In old port to the west of Rotterdam’s city centre, overlooked by cranes and warehouses, a stretch of scrubland is undergoing a transformation. What was once an area for loading and storing fruit from cargo ships is being turned into a farming project, the likes of which have never been seen before.
Six years in the planning, the footprints of the world’s first floating dairy are finally taking shape. By the end of the year, the 20-by-20 metre concrete raft will be home to 40 cows, who between them will produce 1,000 litres of milk a day from their futuristic, glass-fronted home.
On the top floor of the three-storey, 2.6 million Euro development, the animals will graze on waste grains and vegetables from nearby factories, while being shaded by specially-planted trees and bushes. Machines will automatically scrape away manure, while the cows will be able to wander in and out of their stalls to a special milking area where they’ll be milked by robots. And if the herd should ever get the urge to feel solid ground beneath their feet, they’ll be able to cross a connecting bridge that will take them to real-life pasture on the dockside.
On the lower decks, the building will include a visitor and education centre, function room, and processing facilities to produce cheese and yogurt, while special equipment will clean and dry the cow’s manure and turn it into fresh bedding.
The plan has raised some eyebrows in Rotterdam, but property developer Beladon, the company behind the project, believes its design could be rolled out globally across coastal and delta cities, feeding the world’s growing number of urban dwellers. What’s more, it’s confident that its circular system will “transfarm” food production, making agriculture greener while reconnecting city residents with what goes on their plates.
“We have less and less land, and most people want to live in cities,” Beladon’s Minke van Wingerden tells me. “We have to deal with urbanisation, so cities can grow. In future we will live in space, but in the meantime we have to look for other solutions. About 70 percent of the earth’s surface is water, so why not make use of it?”
Beladon isn’t a stranger to the idea of building on water, having designed a floating cruise terminal for the Cayman Islands, as well as a floating nightclub and sewage system for Singapore. While the dairy might be the first floating project to go beyond the design phase, thanks mostly to private funding from the developer itself, it is confident it has struck upon the right idea.
“The idea first came to my husband, Peter [Beladon’s chief executive], when he was working in New York in 2012,” van Wingerden says. “The city was hit by Hurricane Sandy, which damaged the roads into the city, and within two days all of the shelves in the supermarkets were empty. It made him realise how little food is produced in the city, and when there are so many people living there it makes sense to try and create closer supplies. That’s when he thought of the floating farm.”
Despite admitting to thinking the idea was crazy at first, van Wingerden says she was quickly won over by the potential to produce food in large quantities in an environmentally friendly way.
“It’s simple to scale the farm up just by adding extra rafts, and we already have ideas for poultry farms and greenhouses that could sit alongside the dairy,” she says. “When you have other farms side by side, it becomes easier to make use of each others waste, so it becomes truly circular.”
Despite the potential, the project hasn’t been without its problems. It took several rounds with the planners to get it passed, and there are still concerns about how locals will cope with having such fragrant neighbours.
There have been practical considerations too, which wouldn’t be an issue for dry-land dairies.
“It is a difficult project because the cows are big and they like to be together,” van Wingerden says. “So as they move from one side of the platform to the other, it must be very stable. We’ve had to use maritime technology to make sure it won’t tilt.
“We’ve also been asked a lot about the cows’ welfare,” she adds. “We’ve had to explain to people that design of the dairy means won’t be able to fall out, but even if they did, cows can swim so they will be fine.”
The cows won’t get sea-sick either, she insists. “In Friesland, were I am from, they sometimes move cows on a barge, and they are fine. The dairy will be very stable—you don’t get seasick on a cruise ship, and it will be the same for our cows.”
“We’re sure our cows will be very happy here, and we hope that people living in the city will enjoy being able to visit the cows, see how their milk is produced, and take food home with them,” she adds. “There’s no doubt in our minds that this could be a blueprint for food production systems of the future.”