When food is plentiful, and climate reduction targets kick-in… How do farmers attract the strong public support they need to continue?
By Sherry Bunting, previously published in Farmshine
NETHERLANDS — Headlines here in the U.S. indicate the Dutch government is offering buy-out of up to 3000 farms and other so-called ‘peak polluters’ to reduce ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions to bring the country into compliance with EU pledged targets. They say farms will be offered more than 100% of their value to quit, but the value of these farms is now reduced by the reduction targets.
A November 30 article in The Guardian quotes the Dutch nitrogen minister Christianne van der Wal saying “there will be a stopping scheme that will be as attractive as possible,” and that forced buyouts will follow next year if the voluntary measures this year fail.
Some may read these headlines and figure Holland is such a progressive agricultural powerhouse that the number of planned closures is but a dent.
Farms in Holland and around the world are the thin green line. Challenging them with inflated climate data and restrictive targets puts world food security at risk.
Consider that the BBC reported recently that Ireland is also looking at agricultural emissions, namely methane from cattle and sheep, in terms of meeting its Climate Action Plan targets of a 25% reduction by 2030. Estimates vary on how much culling would need to occur to meet these targets, how the methane is measured, and how fast various feed additives can help farms meet new targets. The most glaring concern is how carbon equivalents and methane are measured.
What if you woke up tomorrow and learned that your farm is targeted for similar reductions or closure based on the location of your farm on a map, based on climate targets set by your state or your milk buyer or the federal government, based on making cuts from where you are now — not from where you might have been before whatever improvements you’ve already made?
We reached out to Dutch dairy farmer Ad Baltus this week for an update from Holland, having interviewed him six months ago for the story about the Dutch farmer protests in July 2022.
Baltus farms 170 acres in the village of Schermerhorn with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. They milk 130 dairy cows, grazing in summer and growing corn and collecting fresh grass and dry hay from fields as well.
In July, he reported that his farm is one of the “luckier” ones. He is in a location in North Holland that will have to reduce the amount of nitrogen (or sell cows) by 10 to 15%. Some zones have been designated to reduce by up to 75 to 90%. The percentages are to meet reduction targets, and are not based on what a farm is measured to produce. Building and infrastructure projects can’t move forward without near-term offsets, which is why the situation has reached this extreme point in the Netherlands.
“It feels like the government throws figures in the air, and they wait to see what will happen,” says Baltus. “In my point of view, they try to make farmers worried as a tactic of smoking them out. That’s what you see now. The farms (targeted for higher reductions based on location) nearby the nature areas are getting tired of it, and they sell. I see the last couple of months a lot of farms, nice farms, being sold, and that worries me. If they stop farming, and go abroad, what will be left in Holland?”
He observes that the older farmers stay on the farm until they stop for retirement. “But when the young farmers stop and go abroad — that’s the future leaving. The young farmers are the future. The young farmers don’t want to wait for what is clear and what is going to happen. The problem is now — in the next five years,” he says, indicating a cycle of new targets that never seems to end. “Every time the government throws new figures out. This time it’s the nitrogen, then it’s the water quality, and then it’s the biodiversity, then there is CO2. Every time there comes new regulation, young farmers worry about their future.”
He sees agriculture in his country at a crossroads and warns that if this can happen in Holland, where agriculture is so progressive, it can happen anywhere.
“It could go the right way, and they will begin to appreciate farming in Holland, or it could go the other way, and farming may be over in 10 or 20 or 30 years. My biggest worry is you need some minimum amount of farmers to let the companies behind the farms live. I see it that when you have a feed company, they need a certain amount of farms to deliver their feeding products. When it comes down below some level, they say that is too small for us, and it is a spiral going down. That’s a worry for me, that we make it difficult for too many farmers, and they stop.”
Baltus confirms that the large Dutch farmer protests of the summer have quieted down, but the efforts and periodic protests continue on a different scale. “We are not giving up. We are struggling ’til the end, but it is a hard battle to convince (the government) that this is not the good way to go.
“We also see the farm groups talking to the government. We see the (symbolic) red handkerchief. The Dutch flags turned upside down for a month got attention. The protest is maybe not as loud as it was, but it is still there, and a little spark to the gunpowder barrel, it will explode again,” he says, noting that there are elections in March 2023.
As for the big picture, Baltus describes it as Dutch farmers having to ‘catch up’ quickly to the long-time networks built by the NGOs.
“Farmers have been too long on their own farms, and now you see things changing. Since 2019, when the first farmer protests began, you see farmers are now talking more to the media. They get a better speech to government officials,” says Baltus.
On the other hand, the NGOs, like Greenpeace, and a variety of others, are a small number of people relative to the population of Holland, but they have already been working 20 to 30 years on this. They are well-organized, well-funded, and have people throughout all levels of government and media, he explains.
“We are just now three or four years fighting against that, and it takes a time to change and get that understanding of nature and practice to the government,” Baltus relates, adding that it also takes time for new technologies to come to market that will help farms make further reductions, though European farms are already pretty progressive that way.
Baltus sees European farmers coming together more for each other now — even if their respective governments are not. As other countries in the EU are beginning to experience similar pressures of emissions targets that could essentially reduce dairy and livestock numbers or put farms out of business, solidarity is on the rise among those farmers who are paying attention.
Farming is hard work with a lot of risk, but as Baltus points out, Holland is a good place to farm, with good soil, good logistics, and a good climate for crops and livestock.
“It is one of the best jobs in the world. I love what I do. I want the adventure that every day is different. I like working in nature, working outside,” he says. “When the younger generation doesn’t have to worry about all of the things which are not farming, then they will go to farming because the work is that good. It is only the things that come from outside into the farm that make it hard.”
One part of a future solution is exemplified in something Baltus has done at his farm for 30 years — providing a school on the farm to teach young children how to make cheese and to make jam. His cheese school reaches a few thousand children each year.
“We do it so the children learn how much work it is to make that little piece of cheese and that little pot of jam,” he says. “When they learn the effort that goes into food, they appreciate it more, I think.”
The children get a bucket of milk, and in two hours they go home with a little cheese. They have to turn in 14 days and put on a little salt, and in another 14 days they eat their own cheese. When Baltus started the cheese school 30 years ago, maybe one or two farms did this kind of thing.
Today, more farms are doing similar memorable learning experiences. Baltus sees more farms connecting with the public in recent years. Some have cabins on the farm that they rent to the public. Others provide daycare on the farm, so children can grow up with some real-world attachment to farming. In his neighborhood, there are four farms with daycare.
“The new generation learns what it is to farm, so maybe they will be farming or an advocate. If they go to work as a plumber or a trucker, but as a child lived a few years on a farm at a daycare, it’s good for when they are older, even if they work in other things,” he explains.
“The solution is also that everyone you speak with — say to them what you are doing. When you are at a party or on holiday, say you are a farmer, say how you do things, why you do things — explain it,” Baltus suggests. “People come to appreciate these things when they know about them. There are things (farmers) can do better, but when we explain that we need 5 or 10 years (as technology develops), they accept we’re not perfect but are working to make it more perfect.”
In general, Baltus has found the public has a good opinion of farmers. When he meets someone from the city, they say “Oh, you’re a farmer. That is good of you.” And that’s that. They think well of farmers, but have no reason to worry about food, and therefore don’t make the connection to the impact of the threat the farmers face.
“People have other worries. Do I have a job next year? Can I pay my bills for electricity? Will my children have a good education? But food? There is always food. People will worry about food when there is no food,” he says.
As it stands now in Holland, “What is happening with farms is not really their business. People can go to the supermarket, and most everything they want they can buy there,” Baltus observes, saying he understands this disconnection.
Even if there are changes to the mix of foods available in stores and restaurants, there is no fear of finding food to eat. While Holland is considered a large agricultural exporter, Baltus notes that his country is a net-importer of food when looking at it on a protein and energy needs basis.
“We have the cheese and potatoes and cabbage, but we don’t have the coffee, the cocoa and the citrus. I see it in the way of trading. When that balance is lost, what happens when there is a shortage and we don’t have the cheese or potatoes to export?”
The bottom line, says Baltus, is that “When you are a carpenter or a plumber and there is, every day, food in the supermarket, why would you have to worry about food?
“In Africa, they know food is important. They know what it is like to not have food. But in the western world, there is food everywhere. You can pick up the phone, and in 30 minutes have a pizza on your plate.”