At a.s.r., sustainability is rooted in every part of the business. With the largest privately managed agricultural portfolio in the Netherlands, a.s.r. supports farmers who want to operate more sustainably. Farmers who are using agricultural land owned by ASR Dutch Farmland Fund receive a discount of 5% to 10% on their lease if they manage their land sustainably. Fadyan Pronk, rural real estate portfolio manager at a.s.r., expects that in 2025, sustainable farming will take place on 20% of the almost 37,000 hectares of land leased out by the fund. William de Wit is one of the farmers who manages his land sustainably.
Demand for sustainable farming has grown enormously in recent years. This is less intensive, leads to lower emissions of harmful substances and is better for animal welfare. ‘All parties in the chain, from farmers to consumers, are jointly responsible for transition, not just the farmers themselves’, Pronk explains. ‘This is why we support farmers financially if they make efforts to operate sustainably. They receive a discount on their lease and pay 10% less per year for the first three years and 5% less per year for the remainder of the lease contract.’
In order to be able to claim the sustainability discount, farmers must use 5% of their land to improve the quality of nature and the landscape, for example by planting grass strips rich in herbs, performing meadow bird management or using sustainable fertilisation. De Wit, a dairy farmer from Kockengen in Utrecht province, is one of these sustainable farmers. ‘How we treat our land is very important for insects and birds. The way in which we address this means that different species have better chances of survival. For example, we don’t mow all our pastures at once, but in phases, so that part of the vegetation remains intact. Insects can then pollinate more flowers and herbs and the meadow birds find shelter here.’
The time of mowing is important. ‘We do this as late as possible in the spring’, De Wit explains. ‘Certain species of birds, such as godwits, lapwings and redshanks, build their nests in the tall grass and hatch their eggs. When we mow, there is always a risk that we will destroy these nests. This is why we have volunteers seek out and mark the nests, so that we can mow around them safely.’ The land also includes an area of woodland. ‘We do nothing there apart from a little pruning, so that all sorts of animals such as hares and rabbits can also find a home there.’
De Wit’s cows also play a role in the sustainable nature management. ‘We’ve calculated that on our land, it’s best for two cows per hectare to be outdoors during the grazing season. That means that the cows have plenty of space to move about properly and not all the grass is grazed away and trodden flat, but parts of it keep on growing. That, too, is good for the birds.’
Another requirement for the sustainability discount is taking soil samples and sharing the analyses of these with the Stichting Open bodemindex (Open Soil Index Foundation). ‘The foundation, of which a.s.r. was one of the initiators, calculates the status of the soil and water quality on the basis of the analyses’, says Pronk. De Wit adds: ‘That way, we know where we should and shouldn’t put down fertilizer for the best grass growth, and which sort of fertilizer works best.’ According to De Wit, spreading rough farmyard manure is a sustainable way of fertilizing the land. ‘This is straw mixed with calf manure. It is fairly dry and stays lying on the land, unlike slurry from adult cows from the slurry pit. The use of rough farmyard manure brings up the worms and insects, which then attracts birds.’
If the quality of the soil deteriorates, this does not have immediate consequences for the farmers. ‘We don’t immediately reduce the sustainability discount’, Pronk says. ‘But we do open talks in order to find out the possible reasons for the deterioration and how we could improve it.’
In order to share all their plans with a.s.r., De Wit draws up a business plan every five years. This describes the sustainability vision of his business for the upcoming period. The plan is one of the rules of play. Pronk explains: ‘We want to know every five years what farmers want to achieve in terms of business operations and their sustainability vision. These plans aren’t cast in stone, but form a guideline that we monitor together.’
‘For the time being, we do what we do because it works very well for us at present’, De Wit says. ‘And it also fits with other sustainability initiatives that we have committed to, like the ‘On the way to PlanetProof’ certificate for our milk.’
Pronk expects that in 2025, sustainable farming will take place on 20% of the 37,000 hectares of land leased by a.s.r. ‘At present, 143 farmers are making use of the sustainability discount. In total, they lease almost 3,000 hectares of land. So there is still some way to go in order to realise that 20% target. The good news is that it is likely that farmers who apply sustainability measures on land that they lease from us also do this on the land that they own themselves. So the impact is greater than just the number of hectares owned by the fund.'