Interview with Dirk Vandenhirtz
crop.zone: Electrophysical Crop Control and Effective Pretreatment to Create Clean and Sustainable Agriculture
Things got off to a flying start with crop.zone in 2019, when the Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Plants at the Institute of Biology III at RWTH Aachen University approached you with regard to the research project "Vegetation Control on Railway Tracks". You then managed to go from research project directly to start-up in a very short time. How was/is something like that possible?
Starting a new company is always something special. You have to be ready to jump in at the deep end and then just do everything at the same time. That works best in a team. So I would advise every founder to look for a good team. Then you always need a good idea, a little luck and staying power. You must never give up and always believe in the idea and its real implementation. A network like the one RWTH offers helps, of course. But in the end, you simply have to want it: to work independently. And that's why it's called self-employment. At the same time, you also have to look very carefully at what is currently needed and in which very specific area you go to market first with the idea or technology.
With crop.zone, you want to contribute to a healthy environment and develop solutions for clean agriculture. What constitutes sustainable agriculture and how does it differ from the unfortunately widespread current state of affairs?
Agricultural realities and expectations are complex: enabling secure yields every year in the face of drought, floods, fertilizer shortages, rising energy costs, disrupted supply chains, and failing seasonal labor is hard work and not very romantic. The Ukraine war again highlights the importance of secure supplies. At the same time, crop protection products are being taken off the market for good reason, and a return to plowing would have massive consequences for earthworms and small animals in the soil as well as for the climate and soil quality. Many farmers have been working hard in recent years to sequester CO2 in the soil as humus, build healthy soil life with green manures, and make the soil more resistant to drying out or erosion, for example from climate-related heavy rain. More science, innovation and new technology are needed to reduce the use of pesticides - for example, by improving the adhesion of fungicides to leaves, as developed by RWTH Aachen University - or by using new physical methods to control plants instead of chemical herbicides, as crop.zone does. The yield must be right and environmental friendliness must be improved. This is not an alternative, rather it is a requirement.
You specialize in weed control and in special preparation of crops before harvest. You also develop innovative technologies for healthy and sustainable agriculture. How can your innovative technologies support farmers?
The great potential for savings in plant protection products, which is also called for by the EU, can be found in herbicides. The last herbicides used on a very large scale are currently being banned, after many had already been phased out for environmental reasons. While this helps biodiversity, farmers must always protect the weaker crops from competition, otherwise there will be no yield. And if the potatoes are not dried out a few weeks before harvest and form firm skins, their storability and quality will decline - while prices continue to rise. If you want high quality potatoes on time and reliably without chemicals in the organic sector, you scorch the haulm with large gas burners. This requires up to 20 times more energy than the crop.zone process - and natural gas. If organic farming is to be expanded to 30 percent, as demanded by the EU, we would need energy-saving innovations. And conventional farmers don't want to go back to the haulm topper with its many disadvantages. If protein-rich crops such as soybeans and chickpeas are to be increasingly cultivated in Europe, pre-harvest treatment without chemicals will become more and more important.
You offer an electrophysical solution to replace chemical herbicides. Who are you working with, and what are the concrete benefits for farmers and for all of us?
We work intensively with companies that also sell chemical crop protection products, advise farmers and also conduct their own research into agronomic innovations such as better green manures. That is part of the agricultural turnaround. But suppliers are also important, supplying us with field-ready equipment modules. When it comes to new concepts or special technologies, depending on the project, many renowned institutes at RWTH, Fraunhofer institutes and the entire research and production environment are also important. Likewise, the processors of agricultural raw materials in the food industry and the subsequent retail chains are important, as many clearly want to increase their market share in the long term through environmentally friendly and low-residue products. Nobody wants to be involved in the next residue scandal in an expensive and image-damaging way. The advantage for farmers is that they can produce in a more environmentally friendly way and in a more sustainable way overall - which many would very much like to do. The decisive factor here is that they can achieve higher prices and sell additional services as part of a quality program run by the buyers or through additional social services such as soil protection, biodiversity or climate protection. Those who bind a lot of humus from climate-damaging CO2 anew in the soil can then also trade with CO2 certificates. Climate farmers, biodiversity and healthy products - everyone benefits from this.
After the successful launch in Germany, crop.zone has expanded to Europe. In this context, you launched an early adopter program in which you want to present your solutions to farmers and other interested parties at an early stage. Did the program get off to a good start?
This has got off to an excellent start. We are working either directly or with the help of our partners, specifically with many farmers and research institutions, for example here in the region, in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France. We have also already conducted trials in Belgium and the United Kingdom in 2021. Last year, we were in the field with 15 machines and a working width of 12 meters and received very good feedback from the farmers. Farmers are very goal-oriented and many are also very interested in innovations. The large number of field trials with fully field-ready large-scale equipment has already been a big leap forward. But without courage and conviction through practical trials, a start-up will not get very far. We have shown that it can be done and that it was often even more effective than the residual chemistry that existed. We will build on this in 2022. The agricultural turnaround will be decided in the field and in the cooking pot. We are working to provide farmers with technical alternatives so that they can practice sustainable agriculture. We will then all be responsible for purchasing and cooking.
The interview was conducted by Nives Sunara.