The farm raising “floating cows” in the Rotterdam harbor

Rising sea levels? No problem for this herd.

Rotterdam boasts the world’s first-ever Floating Farm: a self-sufficient, fully functional dairy farm following circular economy principles. “To feed the Earth’s growing population, we will need to start using our planet’s water resources.”

Unsuspecting visitors to Rotterdam’s Merwehaven harbor – located between the town of Schiedam and the Rotterdam borough of Delfshaven – would be forgiven for mistaking the 32 cows ambling around on a covered platform for some sort of mirage. Yet there they are, placidly chewing their cud. They appear to be perfectly happy on their Floating Farm, which overlooks seagoing vessels, terminals and a platform carrying floating solar panels shaped like milk bottles. A walkway connects the Floating Farm to a stretch of land where the cows can graze.

The animals were relocated from Brabant province to Rotterdam in mid-May, to the world’s first-ever floating farm, which has embraced climate-adaptive, sustainable and circular farming. The idea for the Floating Farm was born in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy flooded Manhattan and left parts of the island submerged, including a large distribution center for fresh food.

“That’s when we came up with the idea of producing food on water,” says Minke van Wingerden, co-founder of and spokesperson for the Floating Farm, and, along with her husband Peter, one of the project’s investors. “We want to demonstrate how you can produce food for city residents as self-sufficiently as possible. So in that sense, it is an educational project as well as a functional one.”

“It is an educational project as well as a functional one”

- Minke van Wingerden, Floating Farm

Hay from a football stadium

The farm already runs almost entirely on circular economy principles. For starters, 80 percent of the animal feed is sourced from the Greater Rotterdam Area. Potato-processing company Heezen supplies peels; beer brewery Noordt delivers brewing waste to the Floating Farm; and a Schiedam windmill donates bran – pieces of grain husk separated from flour after milling.

The hay is supplied by the De Kuip sports stadium, the training pitches at the local Feyenoord soccer club, and the golf club in the city’s Kralingen district. Some of the hay is also sourced from a piece of land managed by the Dutch Society for Nature Conservation (Natuurmonumenten) in the Midden-Delfland area. Only 20 percent of the feed is purchased from traditional animal feed manufacturers. “So that means we’re still looking for more waste streams,” Van Wingerden explains.

In addition to 800 liters of milk a day – which is used to make yogurt below deck that is sold in the farm store – the cows also produce manure. This is separated into solids and liquids (urine): the solids serve as floor cover for the stalls, while the useful ingredients from the liquids are sold on as fertilizer to golf clubs. The cows kept at Floating Farm are all of the Meuse-Rhine-Issel (Dutch Red-and-White) breed, selected for their large milk output, high-quality meat and tranquil nature, which is important considering the large crowds the project continues to draw every day. An added benefit is that this breed is virtually immune to disease. Van Wingerden: “I should also add that they’re simply a superior home-grown Dutch breed.”

“Over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. We need to start using those resources if we are to continue feeding the Earth’s growing population.”

A living lab

If it were up to the Floating Farm’s managers, they would further extend the concept by adding chickens and vegetables to the mix. Van Wingerden: “We regard the Floating Farm as a ‘living lab.’ What we have in mind is a floating food patch in the Merwehaven harbor. Our goal is to produce as much sustainable food as possible on the water.”

The idea is expected to eventually catch on worldwide, and it’s looking promising so far, with floating farms currently being developed in Den Bosch, Singapore and China. “Singapore has to import 95 percent of the food for its residents from overseas, and it happens to be surrounded by water. Floating farms would be the perfect solution for meeting their demand for food. Just over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, and we will need to start using those resources if we are to continue feeding the Earth’s growing population.”

“City dwellers have become estranged from rural communities”

- Minke van Wingerden, Floating Farm

Private investors

Van Wingerden says she is “immensely proud” that the Floating Farm project was created “without a penny in government subsidies.” “We only have around 40 private investors, ranging from financiers to a company that supplied the floor to someone who translates our information materials. Also, three employees of the local Rabobank allocated their €500 annual sustainability budget toward the purchase of a single cow. We’re still looking for people willing to fund a cow of their own; we can accommodate 40 animals here altogether.”

The Floating Farm certainly attracts its share of attention: hundreds of reporters and thousands of visitors from all over the world have already checked out the project to find out how to practice sustainable farming in the heart of a metropolis. “City dwellers have become estranged from rural communities, and tend not to realize just how much effort it takes to produce high-quality food,” Van Wingerden says. “Floating farms reintroduce food production into urban areas, which leads to the realization that we cannot afford to let food go to waste.”