although they earn the most with the edible flowers, and selling honey in very small pots is also profitable, there is a lot to be earned from excursions, educational activities, a temporary café and renting out the place for events.

After a short lunch we headed towards Uit je Eigen Stad (literally: “From your own city”) on the other side of Rotterdam. Jan-Willem van der Schans, also from Edible Rotterdam, guided us through the farm and told the story of its success.  Originally it started as social enterprise with a housing company as main sponsor, which wanted to make area attractive again. At the moment the farm grows vegetables, has its own chickens (those also control weed growth) and is experimenting with growing mushrooms and an aquaponics system. Uit je Eigen Stad is a commercial company, providing its customers with vegetables and also housing a restaurant. Volunteers and citizens are not engaged in farm activities; social care activities would be profitable, but the owners do not have the capacity to implement this. It has proved to be a meeting place for the chefs and the farmers; the produce which would be thrown away by the latter is priced high by the former. Income is further generated by the restaurant and rental of conference rooms. Issues that Uit je Eigen Stad faces ranges from being a competition to the commercial farms outside of the city to being a threat to biodiversity as the area could have remained a nature area. It is also difficult to get permits from the municipality who see chickens as a public health issue. However Jan-Willem sees urban agriculture not as competition to these farms, rather as something more complementary. Furthermore, the municipality can promote the city with this initiative.

The day was closed with a three-course dinner at Hotspot Hutspot at Lombardijen. This initiative, run by Bob, is an all-in-one: a restaurant, an urban farm, a social project. During the week the restaurant serves dinner for a price of 7 euros with home-grown vegetables. The children from the neighbourhood are invited to help out with growing the food, preparing it and serving it to their customers. In one of the more difficult neighbourhoods of Rotterdam, this allows them to learn how the food grows, how to prepare it under the supervision of a professional chef and how to deal with customers. For some of the kids who ‘graduated’ from Bobs kitchen this truly has been a life-changing experience that provided them with the skills and mindset for a life full of opportunities. Hotspot Hutspot is semi-mobile, as Bob puts it, when they get kicked out of one location they just pack their kitchen utensils and vegetable crates and leave to another place. We felt very welcome and inspired by Bob and his team and wish them a lot of luck in the next phase of this initiative – expanding their network to 6 more restaurants through the Stadsinitiatief contest.

Day 2: Rotterzwam

On Sunday we are up and cycling to the next and last destination, RotterZwam. The company is housed in the former Tropical Paradise Tropicana, or else, the abandoned swimming pool which was built in1988 bus is now closed for public access. What do they do there? They grow edible mushrooms on used coffee and coffee husks and sell those to local restaurants and other consumers. Inspired by the concept of blue economy, Siemen Cox and partner started off with this initiative a couple of years back by experimenting with different substrates to grow the mushrooms on. They now collect the used coffee with a cargo bike from a café in Rotterdam, mix it with coffee husks (left after burning the coffee beans) and mushroom spores, stick that mixture in plastic bags and wait until the mycelium has grown throughout the whole substrate under warm, high CO2 and moist conditions. Then they make incisions in the plastic and the bags go to another room which is colder and has a lot more oxygen. It takes 3-6 weeks to grow the final product. When harvested the mushrooms are again transported to local restaurants by the cargo bike, making the total producer-consumer chain no longer than 3.7 kilometres (think of those bananas form Columbia). They can harvest 5 kilograms per week, but the demand is way larger (50 kg/week) so they want to expand the production. They want to finance this with crowd-funding. Although these mushrooms are expensive, other sources of income include educational tours, workshops and merchandise. Everything the duo does is open source, the only waste they have is the plastic bags (alternatives are being looked at) and in the process of growing mushrooms they produce 4 other products (enzymes, compost, worms and wormthee (fertilizer)).

This two-day excursion was filled with so much inspiration thanks to our enthusiastic hosts who work hard and pursue their goals in spite of all the difficulties. We thank the students for their unending questions and attention and hope to see you guys more often!

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