When sh*t has to be done, you better not be afraid to get your hands dirty, right? Some employees at FrieslandCampina take these words a little bit more literally than you might expect… The reduction of dairy farming’s climate impact pushes the inventiveness and perseverance of FrieslandCampina’s sustainable business developers to new limits every single day. One of them is René van der Linden, whose job as Business Development & Project Manager allows him to turn his passion for sustainability into his daily work.
With a Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering and Management in his pocket, René set out to make an impact in sustainability as an intern in the oil and gas industry. When he found out that change in this sector moves at a slow pace, he looked for alternatives. A switch to FrieslandCampina did not feel like a logical step at first sight, but would soon turn out to be the right one. The world of food is more exciting than you might think, says René:
The complexity of the food industry is highly underestimated, and there are incredible wins to be made.
Make cow manure clean
René started with a traineeship in Technology, in one of our factories. Here, he learned about the processes and machines, while looking for technical improvement opportunities. René: “I had a lot of freedom to search for potential improvements. There was just one condition: be good at what you do. Then you will get every chance to explore beyond your boundaries.”
For his second assignment, René was offered the opportunity to work for Jumpstart. This is a FrieslandCampina initiative in collaboration with dairy farmers and aims to turn cow manure into green energy. René: “The production of dairy is accompanied with methane emission from manure. We launched digesting systems to produce biogas purely from cow manure, with green gas or green electricity and heat as the end product. This way, the dairy farms produce green energy while cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. Jumpstart helps the farmers to operate their own digester and make the process more profitable. Eventually, the aim for Jumpstart is to become a cooperative owned by the farmers, like FrieslandCampina.”
Since farmers still have to deal with big surpluses of manure, the development of the digesting system does not stop here. It turns out that there is more in manure than green energy alone. René explains: “Due to the excessive concentration of nitrogen and phosphate in manure, many farmers are not allowed to use all their manure to fertilize their lands. At the same time, they buy artificial fertilizers to increase crop yields, while paying fees to export their excess manure to for instance France or Germany. So we are developing ways to extract and concentrate the phosphate and nitrogen from the manure (called mineral separation) and allow the farmers to use what’s left instead of buying artificial fertilizer. The latter alone would already heavily reduce carbon dioxide emissions. On top, mineral separation will be an enabler for many digesters to turn an ok business case into a great one. It is a real win-win.”
For René, the Jumpstart project meant starting out with nothing, testing assumptions and building models. During the testing period, he spent a lot of time on one of the farms. This resulted in amusing anecdotes: “Starting out working with manure, I thought it was disgusting. After working with it for a longer time, I actually got used to it. One day, the lab was already closed when I arrived with my manure samples. Since the samples needed to be cooled for testing, I was left with only one solution: I drove home and stored the manure in the fridge of our apartment. I guess my roommates could not appreciate that ‘I brought my work home’ this time…”
His roommates did not suffer in vain. Within one year, the first mineral separator was operational at a farm. Furthermore, René has an honorable mention on the patent that FrieslandCampina has on the machine.
The quest for impact continues
Jumpstart is not the only project keeping René occupied. One day a week he works on the Solar Project, which supports farmers generating energy through solar panels on the roofs of their farms. This green energy is used to power FrieslandCampina’s supply chain. Altogether, the impact could be gigantic. Because FrieslandCampina counts almost 12.000 member farms, covering their rooftops with solar panels could provide 12% of the electricity needed in the Netherlands!
Last but not least, René is a board member of YoungStars, FrieslandCampina’s young employee network for which he organizes different kinds of inspirational sessions. It is also via this network that he got in touch with the Dutch Climate and Energy movement. Here, he takes part in brainstorm sessions on the role of agriculture in reducing greenhouse gas emission. It’s exemplary for his commitment to sustainability and his belief in change. As long as you are at the right place…