If you have cycled through the fields north of the campus you might have seen her. A girl crouching in the field, with a striking baby blue car nearby. This is MSc student of Organic Agriculture Saskia Houben. She is gathering the last samples for her thesis research. And her unusual vehicle is a Trabant.
© Sven Menschel
She has been chugging between her home in Arnhem and WUR in her little car since August. Over the past few months she has been studying a variety of ground cover plants at different trial locations, and now it is harvest time. The trial field on the Plassteeg, to the north of the campus, was the last to be sown and now the marigolds, rye and other species are ready for drying in the ovens at Unifarm. Houben’s work for the Clever Cover Cropping project under the Crop Systems Analysis chair group involves comparing the amounts of biomass delivered by various combinations of ground cover plants.
Houben attracts a lot of attention with her Trabant. Out in the field, curious passers-by come to get a closer look, and at Unifarm the blue eye-catcher from the former East Germany is an attraction. The name, often shortened to Trabbi, means something like ‘mate’ as well as referring to Erdtrabant – German for satellite. Communist East Germany launched the car in 1957 to show that it was keeping up with the times. Houben agrees that it is not very sustainable or very ‘Wageningen’ to come to uni by car but she wants to stay realistic and practical as well. ‘Of course it is better not to drive at all. For short distances I always go by bike, but Arnhem is just too far for that. And this is cheaper for me than going by train.’ What is more, her 1987 Trabant is much more economical than you might think, she says. It does 18 kilometres to the litre. ‘And a Trabant is the ultimate in recycling, actually. It has a steel frame but the chassis is made of recycled cotton and plastic. I would certainly rather drive this than a Hummer.’ The only thing that worries her is the fine particles the car emits. Because of that, Houben doesn’t drive in busy town centres.
Huben bought her Trabant on the internet three years ago, mainly so she could learn to tinker with it. ‘It is nice to be able to repair your vehicle yourself. I like learning my way around a system, seeing how something works and how it can be improved, whether it is a farming system or the mechanics of a car.’ It is primarily a hobby for Houben. If she really had to commute later, she would leave the Trabbi at home. But she enjoys driving it now. And once a year they go on a road trip together.