VP Landbouw: A leading light in sustainable agriculture
VP Landbouw is the name of the agricultural company founded in the mid-1940s by the Van Puijenbroek family (‘VP’ Capital), who have continued investing in it ever since. Today, it has become a sizeable mixed farm, combining growing vegetables with dairy farming.
Through VP Landbouw, VP Capital has entered a phase of transition in order to consolidate their position at the forefront of sustainable agriculture. To that end, they have begun the process of examining possible scenarios with Metabolic.
Our mission: to become a more climate-conscious farm
Throughout its history, both sustainability and sustainable progress have been central to VP Landbouw’s DNA. It was one of the first farms to receive the Unilever ‘Landmark Farm’ sustainability label. Every farm has its own story, from its soil and resources to its history and its people. At VP Landbouw, we are currently at a crossroads. Having set ourselves the goal of becoming both CO2-neutral and more financially secure, we are dedicated to producing nutritious food from fertile soil, with a strong emphasis on animal welfare.
We have translated this mission into a manifesto setting out our core values, its four pillars serving as a guide for the coming years, ensuring we all continue to pull in the right direction.
Impact-driven and regenerative
We aim to close the carbon and nutrient cycles, improving soil quality, biodiversity, water cycle and animal welfare without being dogmatic. We are doing this by adopting a systematic approach and using innovative measures that fit into our business operations. This involves looking at methods from precision, organic, circular and nature-inclusive forms of agriculture.
Having a positive impact on people and the planet all starts from having a financially healthy company. We are focusing on the further integration of arable farming, agroforestry and livestock farming, while looking at the performance of the company as a whole, rather than its constituent parts. In order to provide a flexible response to changes in the environment, we are developing diverse and innovative revenue models.
Local and in partnership
We take responsibility for what we do and make positive impacts on a local level, in cooperation with the general public, farmers, other parts of the supply chain and the government. In practice, this means closing cycles on our own land or in the neighbourhood wherever possible, acting as a hub where farmers, nature and citizens can connect.
Pioneering step by step
We are accelerating the transition towards a sustainable food system by being one of the first companies to apply regenerative farming methods on a large scale. This involves a targeted and step-by-step approach. We experiment, watch, learn and adjust, before sharing our observations with other farmers and organisations. Once we achieve the desired effect on the system and it becomes financially viable, we are then able to scale this up.
arable and livestock farming
VP Landbouw is located in Hilvarenbeek, south of Tilburg, along the Belgian border. Most of the land is leased from the Gorp and Roovert Estate (Landgoed Gorp en Roovert). The rest is owned by the company.
Of our 420 hectares of agricultural land, 175 hectares are used for the production of cow feed (grass, clover, field beans and maize). The remainder is used for arable farming and vegetable cultivation, the two rotating as part of the arable farming strategy.
Originally, the agricultural plots were established at a considerable distance from the buildings in order to protect the nearby vast forests from any possible fires. This combination of agriculture and agroforestry has now become a real asset, providing for a more varied landscape whose biodiversity is on the rise. What’s more, our crops are less susceptible to extreme temperatures, wind or precipitation.
VP Landbouw’s current sustainability policy is centred around animal welfare, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, use of antibiotics, soil management and conservation in preventing and, where possible, rectifying any negative impacts on the environment. Our use of pesticides, water, energy, artificial fertilisers and antibiotics are in line with environmental benchmark standards. Since 2018, parent company VP Capital has facilitated annual screening with regards to their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) approach, as well as overall impact. This has helped draw up a roadmap towards making our farm more sustainable. Some examples of sustainability initiatives that have emerged from this:
- Strip cropping
- Fully electrified irrigation system (60% powered by solar energy)
- Use of cover and resting crops
- Field margins with mixed flower crops
- Use of grass clippings as compost
- Solar panels
- Letting the cows graze on the farm’s own fresh grass
- Animal welfare: annual audit by KoeKompas, followed-up by recommendations for animal health and welfare
- Innovation fields for testing new ways of sowing and growing
- The farm is part of the Van Puijenbroek family’s Gorp and Roovert Estate, where almost 800 hectares of trees are used for sustainable forest management.
VP Capital’s annual ESG screening also calculates VP Landbouw’s CO2 emissions, helping draw up a roadmap of concrete measures to help reduce them, such as installing solar panels.
While we continue working on this roadmap, we are offsetting our carbon emissions every year by purchasing what are known as carbon credits, generated in VCS-certified projects including Zambia and India. As a result, VP Landbouw has been able to declare itself a CO2-neutral company since 2019.
Our team is made up of loyal, driven individuals.
Unlike a lot of family businesses, all work carried out at VP Landbouw is done by paid employees. We strive for the utmost efficiency in our work, with a flexible team capable of adapting to all weather conditions. With their keen eye for quality and animal welfare, they are the ones who keep the farm running.
Alongside our permanent team, we also bring in flexible staff on a self-employed basis, or via an employment agency during peak periods.
While our farm enjoys a rich and diverse history, the common thread has always been the scientific basis upon which any decisions or adjustments are made.
From the very beginning, there has always been a drive to continuously improve the welfare of both the cows and the soil. To that end, management has undertaken a number of research trips abroad, even as far as the United States.
In early 1941, the farm begins construction of new barns, featuring concrete floors, stone walls and an outer wall made of tarred spruce from its own forests. The farm is set up to provide employment for workers at the Van Puijenbroek textile factories, which had unfortunately closed down because of the war. Some of these workers are put straight to work on the already family-owned estate. In 1940, the farm is made up of 72 hectares of crops, including oat, winter and summer rye, potato, beet and field bean.
In 1945, the then Groningen Agricultural Test Station and Soil Science Institute TNO (Landbouwproefstation en Bodemkundig Instituut T.N.O. te Groningen) would analyse the soil conditions at the Gorp farm. It concludes that the light sandy soil is not very fertile and that its quality varies greatly over short distances. To accommodate these conditions, it is recommended that soil fertility be promoted through organic fertilisation and smart crop rotation, not only with cereal crops, but also cultivated pastures and feed crops. To that end, a livestock farm is set up alongside the already existing arable farm. It therefore becomes necessary to start properly planning their arable farming strategy, thereby ensuring that yields are sufficient enough to see the livestock through the winter.
Discussions take place between Van Puijenbroek, some Belgians, the Chicago-based company Brabson and Prof. Ir. P.A. van den Ban of the Wageningen Agricultural College regarding the plan to build the first free stall barn in the Netherlands, at the time more common in the US. In October 1949, an invitation comes from Chicago, inviting the team over for a research trip. Up until that point, Gorp employed group stall barns, where the cows are lined up next to each other with their heads facing towards a path in the middle. After the war, management decide to switch to the American free stall barn configuration, where the cows no longer need to be tied.
The Wageningen Pasture and Feed Farming Inspectorate (Inspectie Weide- en Voederbouw te Wageningen) recommend the farm periodically turn over the soil and start reclaiming certain areas. The quality of farmyard manure is also reassessed, requiring it to be put in a heap and mixed in with soil for composting. The study also shows that too little phosphate, as well as too little potassium, is being spread. Consequently, a conscious shift is made towards artificial fertilisation, based on soil analysis, the fertilisation value of farmyard manure, crops and grassland usage. It is hoped that improved fertilisation, sowing techniques and smart crop rotation should generate higher yields.
By that year, Gorp has a total of 70 dairy cows, 60 calves and 30 pregnant heifers, along with 30 oxen in the barn.
People become eager to see the farming model in place at Gorp. In the early 1950s, it pulls in some 4,000 to 5,000 visitors from England, France, Belgium, Germany and Scandinavia.
By now, the farm is home to 80 dairy cows, along with 30 one-year-old stirks and 30 calves for breeding, while 20 dry cows, 30 one-year-old oxen and 30 bull calves are fattened up for sale.
According to a report by the National Agriculture Consultant (Rijkslandbouwconsulent), the farm is about 1,600 hectares in size (including forestry), 72 of which is grassland, 60 cultivated pastures and 140 arable land. The barn is home to some 160 cows and around 55 stirks, proving that the farm has undergone considerable growth. Each cow has about 8.2 m² of space to lie in, along with 5.1 m² to walk around in. In summer, however, the animals are let outside. A study is carried out concerning the relationship between the temperature in the closed free stall barns and milk supply. While milk production is considerably reduced at lower temperatures, the fat content is slightly improved. The animals are given about 8 kg of hay per day. The barn litter is mostly made up of chopped rye straw, which makes the manure package less solid, meaning animals are able to kick holes in it. This allows oxygen to penetrate deeper, thereby generating more thermal energy. The higher temperature of the manure, the more beneficial it is to the livestock. The study report therefore indicates that the stables at Gorp are having a beneficial effect on its livestock.
That year, a 100-cattle free stall barn, one that had been drawing admirers for 10 years, burns to the ground. A considerable amount of agricultural equipment, tractors, a milk wagon and a large batch of hay go up in flames. Luckily, the cattle were standing out in the meadow at the time of the fire. The damage amounts to 100,000 guilders.
The farm enjoys a significant growth in the mid-1970s. According to a report from 1977, the Van Puijenbroek Operating Company (Exploitatiemaatschappij) covers 97.5 hectares of permanent pasture, 73 hectares of cultivated pasture, 111.3 hectares of maize crops, 37 hectares of barley crops and 42 hectares of beet crops. This accounts for a 30% increase in grassland, as well as a 36% increase in arable land since 1956. The dairy farm, meanwhile, is clearly distinguishable from the farm’s forestry and fruit cultivating operations. Advice is sought on improving the farm’s water management and land cultivation approach, as well as optimising its feed balance. Fertiliser plans are also drawn up, while veterinarians are also brought in to provide regular livestock health checks.
The Gorp and Roovert Estate covers an area of 1,200 hectares, comprising 850 hectares of forest, 260 hectares of arable land, 70 hectares of permanent grassland and 30 hectares of cultivated grassland. Crop yields are fluctuating year on year. Some 50 to 65 hectares are being used to grow potatoes for human consumption, while another 53 hectares is being used to harvest sugar beet. The area devoted to fodder beet varies between 2 and 9.5 hectares. Maize is the biggest crop, accounting for 130 hectares. Some years, roughly 10 hectares is used to grow chicory. Fruit cultivation takes up over 9.5 hectares, made up of 9 hectares for apples and 0.5 hectares for pears. Meanwhile, the area for fruit cultivation has increased by 15 hectares, due to incorporating part of the neighbouring De Braacken orchard. Finally, the farm counts around 9 to 14 hectares of fallow land.
Total livestock adds up to around 820 animals:
A free stall barn with 362 cows
A free stall barn with 14 cows and 174 stirks
A free stall barn with 90 stirks and 3 breeding bulls
A deep litter barn (with straw) with 50 stirks and 10 breeding bulls
A straw pen with 45 calves and 5 breeding bulls
VP Landbouw is a subsidiary of VP Capital in the agrifood sector. VP Capital is the family business of the van Puijenbroek family, a family of investors focused on tradition and driven by making a positive impact. The family’s roots lie in the Belgian town of Sint-Niklaas. Six generations ago, their great-great-grandfather started the HAVEP company, producing work wear in Goirle, the Netherlands. His socially conscious entrepreneurial spirit still guides the family to this day. Today, VP Capital is an investment company with some 50 investments, predominantly in Belgium and the Netherlands, investing in eight different domains:
- Smart industry
- Real estate
VP Capital invests directly, as well as through funds, in large and small companies, serving as both an active and long-term partner, priding themselves on their active involvement as shareholder in any business they invest in. Sustainability, meanwhile, is at the top of the agenda. Every year, VP Capital publishes a Progress Report in which the entire portfolio is assessed by an independent third party covering progress in the area of sustainability.