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Do cows in the ocean represent the future of farming?

Samuel L. Jackson can fly with his snakes. Peter and Minke van Wingerden have come up with something even crazier: a herd of cows floating on the sea.

Floating Farm, a high-tech micro-dairy, is a sustainable farming experiment by a Dutch husband and wife. It is floating in the port of Rotterdam. The modernist building is home to 40 Maas-Rijn-Ijssel cows, which produce about 200 gallons (757 litres) of milk every day. The waterborne farm not only helps feed the local community, but it also contributes to a global conversation about how the climate crisis is forcing farmers to change how and where they grow food.

Floods, megadroughts, and even rising nighttime temperatures have thrown off the food system and cost the US farm industry alone more than $1 billion. Scientists in Mexico are working on climate-resilient wheat strains, and Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont, Colorado, is a testbed for the emerging method of agrivoltaic farming. This is a space-efficient system that allows solar arrays and traditional farming to coexist on the same patch of land. This is a multi-tasking innovation that proponents say leads to a higher crop yield. “If you have a strong ecological system under the solar panels,” says Byron Kominek, Jack’s third-generation owner, “you can have a win-win for climate change.”

Joshua Faulkner, a research assistant professor and the programme coordinator for the University of Vermont’s farming and climate change programme, says that extreme weather has made farming completely different from what it was just a few decades ago. “Farmers used to know that certain things, like when to plant and when to harvest, were always the same. In the past 10 to 15 years, these assumptions have been thrown out the window, and farmers are having to rewrite the book.”

The Van Wingerdens, on the other hand, are betting on a method that has nothing to do with land at all. Peter, who used to build houses and has a background in engineering, got the idea for the Floating Farm from a climate disaster on the other side of the world. When he went to New York City after Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast US in 2012, he saw how flooding made it hard to get fresh food to millions of people. He was almost certain that this problem would get worse in the years to come. So, he used his knowledge of aquatic architecture to make nearly 10,000 square feet (929 square metres) of floating farming space. If his experiment worked, it would not be affected by rising sea levels or floods that cause damage.

Rotterdam is already known as one of the places in the world that can deal with climate change the best. The city is 90% below sea level, so everything from office buildings to whole neighbourhoods is built on water. The Van Wingerdens’ floating dairy farm was something new, but it was bound to happen. If bad weather strikes, a waterborne farm doesn’t have to stay in one place. An urban farm that serves people in the city also cuts down on the carbon emissions that come from transporting food. A farm on water also helps to ease what conservationists call the “global land squeeze.” This is the ever-growing tension that happens when there is a limited amount of land and more and more wild land is turned over to agriculture to meet the demand for “food, feed, fuel, and fibre,” says Janet Ranganathan, the managing director for strategy, learning, and results at the World Resources Institute, a global research organisation.

The experimental farm of the Van Wingerdens is built on pontoons that rise and fall with the tides (which, in Rotterdam, fluctuate about eight feet each day). The cows are milked, cleaned, and fed by robots in the rubber-floored barn on the top level of the building (they can also walk down a gangplank to a waterside patch of pasture). On the middle level, butter, yoghurt, and other dairy products are made from milk. On this level, rainwater and seawater that has been taken out of it are cleaned and made safe for the cows to drink. The animals’ waste is turned into fertiliser that is used on local soccer fields. The grass clippings from these fields are then fed back to the animals. At the bottom of the building is a naturally cool area where up to 1,000 wheels of gouda-style cheese can be aged at once. Some of these cheeses are flavoured with curry, while others are flavoured with wild garlic. All of these cheeses are sold in the farm shop. In other words, it’s a self-sustaining system that works in a circle, both in terms of the environment and money.

The Van Wingerdens’ model is ready to be copied, which is what a group of 14 people at the Floating Farm are doing right now. Plans are in the works for a floating vegetable farm to move in next to the current Floating Farm. Permit requests for similar buildings are also out in Dubai, Singapore, and the Dutch cities of Haarlem and Arnhem.

The new projects will use what was learned from the first project in Rotterdam. Peter says, “You have to build a house to learn how to build a house.” Some of his most important lessons have been about how things work in the real world, like how farm materials move through a waterborne structure. He has also learned a lot about how to deal with bureaucracy and set ideas.

The biggest problems he thinks he will face are not financial or physical, but political and bureaucratic. “As a world, we really need to find answers for the next 30 years,” says Peter. “One of the biggest problems we face around the world is rules. Cities need to think outside the box. Cities need departments that shake things up. Cities need places where you can say, “Okay, this is the place to try new things.” Because what Peter and his team are doing isn’t like other ways to be environmentally friendly. “We don’t come up with new ideas,” he says. “We are disruptive.”

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