Space, connectivity and a spirit of innovation have conspired to create Agriport A7, considered by some to be the most modern agricultural business park in the world. Occupying 950 hectares in the north of Noord-Holland province (Noord-Holland Noord), the site is home to about 50 businesses, most of them in the greenhouse industry but some in logistics, storage, packing, and what might seem like an outlier: big data. The secret behind the growing success of Agriport is the synergy between the different industries clustered within it.

                          

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“We started out in 2005 as a project for greenhouses and the agribusiness market, and expanded into a logistics park,” says Jack Kranenburg, Agriport’s commercial director. Logistical synergy came when the greenhouse companies built more than 300 hectares of greenhouses within the first seven years of Agriport’s start; they expect to double in size once the following seven years are up.

The greenhouse companies have invested more than €600m since Agriport’s start. “Coming from a business that didn’t exist in 2006, this has really been a vibrant place to work, and together with those entrepreneurs we’ve achieved quite a lot in terms of agribusiness. We’re now sold out for 80% of our greenhouse space,” says Mr Kranenburg.

“What makes this area different from others is that we’re very focused on large-scale enterprises,” he adds. The average size of a greenhouse in the Netherlands is between 2.5 and 3 hectares, whereas in Agriport it is about 60 hectares – more than 100 soccer fields.

“Because this area is reclaimed land, we have all the space available for large-scale development. Outside is another 19,000 hectares of open space, all close to Amsterdam,” says Mr Kranenburg. He further notes that Noord-Holland Noord receives 10% more sunlight per year than the rest of the Netherlands. To put that into quantitative terms, 1% more sunlight means 1% more kilos of tomatoes. “Just by choosing this location, you have a competitive advantage of 10% per year – at no extra energy or building cost,” says Mr Kranenburg. 

An energy ecosystem   

In addition to recycling rainwater and avoiding chemicals, Agriport’s greenhouses produce their own heat and carbon dioxide, which is essential for the growth process. Using combined heat and power technology, the cogeneration plants producing heat and carbon dioxide also produce electricity, which is sold to the Dutch electrical grid. The carbon dioxide and heat, instead of being waste products, are then used to grow the crops. In this way, the lifecycles within Agriport are more sustainable, reliable and cost-effective than traditionally powered systems.

“We try to reuse everything,” says Mr Kranenburg. “This cycle saves the companies about €100,000 per hectare per year, simply by using the waste product from one process as a feedstock for the next.”

When you think you’re working on your computer, you’re actually growing peppers at Agriport

When it comes to infrastructure, Mr Kranenburg says: “The only way to start a sustainable greenhouse business is to invest in infrastructure, so we asked the Dutch minister of economic affairs for a licence to establish our own power company. We then made a connection to the national grid at the highest voltage level.” This joint energy company, ECW, also has two geothermal heat pumps, which meet approximately 20% of Agriport’s heating demands. The greenhouses now produce power for about 200,000 households. Add to this the current and planned wind power projects in the area and it becomes increasingly clear why Agriport is such an efficient energy hub.

Data growth

Vast and affordable land offers a unique opportunity for this collaboration between greenhouse horticulture and sustainable and cheap electricity. Data centres produce massive amounts of waste heat, and instead of sending it into the sea the minds at Agriport have found a better use for it: growing vegetables. Synergy between data centre energy run-off and agricultural production was likely the driving force behind the establishment of Europe’s largest data centre in Noord-Holland Noord.

“Back in 2010, after a visit from the data centre project team, we asked our municipality to change the zoning plan to accommodate a large company requiring a large piece of land,” recalls Bjorn Borgers, manager of acquisitions at Noord-Holland Noord's development agency. “We could not tell them who the company was, but they produced the plan and the process four years later was a very quick one.” Thus, in 2014, US technology giant Microsoft began building its data centre at Agriport.    

The site’s proximity to Amsterdam, its glass fibre connections with AMS-IX, the world’s second largest internet exchange, its ICT and logistical infrastructure, and the cheap energy supply from the greenhouses undoubtedly played a part in the company’s decision. And the greenhouse-generated electricity is transferred by ECW to both the national grid and directly to the data centre, whose waste heat then goes right back into growing the greenhouses’ vegetables. As Mr Kranenburg says: “When you think you’re working on your computer, you’re actually growing peppers at Agriport.”   

Government collaboration

The municipal and national governments have played a vital role in making this project possible. “Agriport, Noord-Holland Noord and the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency have been working successfully together for four years,” says Mr Kranenburg. “Noord-Holland Noord has been particularly important as a link to the municipality and the province, allowing procedures to be completed in less than eight weeks.” This rapid process was not only an important factor in attracting Microsoft, but is also crucial in keeping up with the rapid pace of change in the technology industry.

The data centre at Agriport is now the single largest example of FDI in Noord-Holland in terms of capital. Its establishment has increased the business park’s attractiveness to other data companies, and Mr Kranenburg hopes to see more centres built on the land in the coming years. “With the wind power and new sub-station coming in, I think we’ll be able to attract two hyperscale data centres to this area in the next few years,” he says. Already, satellite enterprises are setting up shop around the data centre, paving the way for a vibrant IT and data cluster.