Elephant grass is expanding around Schiphol. This fast-growing plant, which yields biomass and keeps geese away from the airport, is now also grown on a sustainable business park. Interest in this giant grass is increasing in other parts of the country, too: farmers use it to heat their homes, and the city of Rotterdam aims to makes paper from it.
A farmers’ cooperative, the Miscanthusgroep, has been cultivating elephant grass (Miscanthus) around the airport for a few years now. In May, the group entered an agreement with the owners of Schiphol Trade Park, a business park development, to make the terrain more sustainable. Under the terms of the agreement, the Miscanthusgroep will grow elephant grass on the company grounds, along with crops such as poppy, mustard, flax and hemp. There are now more than sixty hectares of elephant grass around Schiphol.
Valuable agriculture in urban areas
Gert Jan Petrie, founder of the Miscanthusgroep, planted the first elephant grass on his own field in the Haarlemmermeer in 2010. “Schiphol and the surrounding communities have been expanding, and farmers retreating, for decades. We would like to halt this development. As entrepreneurs, we wish to show the value of agriculture in an urbanising environment.”
Miscanthus is a logical candidate for this. The crop grows rapidly and is a great source of fibre and other biomass. Around Schiphol, where thousands of geese are killed by aircraft every year, the tall grass probably also makes the area less attractive to these waterfowl. ‘Probably’ remains the operative term here, as there are no hard numbers about the deterrence effect yet. This is one of the topics which the farmers are investigating together with scientists from Wageningen UR.
Over recent years the Miscanthusgroep has built up an extensive network of government agencies and research institutions. For example, 23 May saw the launch of the Ambachtelijke Academie (Craft Academy), a place where university students in vocational and academic programmes can study the crop in greater detail.
The Miscanthusgroep closed a ‘Green Deal’ with Wageningen UR and two Dutch ministries (Infrastructure & the Environment and the Economy) in 2011. The farmers undertook to plant sixty hectares of elephant grass, while the ministries and Wageningen UR supplied further research into the crop. “Plant scientists at Wageningen UR have provided tremendous help in finding the best methods of cultivation,” Petrie says. “If we are to achieve profitable cultivation, we must get as high a yield of Miscanthus per hectare as possible.”
Scientists from Alterra Wageningen UR are mapping the extent to which the crop keeps geese away from the airport. “We observe the effect in the field every day, but we naturally want hard numbers as proof.” Petrie is also in contact with two other Wageningen research institutes: Livestock Research and Food & Biobased Research.
There is elephant grass in other places in the Netherlands, too. Petrie has, among others, planted it for farmers who use the grass to heat their home and business, and for the municipality of Rotterdam, which aims to grow it on fallow land as a raw material for paper production.
Miscanthus as a feedstock for high-quality textiles
Long-term success will especially depend on the development of new sales channels. Miscanthus can be used as an energy source, but is more valuable as a source of fibre for paper or in high-quality materials such as composites for the automotive industry or geotextiles. Together with the Miscanthusgroep and a number of companies, including the textile technology concern Royal Ten Cate, Wageningen UR is therefore seeking funding for a research project that will chart the potential for new applications.