It is logical that vegetable grower Peter Appelman participates in Agrifirm’s regenerative agriculture pilot. He has worked with soil health and biodiversity for years and takes action to improve soil quality. With success by the way. For example, he has already managed to significantly reduce the use of plant protection products in recent years. He has no firm data on this.
Search for low-emission cabbage cultivation
Appelman sees the seven-year pilot of Agrifirm, in which six growers are participating, as the next step in his quest for zero-residue and low-emission farming. The cooperative hires experts who guide the growers in taking various measures. Fellow growers can benefit from the knowledge and experience gained in the pilot project.
If you want to improve soil health, experiment
Appelman sees his participation in this way: “I’m a real earthling, I’ve read books, watched films and followed courses in recent years, but I still have a lot to learn. If you want to improve soil health, experiment. That’s what we’re going to do in this pilot. Practice is always more unruly than theory.”
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Peter Appelman, together with his ex-wife Margo van der Vliet and son Dave Appelman (30), has an outdoor vegetable shop in Stompetoren in the North Dutch polder De Schermer. They grow broccoli, white cabbage and cauliflower on around 350 hectares. Around 1990, Appelman started as a vegetable grower and gradually expanded the business to its current size.
It all starts at the bottom
He is the type of entrepreneur who is constantly thinking about growing and selling. What goes right, what goes wrong? See opportunities and then take steps for further improvement. His main conclusion from all the changes he has made in cultivation is this: “It all starts with the soil. Human health depends on the quality of food, which in turn depends on the health of the soil. So there’s that knob you can turn.”
It all started about fifteen years ago. The problems with cultivation on the clay soil in the reclaimed area increased. He was confronted with drought damage and floods. Harvesting the crops was difficult, the machines occasionally failed. He went in search of the causes, read books on soil health and contacted colleagues and knowledge institutions.
He has since taken a number of measures. The most important are: shallow tillage, expansion of the cultivation plan and sowing of more green manure crops as soon as possible after harvest.
He increasingly chooses non-inversion tillage, which keeps the carbon in the soil. When it comes to fertilization, he chooses compost and straw-based organic fertilizers such as horse and goat manure. “After fertilizing with manure, the worms literally shoot out of the soil. Hence the seagulls you see on land. And that while you want to keep these worms in the soil for better soil penetration, both in wet and dry times.”
Next growing season, he will start working on new initiatives as part of the Agrifirm pilot. For example, he will plant young cabbage plants in a few plots directly in the green manure. That is, without tillage. It’s exciting, he says. Will his machines be able to do it, will the growth of the cabbage start? “I dare. Agrifirm invests knowledge and money in this. And that’s why I dare to take the risk.”
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Another experiment comes from his own pipe. He wants to try planting another crop, usually between the cabbages. He thinks of buckwheat. “It is good for the biodiversity of the soil and the permeability of the soil to grow several crops on the same soil. This gives a boost to soil life, such as fungi and bacteria. And then to the dividend. But it has yet to prove itself.”
Earth in balance
The ground measures he has already taken are quite successful, he says. The soil is more balanced, it has less drought and water damage and the cabbages are more robust, making it less dependent on plant protection products. As a result, the use of chemical agents has decreased, he says.
On his farm there is a measuring point by the RIVM to map the leaching of nitrate into ground and surface water. There is no more washing out. Appelman makes a comment in this connection. If he had grown on sandy soil, he would not have succeeded.
The upturned Dutch flag also hangs on his company. Appelman is angry with the government. The transition in food production is necessary, he says, but cannot be achieved through repression. “Because it leads to resistance and aggression.”
Furthermore, he believes that the government is responsible for the current production method in agriculture. “I used to be educated at the national high school. The emphasis was on artificial fertilizers and pesticides. We have to go back to the old farmers’ knowledge of soil and crops from decades ago. It takes time, and the sector must get it.”