Hidden on the fifth floor of an enormous warehouse in Eindhoven, thousands of heads of lettuce, basil, and flowers grow in flat rafts floating on tabletops. The long tables stretch the length of the floor, and pink light radiates in every direction. This is Duurzame Kost, a Dutch aquaponic farm. The name is a kind of Dutch play on words: Duurzame means sustainable, and Kost translates literally to cost, however, it is also popular slang for food.
The Netherlands (informally referred to as Holland by its residents) is the second largest exporter of food in the world—an amazing fact considering the size of the European nation. The country recently became famous when National Geographic published an article acknowledging their participation in the modern food movement. Jos Hakkennes, founder of Duurzame Kost and Upstart University Community member, is an urban farmer who combines aquaponics and vocational rehabilitation in order to work toward environmental and social sustainability in the Netherlands.
Jos worked for 15 years in animal husbandry, a product of his agricultural engineering degree. Over time, his interests changed, and he switched careers to spend 15 more years in vocational rehabilitation first as a job coach, and then owning his own job coaching business. After gaining 30 years of experience, he realized that there was a way he could integrate the two in the interest of both environmental and social sustainability. All he needed was a plan.
At the time, Jos was unsuspecting that his future would involve aquaponics. “I want[ed] to do something about a more sustainable way of food production,” he said “and I want[ed] to do something about giving people who want to work a proper job a proper chance.” After some research, he came across an article about aquaponics “and then, quite easily, everything [came] together.”
Following some time in the United States learning everything he could about aquaponic systems, Jos returned to his hometown and constructed 400 square meters of rafts in an old greenhouse. He built his aquaponic system to resemble the ones he’d been introduced to at Nelson & Pade and the University of the Virgin Islands. These aquaponic systems grow food by breaking down the waste from the aquatic animals (usually fish) in the system. Jos now operates 800 square meters (or about 8,600 square feet) of deep water culture rafts (an aquaponic growing technique) in the warehouse in Eindhoven.
The old warehouse, Vershal het Veem as it’s known, is surrounded by nearly 60 restaurants, 40 or 50 of which purchase fresh produce from Duurzame Kost. Of the total production from the farm, 80% is lettuce, adding up to a yearly production of about 22,000 kg (48,500 lbs) of just the leafy vegetable. They also grow some herbs and even edible flowers (the latter only upon specific request from a restaurant) but find that lettuce is by far the most demanded. In addition, Jos and his employees sell fish from the aquaponic system every Friday at a market in the same building in which his farm is located. The yearly fish production is about 2,500 kg, making it their second largest seller.
Unlike many aquaponic growers, Jos produces trout rather than tilapia. When asked why, Jos responded that “nobody likes tilapia. . .and in my opinion, a disadvantage of tilapia is that you need warm water to grow [them] in.” Luckily, cold water fish means reduced heating costs, and, due to the cooler climate in the Netherlands, a lower total amount of power used in the operation.
One of Jos’ main motivators is that indoor farming is a sustainable form of agriculture. He says that while the Netherlands has one of the most efficient agriculture systems in the world, the majority of the country does it in a “linear way,” as Jos calls it, or in a way that uses inputs to create a product and leaves waste behind rather than repurposing it.
“Sustainability to me,” says Jos, “is thinking in circles and inventing more circles.”
In order to create as many circles as possible within his system, Jos works with a company to make fish feed that is not composed of fish meal or oils, which involve wasteful processes to develop. “Sustainability is taking care of the planet, taking care of the organisms on it, and produc[ing] as efficiently as possible. That is what we try to do here.” Almost nothing in the farm goes to waste. Once the produce is harvested, the old leaves and even the old media are fed to insects, which are then used as an ingredient to develop the fish feed. While some circles are simpler to create, indoor farmers rely on technological development in a big way to create others. Electricity is one example.
Power use is a factor that represents a substantial threat to the sustainability of indoor growing, since light is essential to plant growth, and can use a lot of electricity. The larger the production space, and the larger the number of plants, the more lights, and electricity you will need. Jos, however, is not so worried. “. . . people here in Holland say in about 10–15 years, electricity will be free,” he said, because solar panels and farms have become so popular, “and when we have a good way to store electricity, then we have the Holy Grail, I think.” But for now, the most efficient way to get energy to plants is by using conventional power sources.
Indoor agriculture will help to alleviate the pressures of growing populations and of a decrease in viable farmlands. Not only are the soils in the field being depleted of nutrients, many fertilizers used in our soils heavily pollute existing ecosystems. Aquaponic systems are closed, circulating systems that do not leach chemicals, do not require large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, and grow food that may even be better.
“In my opinion, aquaponics has the benefits of very intensive agricultural business, but without the negative side effects” he explained, and “it’s the perfect way to get people employed.” But Jos doesn’t employ just anybody. As a part of his business model, Jos is partnered with Futuris Zorg Werk, a caretaking agency in Eindhoven that works with people who have autism. Together, the companies aid in the development of these peoples’ independence and decision-making skills.
Jos works with his employees in two ways: one is to train them for future jobs, and the other is to train them to stay on at his operation. Employees get a contract for one year and use that year to learn both responsibility and problem-solving skills. In Holland, Jos says “there’s a lot about sustainable society, responsibility, and that kind of thing, but I think most of those projects are on paper and they are perfect on a presentation or on a spreadsheet or powerpoint. . . but there weren’t that many really happening. And that’s what makes me tick. I want to make a difference. I want to do something. So I started [Duurzame Kost].”
Jos encourages us to think about how uniting people who have disabilities with local, sustainable food allows them to “participate in society in a proper way.”
“I think when you look at that, the world population is growing. . . and the amount of people with disabilities is growing, so, when we can put those two together, we have a perfect way of life for people with disabilities.” People who have autism often face many difficulties when trying to find jobs or even to participate fully in the societies that have developed today. By recognizing their disability as an opportunity, Jos is opening up the potential for them to bring the future of food to their communities.
He teaches them not only to know what to look for in the farm in terms of deficiencies and crops but also teaches them to solve problems and how to carry responsibility, skills that are widely expected by employers.
Problem-solving, especially, is a skill that is required in many jobs, and by introducing them to it at his farm and ingraining it in the work they do, Jos helps autistic people prepare for future employment. He also gives everyone who works at Duurzame Kost a key to the farm. “I trust everybody, until otherwise, but till now, we don’t have any surprises in that. And we make them responsible for a bit of the total organization.”
Jos says that “a lot of people are trained by taking orders and executing, and what I do here is I don’t give orders, I give them a responsibility. . . so they can take pride in what they achieve.” Workers at the farm are responsible for their crops from harvest all the way through delivery, giving them experience in customer interaction. “Sometimes you get a compliment, sometimes you get some critic[ism], sometimes you have a problem to solve.”
For Jos, aquaponics is the future of food production. It is a responsible way to grow food and to involve people who might otherwise be missing out on work experience due to their disabilities. “Because we work with living material,” Jos says, “it’s a way to feed the world, so it’s a perfect way to get good work experience and a good job.”
“What I want to show the world is that sustainable agriculture is possible, but you have to take chances. You must dare to think in other strategies, and when you do that, it’s possible.”
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