Tradition in turmoil: Dutch agriculture evolves

THE farmland of The Netherlands' North Brabant region is as pretty as a Ruisdael landscape, and in fact much of the land here has known the farmer's plow since the days of the 17th century Dutch painter. Houses of dark brown brick and red-tile roofs dot the flat lush fields, while the dikes that are hundreds of years old and that made farming possible here give modest relief to the green expanses.

But don't ask Tonny van Andel if he thinks it's a pretty sight. ``I have to have this big office because of all the paper- work I'm required to do,'' says the pig farmer as he encompasses with one arm the computer-, file-, and instrument-laden ``central'' of his 200-sow operation. He keeps a pile of ``frustration paper'' that he wads up and pitches, a sheet at a time, when the demands of producing pork in the Netherlands of 1994 seem too much.

``I speak to a lot of pig farmers, and most of them are frustrated like my father,'' says Arie van Andel, an agricultural consultant who decided not to stay on the family farm. ``They don't understand all the new rules for the environment and animal welfare, and on top of that, their prices are falling.''

Agriculture has long been a strong Dutch tradition. The Netherlands owes its annual trade surplus to some $15 billion a year in exports of cheese, pork, tulip bulbs, cut roses, and other farm products (out of a total production worth about $21 billion). While it occupies only 4 percent of the population, farming engages nearly two-thirds of the compact country's land.

But declining numbers of Dutch farmers may point to a different future. Van Andel senior is just one of 120,000 remaining Dutch farmers - there were 145,000 in 1980 - who over the past three decades created the world's most-intensive and one of its most-successful agricultural systems, but who now find themselves under strict and severe marching orders: Either alter drastically the way you produce and what you produce, they are told, or go out of business.

``The formulas of success we used in the past will not work for the future,'' says Gerrit Meester, head of the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture's strategic policies division.

The farmers' new orders come from various circles - from the Dutch government, from European Union farm policymakers in Brussels, and from the changing global economics of agriculture. But they also come from domestic and foreign consumers, from environmentalists, even from animal welfare proponents and windsurfer enthusiasts.

``Our success has been based on increasing production, but international agreements [including EU farm policy and this year's General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade farm accord] tell us we must reduce production levels,'' says Mr. Meester of the agriculture ministry. ``Our renown is for intensive farming, but the idea now is that we damage the environment and landscape with that.''

To some extent, the problems facing Dutch farming, including falling income, result from a recent reform of EU farm policy that seeks to discourage production by limiting subsidies. Yet as some of the world's most efficient farmers, the Dutch - unlike their French brethren, for example - generally favored international farm-trade reform under GATT.

Behind Dutch agriculture's crisis is its specificity - intensive use of relatively little land, and an emphasis on mass production when consumers want more ``customized'' products - but these difficulties will increasingly challenge other major farm-producing countries as well.

The inspectors are coming

For many farmers here, who consider a certain independence one of the central attractions of their ancient profession, the government's arrival on their fields and in their barns feels like an intrusion. ``When you have helicopters flying overhead to check up on how you handle your slurry [waste water],'' Van Andel says, ``you don't feel like a farmer; you're treated like a criminal.''

To help make Dutch agriculture's evolution less of an imposition and more of a community project, agriculture leaders have embarked on what is being called the ``Great Debate.'' The idea, which germinated among farmers' groups, is to discuss the challenges facing what remains for The Netherlands a vital industry and to include all interested parties - from farmers to consumers - in the search for solutions.

``We saw that the necessary changes couldn't be achieved with another report and new policies, but required making the farmers themselves aware of how things have changed and what the public now expects of them,'' says Ir van Dijk, director-general of the National Council for Cooperative Agribusiness and professor of agriculture economy at Wageningen University. ``We want our farmers to build a relationship with the consumer who is concerned about the environment, health, and animal welfare.''

Despite their importance to the country, however, Dutch farmers are seen increasingly as polluters, land hogs, animal abusers - and ironically, unnatural producers. For the latter, the efficiency and standardization on which Dutch farmers built their success are largely blamed.

``Consumer preferences have changed,'' Meester says. ``They want a product that looks and smells real - but which is still undamaged, and is produced in environment- and ani-mal-friendly conditions.''

Dutch produce has developed an image problem. Leo van Raamsdonk, a plant research specialist in Wageningen's agriculture research department, tells how tomatoes sit and rot in next-door Germany if they are identified as Dutch. ``Leave off the origin, and they sell fine,'' he says, ``but mark them as Dutch, and right away the Germans say, `Oh, the Dutch tomato is plastic and they don't buy them.'' Mr. van Raamsdonk, a tulip specialist, is himself busy working to develop a hardier tulip bulb that requires fewer pesticides and fertilizers.

Happy eggs only

And animal welfare has risen to become an important - and costly - concern. The country's largest supermarket chain proudly advertises that it no longer stocks any eggs laid in industrial, hen-cruel egg factories, for example. And Van Andel senior's sows have a closely regulated stall size, while the chaining of sows (in part to keep them from crushing their young) will be outlawed by the end of the decade.

But the biggest challenge for farmers are the increasing environmental restrictions they face. ``We simply produce too much waste for what the environment can handle,'' says Mr. van Dijk, the professor of agriculture economy. The Netherlands' intensive farming has left substantial swatches of farmland saturated with phosphates, copper, and other chemicals, while ammonia emissions from animal waste have soared.

The country's high proportion of surface water has also made it particularly vulnerable. At Wout Wagenmakers' dairy farm near Hank, for example, the cows and bulls are by law kept off the fields during the wettest season from September to February, to cut down on waste runoff. The dung is stored in a plastic-lined pit until spring, when it can be spread. The Wagenmakers have enough acreage to spread the dung. But for many other farmers, disposing of dung and slurry involves costly transport.

Similar concerns affect horticulture. At the de Wit cut-rose farm, the rows of salmon-pink ``kiss'' rosebuds suggest eternal tranquillity, but Hermans de Wit has contemporary worries. ``We only use chemicals when absolutely necessary for the roses,'' he says, ``We have to deal with the environment rules.'' By 1996, flower growers here will be required to purify all their runoff water.

The Netherlands' mainly urban population is also pressing for more land to be turned over to nature reserves. Plans in the Hank area call for returning some small fortified islands to the wetlands they were centuries ago; local windsurfers support turning several hundred acres of farmland into a reservoir.

Ideas for bringing an urbanized public and farmers back in contact did not begin with the Great Debate. Drienus van Vugt, a Hank accountant and part-time crop farmer, has for 14 years helped organize an annual ``open farms'' day ``to show the people what it takes to bring them the foods they want,'' says Mr. van Vugt. ``It's not as simple as sticking a seed in the ground and waiting for it to grow.''

The advantage of the Great Debate, which is being conducted regionally and cross-categorically, Van Dijk says, is that people are talking about solutions.

``We're just going to have fewer farms, but bigger farms,'' says Tonny van Andel, echoing predictions of a possible 50 percent decline in Dutch farmers by the turn of the century. Adds Mr. van Vugt, ``The future is really with having a farm and an off-the-farm job.''

Nature's new `caretakers'

Dutch farmers will have to develop more specialty products, says Meester, like the French with their hundreds of cheeses. ``We need to be more specific than Gouda and Edam,'' he says. In addition, he says farmers will be called on more as ``caretakers'' of natural settings between urban zones. ``The public will have to understand that in exchange for birds in their meadows and less intensive farming, they'll have to pay to keep up the landscaping.''

Some environmental groups insist there simply is no longer any place for pig farming in the Netherlands - and they are being heard in the Great Debate.

Van Dijk recognizes that the debate has gotten off to a shaky start, with many farmers dismissing it as a scheme for introducing more regulations. But Van Dijk says the stricter restrictions will come anyway. The trick will be to convince farmers that they can adopt a new kind of environmentally friendly and consumer-pleasing farming, he adds, while making a living and enjoying it.

``Thirty years ago, there was a big push to convince farmers to abandon `traditional' farming for a more intensive farming, which many of them resisted then as unnatural,'' says the farm leader. Acknowledging that perhaps the farmer's ``common sense'' was too easily dismissed then, Van Dijk says, ``We need a new paradigm, but this time we want the farmers to help us develop it.''

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