Photo credit: Adam Chapman tijdens Toekomstboeren bijeenkomst ‘Kleinschalige Mechanisatie’, op Kraaybeekerhof, oktober 2018.
Despite the difficulties that farmers are facing in the current land and agricultural system, there is a growth in a number of new approaches, such as agroecology. Agroecology involves a different form of agricultural production, processing and distribution: one that seeks progress in the strengthening of local resources, markets, and knowledge and in a different relationship with nature and with citizens. This stands in contrast to other, more conventional forms of agriculture that prioritise external (chemical) inputs, prescribed knowledge, and global value chains. In agroecological systems, there is an emphasis not just on food production, but also other values such as landscape preservation, biodiversity, a living countryside and nature.
In the Netherlands, agroecology encompasses a number of different movements including circular agriculture, biodynamic farming, permaculture, community supported agriculture (CSA), vegan farming, food forests, and regenerative agriculture. Exact figures on the size and scale of these initiatives are difficult to come by but all indicators point to a growth in their number:
- Between 2013 and 2017, the number of organic farms increased by 14,6%.
- In the past 10 years, the number of CSAs has grown from less than 10 to over 90 farms.
- The number of farms that engage in direct selling, processing, and on farm education has risen between 2008 – 2016 by 17%, 5%, and 84% respectively.
The growth in agroecological initiatives is the result of both conventional farmers deciding they want to change their agricultural practices and new farmers who want to engage with a new agricultural movement from the outset. A survey conducted by the Dutch small farmers organisation Toekomstboeren has brought into relief the profile of some of these new farmers engaging in the agroecology movement. It finds that these farmers are generally speaking relatively young (54% are under 40, 26% are between 40-49, and 29% are over 50) and majority (55%) women. In addition to a passion for farming, many are motivated by an effort to advance a more social and sustainable form of agriculture:
“I want a business that is people-centred. I like to have people on my terrain.”
“We want to live from the land and share this simple richness with others”
“I feel happy, free and blessed that I can live from the land in harmony with nature. I can see from the increase in biodiversity, in the growing numbers of butterflies for example, that nature benefits from the right kind of cooperation”.
These ideals are often difficult to combine with participation in the mainstream food market. Many of them therefore choose to develop alternative marketing channels such as farmshops, box delivery schemes, or self-harvesting by consumers. Consumers who engage in these marketing channels often share the values of agroecology and are therefore prepared to pay a higher price for their produce. This in turn allows agroecological farmers to make a living.
Still, many of these new farmers express the need for support in acquiring land, practical agroecological knowledge, marketing channels, processing activities, and starting a new business. Despite the significant social and environmental benefits that agroecology offers, these initiatives receive very little – if any – financial or other support from current national or EU agricultural and rural development policy frameworks. Not surprisingly then, 84% of farmers interviewed in the survey indicate that agroecology deserves a stronger representation in policy formation and decision-making processes.
One of the biggest obstacles for new farmers is access to land. For the majority of new farmers, buying or leasing land via the regular land market is simply too expensive. They must seek out other ways, including leasing land from environmental organisations, local or regional authorities, estates, or other farmers. Another option is to enter into the operation of an existing farm.
It is not just gaining access to land, security of tenure is also an issue. A series of meetings organized by Toekomstboeren reveals that tensions can frequently arise between a farmer and the landowner. In cases of conflict, the farmer often has to leave that same year. This also holds true when councils change their land use and allocation plans. The precarity of many new farmers is also demonstrated by a survey undertaken by Toekomstboeren which shows that only 13% of new farmers own land, and only 15% have a multi-annual lease contract. The remaining 72% has a contract of less than a year or no contract at all. This makes building up a consumer base and a form of sustainable agriculture extremely difficult: farmers will be less likely to invest in their business, make improvements to the land, and to experiment with new practices if they are unsure that they will reap the rewards of their efforts.
Figure 3. Land situation amongst new farmers
In the past years, a range of initiatives has emerged that are attempting to take land out of the market. They are unified in the belief that land should not just be a commodity but should serve a social as well as economic function. Some of these initiatives advance the concept of the ‘commons’ – lands which are in the hands of communities and whose use is to be collectively decided upon.
This can take on different forms. Land trusts for example collect donations, obligations, loans, and investor certifications in order to buy land which is then managed by a trust and leased out under favourable conditions to sustainable farmers. Another form is crowdfunding. This can involve many different strategies, depending on the particular circumstances of farms and regions. In the case of the CSA initiative ‘De Nieuwe Ronde’ (The New Round) in Wageningen, consumers have collectively fundraised to buy the land of a local farmer that will be paid off by the farmer over the years. In other constructions, land becomes the property of the consumers with the farmer paying rent. In still other examples, particular farm buildings are bought up by citizens or even, as in the case of the farm ‘Veld en Beek’ (Field and Stream), ‘cow shares’ are issued to a consumer network society. The consumer network also has annual meetings where consumers have a say in the running and direction of the farm.
There is also increased cooperation between different farmer groups and between farmer networks and local and provincial authorities in order to support access to land for sustainable farming. For example, Toekomstboeren is part of a new Federation of Agroecological Farmers Organisations that is standing up for the interests of agroecological producers and helping them to access land. Another example is that of ‘Grootschalige Kleinschaligheid’ which brings together growers, cereal and dairy farmers to support one another economically, make better use of local resources, and establish spaces that are attractive for people and nature. They engage in collective lobby work towards councils and government to gain access to land for such projects.
Some provincial governments in the Netherlands are also lending a hand. The province Noord-Brabant for example stimulates sustainable agriculture by paying out 50% of the land value to sustainable farmers that are settled in the vicinity of nature areas. The province has also developed a point system for land based on a number of sustainability criteria. Sustainable farmers who meet these criteria receive priority access to land as well as a discount on their rental fees. Strikingly, the total income the province has gained from leasing out land through this system has not diminished, demonstrating also the economic sustainability of this model.