Interview with Klaas Jan van Calker

10th August 2022

Dairy Working Group

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***This interview is taken from the SAI Platform Annual Report 2021. To find out more about the Dairy Working Group, go to the Annual Report 2021***

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Klaas Jan van Calker is Co-Chair of the Dairy Working Group and Global Responsible Sourcing Manager at Unilever. 

How does regenerative agriculture specifically relate to dairy?

It depends on farming systems because there are a variety throughout the world. But let’s look at a grazing-based system. The way you graze and how you implement, let’s say, adaptive multi-paddock grazing, the type of grass you’re using as well as mixed herbs and clovers can capture nitrogen from the air so you need less or no commercial fertiliser. You can also renew grassland using no-till practices.

Having said that, a significant amount of regenerative work is being done by the beef industry, on grassland ranges. So we need to learn from each other and accept there is no one size fits all concept for regenerative agriculture.

You’re also a farmer. Where does this fit in?

I’m based in the south of the Nederlands. We have 160 dairy cows and also around 65 young stock, calves and heifers. It’s an intense profession so you need a passion for it. I do all the milking checks and cleaning in the morning for around 90 minutes. Then my office hours start. I do some checks in the barn in my lunch hour and in the evening. Most weekends I work on Saturdays and have a shift on Sunday.

Is it unusual to be a farmer and work in a senior position for a corporation the size of Unilever?

Yes. But I hope the whole COVID-19 and regenerative agriculture situation will encourage more people to balance the corporate world and farming because it definitely helps to have practical knowledge of how to implement these programmes and how things actually work on a farm.

A much closer cooperation between the farming and corporate worlds will help boost the impact we can create for climate and biodiversity. Unilever sees the benefit from all the practical knowledge I have as a farmer that can then be applied to their programmes.

Do you come into contact with any other dairy farmers through SAI Platform?

Yes. We have one or two who are part of the Dairy Working Group. And of course, before COVID-19, we always had farm visits when we visited suppliers. Farm visits are very important, because you need to know the local context when co-creating regenerative programmes.

What are the biggest challenges facing dairy farmers and how do you think SAI Platform can help?

One of the biggest challenges that farming, the corporate world and SAI Platform face is to figure out how we can develop good business models that help farmers convert to more sustainable farming systems that make sound economic sense. This can be done by focusing on more resilient farming systems that are less dependent on external inputs.

It’s so important to remember that farmers are as willing to be part of the solution as everyone else. But they need to protect their livelihoods and we need to support them in managing the risks of conversion.

What is your view of the deforestation in the supply chain of the dairy feed project?

I believe we should focus on the topics where companies can’t make changes on their own and we have to collaborate. The complexity of the feed supply chains in which non deforestation and conversion free (DCD) soy and palm kernel extract (PKE) might end up makes this, by definition, something we should tackle through collaboration.

Has this project been successful so far?

Absolutely. We started as a small group of only around six members of the Dairy Working Group but ended up with twelve companies involved. This shows how passionate everyone is about the topic and willing to end deforestation in our feed supply chains.

Does that also reflect a sense of urgency?

Definitely. We want non-DCF soy in our supply chains. It has a significant impact on the emission of GHG so the benefit cuts both ways: ending deforestation and reducing dairy’s carbon footprint.

This interview is an extract from the SAI Platform Annual Report 2021. To read the full interview, go to the Annual Report 2021.