‘Experimentation and providing opportunities for it are important to me’

‘Experimentation and providing opportunities for it are important to me’
10 October 2020 Bertine Aalderen, van

Gert Noordhoff works as a project manager for the province of Groningen. In addition, he runs an arable farm with his father, is one of the founders of De Graanrepubliek cooperative, and until recently he was a guest lecturer at Terra MBO. Gert came into contact with House of Design during the ‘We are going to make it’ project which started in 2016 in the municipality of De Marne.

Much of what Gert is involved in stems from his love for the province and his passion for sustainability and social involvement. In this interview, among other things, he talks about the importance of projects such as Local Making Place and the added value of the local value chain model from House of Design.

Arable farmer Gert Noordhoff showing the ancient wheat species ‘Emmer’ in Bellingwolde.
Photograph by Huisman Media

Can you briefly tell us something about yourself?
‘I work for the province of Groningen and I am currently responsible for the development of the Dubbele Dijk project at Bierum. The aim is to ensure that land users who want to get started with saline agriculture or aquaculture – and everything that comes with it – are given the space to do so. In addition, I run an arable farm in East Groningen together with my father. At our farm, we try to allow experimental agriculture to be carried out and, like many other farmers, we look at which sustainable forms of agriculture are future-proof. Until recently, I was also a guest lecturer at mbo Terra for a few hours a week, and I enjoyed going out with the students to show this new generation of farmers what can be done in agriculture.’

How are you involved in House of Design?
 ‘I came into contact with House of Design when I was working at the municipality of De Marne. Ellen Kiewiet, a colleague at the time, had the idea of creating more awareness of everything that happens in the area and thus showing the strength of the region, and she involved Eileen (from House of Design) in her plans. The project ‘We gaan het meemaken’ (We are going to make it) started, and that was the beginning of my collaboration with House of Design.

I like to hang out with people who are looking for new possibilities and solutions from different angles and who dare to experiment, as this leads to creativity. I find this in the collaboration with House of Design. The great thing about working with Eileen is that she is also able to connect everyone with one another, regardless of their background or field. That is why it is very nice to have her as an intermediary for those involved in a project.’

And at Local Making Place?
‘On our farm in Bellingwolde, we started sowing old grain varieties from Groningen in 2012. This was partly to introduce more variety into agriculture and products. Straw is a residual material from grain, and my grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather used to supply this straw to the cardboard factories. The crop was then used much more optimally than it is now. It is good to look at circularity again. What is important here is that an end product can serve as a raw material for the next product, or can go back into the ground after use.

My role in the Local Making Place mainly consists of supplying residual material with which to experiment. Designers Simone Larabi and Marc Paulusma are affiliated with the Local Making Place in Bad Nieuweschans and research techniques and new applications for straw, among other things. We have never done anything with the residual material. Simone and Marc look at the product in a way that is completely different to what we are used to and then come up with all kinds of ideas. This creates a fun and educational exchange; I learn through their way of looking at it, and at the same time I can share my knowledge about the crops and the soil, and give the history of the landscape and the soil.’

You were also a founder of De Graanrepubliek in Bad Nieuweschans
‘The motive for founding the De Graanrepubliek cooperative was the anonymous production chain and the landscape in Oldambt, which have not seen much diversity in recent decades. Questions such as ‘how can we turn the tide?’ and ‘how can we ensure greater biodiversity and more prospects for cereal cultivation?’ were behind the formation of De Graanrepubliek. It has been a whole process involving the emergence and disappearance of ideas and people. We have now reached the point where a distillery is being built at Bad Nieuweschans, we store the barrels for the maturation of the gins and whiskies on a farm nearby, there will be a mill at Landgoud in Kloosterburen, and there will be a malthouse in our barn at Bellingwolde.

Our motto is ‘good for bottom, stomach and bee’. What we aim for with De Graanrepubliek is more biodiversity, sustainable change for farmers in the area, and providing an attractive proposition for those who want to participate, to ensure adequate sales of their products. Because of the crops we are working on now, for example the ancient wheat Emmer, we have direct contact with the buyers. Our products end up with the buyers via a more direct route; they are used at the bakery; they go to make gin and make beer. You see where the product is going, you have contact with the makers and the people who buy the products, and you hear their experiences. I really enjoy being so involved throughout the chain.’

Why do you find the local value chain model of House of Design appealing?
‘As a farmer and project manager in the province of Groningen, I am involved in the local value chain model of House of Design, which allows me to highlight and clarify the process from idea to end product in different contexts. When assessing projects, one specific effect is often considered, for example ‘new revenue models’ or ‘lower CO2 emissions’. If it doesn’t score well on that, it may be called off. The local value chain model provides an overall picture, all anticipated results count towards the assessment, and ultimately a final mark is obtained. The added value of this model is that you can see at a glance that several, in this case six possible results, are taken into account in the assessment. In this way you avoid focusing on the financial aspects alone. If you want change, there must also be social value ​​in a project or product, and that is not only measured in financial terms.

The local value chain model also offers solutions for residual materials such as straw. This is of interest to us as arable farmers. Products can be made from residual flows. It is important that these products can be returned to the ground after use. In this way you ensure a circular chain. It also appeals to me that social aspects such as  ‘pride of the region’ and ’employment’ are included. The local value chain model adds value in many areas and provides opportunities to transform the vulnerabilities of a region into strengths.’

How do you see your role as a project leader at the province and your role as a farmer?
‘Experimentation and providing opportunities for it are important to me. At our arable farm in Bellingwolde, we are engaged in experimental agriculture in addition to growing old varieties of grain from Groningen. One of the experiments we are carrying out at our company is strip cultivation (growing different crops in strips next to each other), which ensures more biodiversity. In my work, I can act as an ambassador for projects such as the Local Making Place. I can highlight projects where there is room for experimentation and explain their importance.’

What role does the government play in boosting the circular economy?
‘The government can play a stimulating role and support initiatives in the field of innovation by offering opportunities for experimentation and development. For example, support projects, especially small-scale ones, in which experiments are carried out and where there is room for research, irrespective of a quick and tangible result. Experiments may seem abstract at first, but innovations that emerge from them may be of interest to an entire sector in the longer term. Motivation to experiment and to be sustainable does not just come from the market, because it costs a lot of money to do it differently, and that is difficult with tight margins. The impulse must come from the government. In addition, as a government you can act as a client, include sustainability as a requirement in tendering procedures, or act as an ambassador for sustainable products.’