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A Quick Update Before 2022

Thought I was gone?

2021 has been quite a year. Here’s an update on some of the things that have happened and what I’m expecting in 2022 (after another year in which we’ve come to expect the unexpected).

Full circle: from WUR to Priva back to WUR

In December 2020 I finished my internship at Priva, and with that finished my master’s in biosystems engineering. It was a strange graduation ceremony, behind a laptop in my parents’ house. But fortunately, I only experienced all these restrictions at the end of my studies, unlike many current students…

With Simon van Mourik, my MSc thesis supervisor.

I was thrilled to be offered a job at Priva, which I accepted. It was great to be able to carry on in a team I enjoyed working with and was learning a lot from. As a recent graduate, it was also exciting to see my internship project get put into production. On top of that, I was a huge fan of Meiny Prins’s Sustainable Urban Delta vision and wanted to be a part of it.

Then something unexpected happened.

Around April, I was contacted by one of my MSc thesis supervisors, Anna Petropoulou. They had a position at Wageningen Research, in the Greenhouse Horticulture business unit. I was unsure at first, going back to the comfort zone of Wageningen so quickly, but decided to approach it with an open mind. After a few calls, it turned out there was work to be done for circular horticulture. As readers of this blog will know, circular horticulture is a big interest of mine – but it’s such a niche, I had never expected to find a job directly related to it. And there it was. Regretfully, that meant leaving Priva prematurely, but this was an opportunity not to be missed.

After finishing off my last deliverables at Priva, I started the new job in September. So far it’s been a lot of fun. It’s a job with a lot of variety – from reading academic literature, to writing, to programming, presenting and talking to people in industry. In most of these projects, I have been working with Alexander Boedijn, the face of circular horticulture at WUR. Yes, two Alexanders in circularity, still a running joke…

This guiding vision of a circular horticulture was developed with the support of, and in collaboration with, the Club of 100.
WUR’s guiding vision for circular horticulture – by no means a blueprint; that we still need to discover!

From September to now, I’ve been helping out in a few projects within the Business Unit:

  • Knowledge Base Circular Horticulture, in which I am writing a paper on the inputs and outputs in Dutch tomato greenhouses (as can be seen on Alexander Boedijn’s Sankey diagrams) and helped write a white paper on how urban waste can be used in vertical farms;
  • a literature review on the sustainability of urban farming systems for FoodE, an EU-funded project;
  • the Club of 100, a group of companies that work with WUR to exchange knowledge, where Alexander and I have been creating overviews of different circular solutions in industry;
  • GEOFOOD, a project where we calculated the potential of geothermal energy for an aquaponics greenhouse in Iceland;
  • LettUs Control, which is about applying artificial intelligence to optimally control a lettuce greenhouse.
A diagram of the material flows of water, fertiliser, CO2, substrate and plastic for a tomato greenhouse.
One of Alexander Boedijn’s Sankey Diagrams, all per kg of fresh yield. Note: flows are not to scale (if they were, water would dominate and make all the others invisibly small).

A lot of it feels like a grown-up version of some of the things I was doing with the Association for Vertical Farming a few years ago.

Architecture

Around the same time, my interest in architecture started to take root. It’s something I’d like to write about on this blog as well.

Some of the watercolours I painted over 2020 and 2021, some of which can be found here.

Why architecture? It might seem different to agriculture, but really it isn’t. Both agriculture and architecture are about quality of life (to use the motto of my current employer) and the health of our environment as well as ourselves.

Modern architecture seems to be failing us in this regard – yet we know how to build durable places of beauty where people feel at home. We’ve been doing it right up until the mid-20th century.

Luckily there are many people who are reviving this forgotten knowledge. Thanks to the webinars of Dr Nir Buras and Patrick Webb, I learned a lot about classical and traditional architecture and urbanism. Like agriculture, it’s as much an art as it is a science. There are other organisations sprouting up to promote beautiful cities, such as La Table Ronde de l’Architecture in Belgium. They are showing the public what is possible through counter-proposals, of which I submitted two (go visit their exhibition if you have the chance!).

Counter-proposals for Liège at L’Arche, La Table Ronde de l’Architecture’s exhibition.

After summer I joined an excursion with INTBAU, the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism. Mieke Bosse, chair of INTBAU Netherlands, once said “tradition is the sum of successful innovation.” That sums it up perfectly. There is a treasure trove of ideas that have been refined over the centuries, and we would be fools not to make use of it. At the same time, innovation is what got us this treasure trove, and we must add to it. But the bar is high: only successful innovations will get passed down.

untitled image
The centre of Heulebrug, West Flanders. There were a lot of challenges, but we can still build like this and better.

What’s in store for 2022?

At Wageningen Research, my next new project will explore the symbiosis between mushroom production and greenhouse horticulture: a ‘cross-over’, as we call it. Where are the opportunities and how much can they contribute to each other?

I am also helping out within INTBAU Netherlands. Can’t yet disclose what; that will be revealed shortly though.

Other than that, I am writing an ebook. That might be one of the reasons why I haven’t been posting on here as regularly. The idea came after I was contacted by multiple architects over the past year, all of whom wanted to understand more about plant production for their own projects. A lot has been written about this, but it’s usually too detailed and written with a different audience in mind. This ebook is meant to give an overview of which questions to ask and what to look for when designing such systems.

Wishing you all the best for 2022. Go get ’em!

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