In light of the recent farmer protests in the Netherlands, this story delves deeper into the person behind the protester, and challenges of farming now and in the future.
On the first of October of this year, a remarkable sight could be witnessed. Rows upon rows of tractors and other farm vehicles are making their way towards the country’s political center. Farmers from all over the Netherlands have left their barns in the early morning of October 1st to go and protest on the Malieveld in the Hague. The city’s mayor had given permission for a maximum of 75 tractors to position themselves on the field- in the end, there turned out to be at least 2200. The first planned farmer protest was a big success, and polls tell us a majority of 73% of Dutch citizens responded to feel sympathetic towards the farmers.
However, only two weeks later, protests take a different turn: during actions at province houses across the Netherlands, the situation gets violent in Groningen. A tractor crashes itself into the monumental door of the building. Several people get hurt in an uproar between farmers and policemen. Elsewhere, fences get run over. Public sympathy decreases while farmers’ discontentment is still on the rise. A third protest takes place a few days after this, again in the Hague. Foregoing their designated protesting spot, the farmers break through the barricades to reach the Malieveld once again. Additionally, tractors are driven into the city center, occupying important crossroads and taking a tour through some of the pedestrian-only shopping streets. Whether or not their original goal, the farmers have succeeded in one thing for certain: making sure the whole country knows they’re there, and they will not go down without a bang.
Hans van Beusekom is a former dairy farmer in Driel, a tiny town in the Netherlands. He is also regional manager of the organisation for agri- and horticulture, the Landbouw en Tuinbouw Organisatie (LTO). I have met up with him on his farm to discuss these recent protests, and get a better insight of what farming is really like here in the Netherlands.
The dairy farm Hans works on has been in the family for several generations. Nowadays it is just him, one employee and his elderly mother working there. Together they take care of the cows, the milking and the other odd jobs around the farm, though not for much longer. Hans tells me that by the end of the year, he will have stopped dairy farming.
His children are all in school or university, and do not have an interest in taking over the farm. It’s how it often goes nowadays, he tells me: taking over the family business, is not business as usual anymore.
Though this is one reason for him to move away from farming, there are other motivations too. Him stopping might be a symptom of a bigger issue, one that also played a role in the farmer protests.
Rules of the game
Farming in the Netherlands is thus heavily influenced by a set of regulations. To better understand these, it is good to know where they came from.
After World War II and the Hunger Winter in the Netherlands, politicians vowed for there to never be hunger again. To fulfill this, food production all over Europe grew very quickly. This eventually lead to a massive surplus of, for example, dairy products. To mitigate this, in 1984 the milk quota was established: farmers now had to pay for the rights to produce a certain amount of milk.
Due to globalization and a more global economy, it became more attractive to get rid of the milk quota again, to be able to compete better on non-European markets. Therefore, in 2015, the milk quota was officially abolished.
However, not even a year later, a new phosphate quota was brought to life, to lower the amounts of phosphate in our atmosphere, harmful to both people as well as the environment. Instead of having to pay to be allowed to milk, farmers now had to pay to be allowed to own a certain amount of cows.
One cow produces around 45 kilograms of phosphate throughout their life. At the height of the quote, farmers had to pay €275 euros per kilogram of phosphate: that’s already a whopping €12.375, just to own 1 cow.
Then there’s also the phosphate reduction, which forced all farmers to get rid of a percentage of the cows on their land.
Per square kilometer of land, farmers are allowed to produce a certain amount of phosphate. When this number was lowered, especially farmers with smaller farms were being duped, having to give up part of their livestock.
Over the years, political inference has moved its interest from milk, to phosphate, to where we are now: nitrogen. And these are not the only rules that make farming difficult.
Farming has thus changed a lot over the years, with regulations constantly changing and prices dropping. Farmers now have to work much harder to earn less money than they did just 50 years ago.
Hans describes it like this: imagine you have a book of rules, that tells you how to keep a cow. When you start, the book is maybe a few pages thick. Then, maybe 10 years later, that same book now contains over a 1000 pages. That does not exactly make it attractive for new farmers to start, for children to take over from their parents, or for farmers to continue their work: more and more farmers, like Hans, consider stopping.
Nitrogen crisis or not, it is clear the future is uncertain for farmers. Whether because of the fast changing rules, the low gain against a high cost, or the issue of finding successors, it is becoming harder and harder to farm, and therefore a less attractive option for many.
What that will mean for the rest of us, time can only tell. One thing is for sure: we all need to eat… and without farmers, we can’t.