‘Many farmers are heading for burnout’

“Farmers are not dirty polluters. We deserve more respect.’ A conversation about agriculture that must come from the land again, and not from factories. On a smaller scale, friendly to the environment and to consumers.

You cannot say that 2022 was the year of the farmer. Thanks to Flemish Environment Minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA), measures are being taken to – finally – limit the impact of agriculture on our living environment. But the proposals for a fertilizer action plan or an effective approach to nitrogen nuisance meet resistance from farmers and their organisations. Not only with us, but also in the Netherlands.

The farmers and the farmers’ protests cannot count on much popular support. She gets her food from the supermarket and doesn’t pay much attention to the efforts made by the farmers. Farmers are mainly leaders of Jut. It was therefore striking that this conversation took place in Zwartschaapstraat in Gooik. On the Dubbel Doel farm of Hilde Nechelput and her husband Seppe Holemans, four engaged farmers’ wives and farmers gathered for Crack talk about better agriculture.

Double Purpose Farm can serve as a model for how an agricultural business should work: attention to animal welfare, minimal impact on the environment and production of high quality food. Nechelput and Holemans have around sixty cows with roots in an old Flemish breed, which provide both milk and meat, so-called dual-purpose animals. The calves drink from the mother cow during the day, while elsewhere they are taken away immediately after birth, so that all the milk for human consumption can be collected. In Dubbel Doel, the calves only sleep separately at night, so there is room for milking in the morning.

The feed for their cattle is produced by the couple themselves or obtained from friendly farmers in exchange for fertiliser. They exchange meat and dairy packages of their own production for fruit and vegetables. Thanks to their own grass, they remain independent of feed producers. In addition, the grass is rich in clover and is therefore better than the concentrate that the cows receive elsewhere. In the meadows, rare grasses grow, although they have to process manure. Hedges and standard plantations provide beautiful settings with beautiful natural values.

‘Most of the newcomers to agriculture are people with a tendency towards hara-kiri.’ © Jonas Lampens

No syndicate

An open barn forms the background for a conversation with Hilde Nechelput and three colleagues from Boerenforum. That organization has been around for almost ten years now, but its manifestos sometimes create confusion. On the one hand, Boerenforum seems to strive for small-scale farming that is close to ‘organic’, on the other hand, it opposes all the government’s plans to make agriculture more environmentally friendly.

“Boerenforum wants to do more than give recipes to make businesses a little more sustainable,” says Tijs Boelens van de Groentelaar, an organic vegetable producer in Pepingen. ‘Boerenforum is not a syndicate, but a method to achieve better agriculture. Look at the energy problems, or at the trouble around nurseries. We see again and again how our society is heading towards the abyss, and yet we continue to bet on neoliberal programs. Over the last fifty years they have made farming something that most farmers would not choose for themselves. In the obsolete reality, we no longer want to look for ways to barely survive. We want a paradigm shift, so that the farmer’s work is better compensated, and more high-quality food comes to the market.’

© Jonas Lampens

The Farmers’ Forum sees the nitrogen agreement and the Flemish government’s fertilizer action plan as repairing a tire or replacing a roof tile. These are measures that do not change much. Above all, they consolidate the dominant position of the most important player on the market. ‘They strengthen the role of the agro industry and its banks and suppliers as the horse in our agriculture,’ says chicken breeder Wim Moyaert from De Groene Cirkel. ‘It is more lucrative for many to keep mopping with the tap open than to close the tap.’

‘Farmers should now also store as much carbon as possible in their soil’, continues Moyaert. “That in itself is not bad for fighting global warming. But we have the unpleasant feeling that the system of CO2 credits should mainly serve to fend off industrial carbon polluters. In this way, something that could be part of organic farming becomes an instrument for greenwashing by large players on the market.’

How does Boerenforum see the transition of agriculture happening? ‘There should be more focus on small and medium-sized farms,’ says Boelens. “Within this and ten years, end the factory farms. Double the number of farmers by 2040, but let them work a smaller area. Adapt the size of the herd to the carrying capacity of the soil. Then you will have an agriculture that cooperates with nature and which is enriching for both farmer and consumer. And then you no longer need manure action plans and nitrogen agreements”.

© Jonas Lampens

Methane reduction pills

Boerenforum has joined La Via Campesina, an organization representing farmers worldwide who pursue the same small farming model. Their solutions should not only make Flemish agriculture more sustainable, but also make the lives of farmers elsewhere less precarious. For example, a Senegalese farmer loses market opportunities because European agricultural surpluses are dumped in his country. Romanian farmers are now regularly visited by the consultants who have driven our agriculture in the direction of large-scale farming.

‘It would be a big step forward if we could get rid of the import of products like soy,’ says Birgit Haepers from the Land van Duwijck pick-your-own farm in Lier. “Without soy as animal feed, both meat and fertilizer become more valuable to us and therefore less problematic. Soybean exports are also wreaking havoc among Amazonian farmers. Or look at the import of cheap tomatoes from Almeria in Spain. These tomatoes are a product of labor that can be called slavery. Also, abolish agricultural subsidies that encourage economies of scale and limit the monocultures that plague our land. And stop technological interventions such as air scrubbers in stables and methane-reducing pills in the cows’ feed to limit the emission of nitrogen and greenhouse gases. These are palliatives.’

It all sounds very much like ‘back to the past’, to the days before the free market and globalisation. “And capitalism,” Boelens adds without hesitation. He tells how he was hitchhiked in Brittany this year by a man in a shiny sports car, a speculator in fossil fuels, it turned out. “But when the war in Ukraine started, he switched to speculating in grain. With that profit, he now regularly goes to parties in China.’

Tijs Boelens
Tijs Boelens © Jonas Lampens

‘Our food is used to make these kinds of people rich,’ says Boelens. ‘And in the meantime, 70 percent of farmers are seeing black snow because they are not being paid enough for their produce. Many farmers are headed for burnout because of this hopelessness. Another part struggles with financial numbers that make them forget why they ever started this beautiful craft. The government has sidelined itself for years, saying the market should be allowed to play. But it is precisely the market that has spoiled it for the farmer and the farmer’s wife.’

A minority of Flemish farmers are doing well. ‘These are,’ says Moyaert, ‘entrepreneurs with large companies who work with robots and monocultures and who have problems with their neighbors and with nature lovers. Many farmers, plus with a gun to their heads, publicly defend the current farming model. But at home they wonder what the hell they are doing. Most farmers cannot stop or change because they are tied to loans and contracts. And money must therefore be freed up for an agricultural transformation. Instead of continuing to support existing agriculture, the government should focus on a transition to a more sustainable model.’

ascetic life

Fewer and fewer farmer children want to join the family business. They have seen their parents struggle too hard for an unpleasant existence. “Most newbies to the craft, like myself, are people with a tendency towards hara-kiri,” says Haepers mockingly. ‘They are dependent on their partner’s income or savings. And why? Because it really is pure craftsmanship. But we pay a high price for that beauty. The fact that you can work in a beautiful landscape almost automatically means that you can barely make ends meet. And farmers are not by definition people who want to live an ascetic life.’

Wim Moyaert, Hilde Nechelput, Birgit Haepers and Tijs Boelens: 'Many farmers are heading for burnout due to hopelessness.'
Wim Moyaert, Hilde Nechelput, Birgit Haepers and Tijs Boelens: ‘Many farmers are heading for burnout due to hopelessness.’ © Jonas Lampens

And then there is the pricing of our agricultural products. “I sell the meat from my chickens for 15 euros per kilo,” says Moyaert. “Therefore, I have to compete with floppy chickens from factory farms, which cost 5 euros. But why shouldn’t we take into account the hidden costs of environmental impact and health problems resulting from poor nutrition in pricing? Why can’t more people enjoy our products, which are much tastier? Are organic products nothing more than a shame for the richer consumers from the outskirts of cities who feel a little guilty?’

Classic lobbies like the Boerenbond react to the fact that there is no longer room in Flanders to guarantee food security with small-scale agriculture. ‘Food safety is precisely the main objective of Boerenforum and La Via Campesina,’ says Boelens. “If the Flemish consumer eats less meat, there will be enough land to keep our agriculture self-sufficient. Especially if we put an end to market-disrupting exports at the same time. Scaring people by claiming there is not enough space for land-based agriculture is another mechanism used by the agribusiness to prevent a transition.’

Dirty pollutes

While hostess Hilde Nechelput sends delicious cheese and dairy desserts of her own production, she hammers on another underestimated element of quality loss in the agricultural industry: There is no longer contact with the consumer. “You used to see farmers with their products at most markets, now you almost exclusively see traders who get their products from the auction. We bring some of our products to market ourselves. People appreciate that. Anyone who has contact with farmers has a different view of our trade than the supermarket consumer. Children who see the farmer’s wife or farmer producing their vegetables have less difficulty eating vegetables. It can contribute to a better relationship between the consumer, his food and the producer of that food.’

Wim Moyaert
Wim Moyaert © Jonas Lampens

Boerenforum does not work for a niche in the agricultural sector, concludes Birgit Haepers. “Our advocacy benefits all farmers, because few farmers are happy with their ever-growing holdings. These lead to falling prices for the farmer, rising costs and dependency. Farmers can no longer get out of the corner into which they have been pushed by the bank, the adviser, the accountant or the subsidy organization. If politics perpetuates that situation, it becomes hopeless. The farmer is then designated by society as a dirty polluter, as poor and stupid. The alienation from the peasant’s soul is total. It is extremely unfair. We want to break that. Farmers’ wives and farmers again deserve more respect’.

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