by Marleen van den Top, Anton Stortelder, and Hal Hamilton
— July 19, 2002 —
We can glimpse one future for agriculture by taking a trip to the land of tulips and Gouda cheese.
Holland is one of the densest populated agricultural countries in the world, and the Dutch people place a premium on nature. They created a government fund to support what they call “nature farming.” The fund is initially subsidized but operates like a permanent easement on farmland with an ongoing investment return. It protects land from development and supports a certain type of farming on that land. Other farmers, who produce for world markets, do without subsidies altogether. Both are described below.
Choosing to let nature have its way
It didn’t take Jan long to decide to farm in the new way. Nature is in his blood. When he was little, his grandfather taught him the names of the different plants, what you could use them for, and what they could teach you about the soil and the water. His basic income is good and will improve when he gets his products certified, in a year or so. Alongside the income from his agricultural products, he receives a sum per month from a regional fund. The government set up this fund to support farms where optimum conditions have been created for wild plants and animals. The amount depends on the price of the land: roughly half the market value of his land was put into that fund, and he receives an annual return on this investment.
It is not an easy life: he has to make do with the manure and feed that come from his own land. He has carefully worked out a strategy that makes this possible, for he is first-and-foremost an entrepreneur. His farm is adjacent to a nature area, and along the borders he has staked out a ten-metre-wide strip of grassland. The cows are kept off this land, which has developed into a colourful fringe along the edge of the woods, with wild honeysuckle, brambles, blackthorn and elder. Nature can surprise you: last year there was suddenly a pair of Hoepoes nesting in his orchard, only the second breeding pair in the country. Today’s farmers say they’re relieved that the scientific straitjacket of the past has made way for the simple but challenging obligation to make do with the minerals provided on their own farm. Nature will take care of itself.
High-tech farmers for the export markets
What a glorious feeling it is for Cees to be sitting on the great humming tractor and working the land, furrow by furrow. From time to time he looks down with a smile at the broad swaths of glistening clay. On the horizon his stately farmhouse, built in the characteristic style of the region, overlooks the open land. The apparatus on-board the tractor suggests the interior of a cockpit. His neighbour, whose farm – like his own – is located within the zone reserved for large-scale farms, has put up a note on the dashboard. The GPS will soon need to be replaced. Although they often make use of a contract worker, they recently bought this modern ploughing and sowing machine.
On the wide horizon the sun is just rising above the row of trees; the clay seems to gleam more brightly than before. He loves this land! His thoughts are as random as his activity is structured. He wonders how Wall Street closed yesterday. And what that means for the position of crops on the world market. And whether Brussels is likely to maintain its rigid stance on support for European farmers, now that the Americans have decided to flout the World Trade Organization agreements. This is the first year that, unlike the nature and landscape-oriented farms around him, he will have to manage on the income from the world market. No contributions from the fund for him. But then he takes fewer pains to promote the interests of nature and the landscape. He’s looking forward to tomorrow, when he’s going to take the day off for a sports competition. His daughter, who’s studying informatics at college, will enjoy taking over the farm’s computers for a whole day.
Recreation in the countryside
The Dutch railways had set out a route to take groups of walkers from the station in the city to a village some distance away. From there they’ll take the bus home, like last year. According to the information panel, a lot has changed in the area around the town. Where in the past the was a vast inaccessible field of corn, there is now a half-open landscape of flowering meadows and fields, alternating with strips of woodland, clumps of trees and small ponds and ditches. The municipal park service has done its bit by adding a small park and other green spaces. It’s as if a link has been created between town and countryside. Further up there is a nature reserve where you can find wild hazelnuts. This is the ideal partnership between nature and agriculture: together they challenge the forces of urbanization.
The walkers will stop at the historic farmstead on the Veenweg to buy cheese and vegetables. And as usual it will be hard to get the children to tear themselves away from the bales of hay and the animals. The walk leads from the town through the nature-oriented area and on into the landscape-oriented zone. Everywhere you look you see the characteristic features of the region: in the architecture of the farmhouses, the shape of the plots, and the structure of the wooded banks. In the distance, there are the large-scale farms. Some people prefer the open nature of these large-scale farms, but this group of walkers is still glad that their walk follows a different route.
A new kind of Park Service
Antoinette has been with the Provincial Park Service for years, which until recently was primarily involved in buying land to convert from farms to parks. The farmers were making a mess of things and the large-scale farms bordering the nature areas were causing considerable acidification and water loss. The old man-made landscape was losing more and more of its characteristic features.
Now, thanks to ecological zoning, those intensively managed farms are situated far away from the diversified nature areas. An outbreak of disease will no longer spread so rapidly throughout larger areas, thanks to the sturdy buffer formed by the nature-oriented farms, the nature areas and the towns. She has come to realize that the farmers are actually the largest team of soil scientists in the country. They point out to her the most suitable agricultural land and the best location for various types of green areas. And when a particular Park Service terrain is due for maintenance, the job is done together with the farmers, quickly and effectively. It was a bit of a shock to the managers at first. The whole structure of the organization was turned upside down.
A bright future for the countryside? It’s just around the corner!
© Sustainability Institute