The Polder model – The Netherlands, May 2018
The Dutch cooperate. It’s in their genetic makeup. When a challenge presents itself, they naturally pull together to find a solution which can fit all. Ask the locals and they tell you they are unified by their fight against the sea; 26% of the country sits below sea level and only half of the Netherlands is higher than 1 metre above it.
So when asked to deliver improvements for the environment Dutch farmers did what comes naturally and set up collectives. There are around 40 farmer run collectives in the Netherlands, each lobbying central government directly for funding to pay for environmental measures on farms. The collectives are based on regional characteristics and historical groupings and tend to have targets for environmental delivery based around the provincial government’s nature management plan; something like the Local Nature Partnerships in the UK.
But will a farmer-led approach work? In the Netherlands, like in all the EU, the Common agricultural policy has encouraged farmers to produce. The Hunger Winter of 1944-45 cemented the need to produce food in the Dutch psyche; blockades by the Germans and allied bombing cutting off food supplies to the Dutch population, resulting in famine. The challenge then is a big change in attitude. In Holland, just like in the UK, the talk in the pub is about yields not gross margin. We still concentrate on how much we can produce rather than how we can grow food with less recourses and limit our impact on the environment. Recognising the importance of the environment as part of production systems is not new but making this happen as standard on all farms will be tricky. In northeast Friesland where fields are surrounded by trees and hedges uptake of environmental schemes is 85%. Sounds good when the national average uptake is only 16%, but environmental delivery must move from the boundary to the centre of the field and this means changes in production systems.
It’s early days for the collective approach but it looks promising. The collectives proactively look for ways to make options fit farming better. Jitze Peenstra, coordinator for the Collectif It Lege Midden explained to me that they want to do more for pollinators. Trials have been set up by his collective to develop new options for grassland farmers wanting help bees and insects. They are also undertaking soil research, investigating the impact of water level on the biology of their peat soils.
At Marten and Linda Dijkstra’s farm in Friesland the sun is slowly setting as we head out to look at his grassland. The sound from the fields is extraordinary. Frogs croaking in the ditches and scrapes; Godwits, lapwing, redshank and oystercatchers shouting out their warning calls to send us away. Whilst Marten checks on his solar pump he tells me the collective’s bird watchers have counted over 40 nests in his grassland this year. His agri-environment scheme pays him to keep cattle away from nests and in other fields he fences nests out and mows round them. In some years milk yield suffers, but this is mainly due to vast numbers of migrating geese who rest on his land to graze during their journey south. Marten & Linda are organic dairy farmers who are keen to create a story around their milk and they’ve got a great one to tell. There is a cost to producing with a system like theirs so support payments from the government are necessary, but the biodiversity gain looked worth every euro cent to me.