A protest everyone should care about — Dutch government: ‘Not all farmers can continue’; Dutch farmers: ‘We Stay’

Ad Baltus milks 130 cows on roughly 170 acres in North Holland, where the government announced a new nitrogen (emissions) policy in June that has farmers rising up in protest.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, July 22, 2022

SCHERMERHORN, Netherlands — “The honest message is not all farmers can continue their business.” These brutal words were part of the Dutch government’s announcement in June to cut in half the emissions of nitrous oxide and ammonia in a detailed farm nitrogen map of the Netherlands. They’ve given provincial authorities one year to figure out how they will meet their aggressive provincial targets by 2027 as depicted in mapped zones.

This means both livestock numbers and use of fertilizers will be slashed, with the most drastic reductions of 70 to 90% on farms that are close to nature areas, especially those deemed part of Natura 2000, the legally protected habitats across EU member nations.

Ad Baltus is just one of the 40,000 Dutch farmers protesting the plan since mid-June with tractor formations, blockades and other activities in The Hague (capitol) and in towns and rural lands beyond. 

They are concerned for their futures, for their farms, families, communities and country. 

Baltus and his tractor have been to countless protests throughout the country, accompanied by his faithful dog Knoester. Sharing aerial photos of a formation he helped organize in his own neighborhood, he explains the hashtag in Dutch means #WeStay.

“We are letting our government know we are not going anywhere.”

A tractor-formation spelling out Dutch farmers’ message to The Hague: ‘NH #WijBlijven!’ It means “We Stay. We are not going anywhere,” says Ad Baltus, a dairy farmer who co-organized the June protest near his farm in Schermerhorn before the group traveled to Stroe the next day where an estimated 30,000 farmers protested the Dutch government’s nitrogen policy. 

Baltus farms 70 hectares (170 acres) in the North Holland village of Schermerhorn with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, milking 130 dairy cows. In summers the cows graze, and he also grows corn and collects both fresh grass and dry hay from fields.

“On our farm, we have to reduce the amount of nitrogen or sell cows. That’s a possibility. Or we have to do something with technology to reduce the nitrogen. We have been given only five years from now,” Baltus explains in a Farmshine phone interview Wednesday.

His farm is among the ‘luckier’ ones, in a zone to reduce 10 to 15%. 

No future for some

“It depends where they are situated, whether farms are near to nature terrain. Some must reduce between 50 and 70%, and some have to reduce 90%,” Baltus confirms. “In a zone between 70 and 90%, there is no possibility to have an income from your farm. That has a big impact in our farming industry.”

The calculation of nitrogen emissions is made “from what the cows produce inside the stable, and what is being produced when manure is spread over fields and then (from that calculation) is what farms have to reduce,” he says. The use of chemical fertilizers is also part of the calculation.

This is in addition to what the EU is trying to impose in the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork agenda that includes many other manure regulations.

Furthermore, every farm in the Netherlands must have a permit and every farm animal on that farm must be accounted for on that permit, including the horses.

The Dutch government backed up the nitrogen policy with an additional 24.3 billion euro ($25 billion USD) for the transition. 

One Dutch news source says the environmental planning agency is recommending payment of 130% of the land and asset value of farmers who stop farming, while other sources point out the base valuation will plummet where the ability to earn income on the assets is now virtually eliminated.

Expecting 30% to sell

By the government’s own estimates, 30% of farmers are expected to sell out or cease livestock and dairy operations, but others see a greater loss coming. Farmers who retire by selling to the government do make space for other farms in their zones to continue with slightly smaller reductions.

For perspective, the Netherlands encompasses a land base a bit larger than the state of Maryland, with 54% of this land reported as agricultural land. There are more than 17 million people with around 40,000 farmers, 3.8 million total cattle, including 1.5 million dairy cows, 11.4 million pigs, 850,000 sheep, 480,000 dairy goats and just about 100 million chickens.

In touting the plan, officials point to the country’s dense population of livestock and its ability to produce more food than is needed within its borders, suggesting that farm exits are not a food security concern. The Netherlands ranks second in the world in agricultural exports worth 94.5 billion euro ($96.8 billion USD) in 2019.

Dutch farmers, however, see this as short-sighted at a time when the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other global disruptions are putting pressure on global food supplies. They are vowing to continue their protests. 

Bale art in the Netherlands has a message also. Displays like this are a ‘public-friendly’ way to protest the nitrogen policy without undue impact on the public. The red handkerchief has become the sign of support.

After weeks of tractor parades obstructing traffic and supermarket food deliveries, Baltus reports ‘public-friendly’ methods are being used to keep the farmers’ concerns visible. For example, wrapped round bales are painted with sad and angry faces with the red handkerchief, the sign of solidarity for the farmer resistance.

He shares a local newscast where another dairy farmer, Sophie Ruiter, 29, from Grootschermer explains the drastic consequences for her farm — that only 60 of her 200 cows could remain.

Turned upside down

“We think it’s really crazy that we are being punished, but a company like Tata (Steel) is given all the time to meet the targets. For us, it means that we have no future,” she says, speaking to the newscaster from behind the wheel of a mobile platform while her friend Robin Groot, holding a bag of Dutch flags, hangs them upside down on lamp posts along a provincial roadway.

Groot describes this as a “public-friendly action. We want to show that all those nitrogen measures have turned the Netherlands upside down.”

“The inverted flag used to be used in shipping as a distress signal, and we now also do that as farmers, because something is really going on,” adds Ruiter.

Removing farms doesn’t solve the problem of pollution, as other industrial complexes produce nitrous and other emissions, and those industries are not being targeted the same way. At the root is concern that “green nitrogen will be replaced by grey nitrogen,” another farmer explains during a tractor formation near a business park where unfair treatment of farmers vs. other industries was highlighted.

Solutions vs. sell-outs

Farm groups say that even though an intermediary has been named for “negotiations,” there are no real negotiations occurring. They say the rapid timeline and high level of reductions signal the government’s unwillingness to look at other solutions, that they just want to cut livestock numbers and buy farms.

“They believe that farms near nature are harming it, but we don’t see it,” says Baltus, sharing comparative photos and discussion.

What kind of nature?

“In Holland there is no nature like in Alaska or Siberia. All of the nature we have is nature that is made by people. The question we ask is what kind of nature do you want? Nature as it was in Holland from 10 years ago, or 100 years ago or 1000 years ago? They don’t give a good explanation for what they want,” he relates. 

“In some areas, they want plants and animals that never lived here – not even 10,000 years ago,” he reports. “In Holland, there are nature areas where they got rid of the topsoil to create a kind of nature (or semi-natural ungrazed grassland).”

The NGOs (non-governmental organizations) want to create it with their goal that is very different from the nature that exists, he explains.

Grasslands without grazing?

“The nature near my farm is a nature where cows and grasslands have been for 500 years, and now they say ‘no cows are needed in that area?’ We don’t understand that. Cows and farmers make that terrain, and it is because of farmers and cows that the nature is in there.”

Emissions have been discussed for 10 years. In fact, when milk quotas were lifted and dairy herds grew modestly, phosphate limits were used in 2016 to force herd reductions (see chart). Dairy cow numbers have been relatively stable over the past decade, and on the downswing since 2017. At the same time Dutch agriculture is progressive in technology and farming practices. Many farmers have already made investments in their management of nitrogen.

“We reduced in the past 40 years already 70%, but every time, the government wants more. We have a goal, and they always want more. It is never enough,” Baltus observes.

Like other Dutch farmers, he is proud of the environmental record and productivity of his country’s farms, and the substantial economic benefits they generate for their communities.

A different road

“The farmers are on a different road from the government. On the farmer side, we are thinking solutions, but on the government side, they don’t want to do anything with that. We think in the long run we can reduce more than what’s ahead now, but we need technical solutions, and there are companies in Holland developing technology to separate urine from feces so the nitrogen can be managed even better,” he explains.

A few farms are piloting such innovations, “but it is 2 to 3 years from being ready for practices,” he adds. “We need more time, and the amount of the reduction is much too high, but the government is not taking the innovation as a solution. They want to reduce livestock.”

For its part, the Dutch government maintains it has been “forced” to take this action as court rulings — brought on by activist NGOs — cite the country’s pledges on emissions, and those rulings now block infrastructure and construction projects with no future reductions to offset the emissions these projects would generate. The offsets now come first.

This train has been on the track for a while now, with many countries (as well as cities, corporations and investors) on board.

Cutting nitrogen emissions in half by 2030 is on the targets of at least 30 UN member nations with policy bubbling up in other EU nations. In keeping with the 2019 intergovernmental adoption of a UN resolution on Sustainable Nitrogen Management (Columbo Declaration), such legally binding pledges are now part of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that also affect a nation’s ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) score. 

Meanwhile, farmers fear Holland will be the next test-country. They point to what is happening in the first test — Sri Lanka, a small nation off the coast of India that set itself up to be global nitrogen management leader with policies ending use of chemical fertilizers and other measures to meet targets and achieve its high 98.1 ESG score.

This high score mattered little when the reality hit the people in crop failures, farm economic collapse, new levels of food insecurity, which along with economic policies have thrown the country into its worst economic crisis in decades. In recent weeks, Sri Lanken citizens stormed the capitol, the current president fled, and the country is in chaos.

Holland’s plan, according to government documents, is described by officials to bring order and clarity about “whether and how farmers can continue with their business. The (nitrogen) minister sees three options for farmers: become (more) sustainable, relocate or stop.”

This reasoning fuels tensions with farmers who say they are being told to achieve what is unattainable in a short time with few options and no future for their children. In the case of retiring farmers without a next generation, the pathway is clearer, even as the larger concerns remain.

Asked if this feels like a ‘land grab’, if it’s more about land than nitrogen, Baltus was fair-minded and clear.

“Is this about getting the land? Possibly. But we need evidence for that. Thinking in theories or plots is difficult for me as a farmer. Yes, they need land for housing and building, and they want to do nature areas. When the government comes to a farmer, it is like a farmer buying a piece of land from another farmer, you negotiate, but the government is doing it now in a way to get it for a cheaper price,” he relates.

“Yes, the government wants to buy farms to reduce livestock,” he adds. “That is why farmers are angry. The government wants to spend about 25 billion euro to buy-out farmers, while the farmers are asking them to spend 5 billion euro to reduce the same amount of nitrogen with the technology that is coming.’”

Baltus is quick to point out that when farming stops, others are also affected.

“The whole rural area depends on all the farmers, and when there is 20, 30 or 50% of farmers stopping farming, this has an effect on the dairy industry, the feeding industry, all of the rural people who do work on farms, electrician, plumber, contractor… the whole system has big effects.”

Sun sets on a mid-July tractor formation as Dutch farmers continue to protest the nitrogen policy announced in mid-June, two weeks before the parliament’s 6-week summer recess began. 

Public generally supportive

In general, Baltus sees the public as supportive of the farmers, but he observes a “thin line” of weariness.

“When we protest and people have trouble with that, by waiting in traffic or there is no food distribution, it is difficult to hold the support of the population,” he explains. “We see that the protest is now softening a bit with ‘public-friendly’ actions. But I don’t think protests will stop until the government hears the farmers. If the government doesn’t hear the farmers, then the protests will go on, and not always in a friendly way.”

He sees this issue attracting voters to a relatively new political party, the BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmers and Citizens Movement), which has some representation in parliament.

Expressing little hope for negotiation at this point, farmers say their hope may be a future election landslide depending on how this problem turns out, especially in light of the government’s statements that it has not ruled out the possibility of “expropriating land (forcibly) from farmers who don’t comply.”

Dutch farmers have already complied with many environmental regulations and changes. Farmers want to continue to do more on environmental issues, Baltus affirms: “We have done that for hundreds of years.

My father 50 years ago fed cows differently than I do now, but we need time for changing more, and we need some support to change. Selling out doesn’t help us. It’s the wrong way for the money to flow. We say spend that money for innovation – for more effect with less money.”

Cows on this North Holland dairy farm graze in the summer, with fresh grass and dry hay collected from fields for feeding in the barn. Dutch farms face a new policy requiring 10 to 90% reductions in nitrogen compound emissions as the government prepares to buy farms and assets.

Worldwide problem

“I think the problem in Holland with the farmers and the government, you will see this worldwide,” he suggests. “Just see what is happening in Sri Lanka right now, and in India last year there were big farmer protests.”

He observes farmers in Germany, Belgium, Poland and Italy are protesting in solidarity, with signs “no farmers, no food”, and banners reading “Stop the Great Reset.

“It is a worldwide problem that we think food is something that is growing in the supermarket. The government, they take it for (granted), but it is a lot of work to make food, and farmers are at the end of the rope when it comes to getting a price for their product. Farming is not so profitable at the moment, but at the same time,” says Baltus, identifying with farmers around the world:

“Many consumers cannot pay more for their food. Between the farmer and the consumer, there are many steps for money to stay in. The very big problem we forget is we live on planet earth with billions of people more than 50 years ago, and every mouth has to have food. We can’t feed everyone with just biological farming or by losing farms.”

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