The idea that vast fields and cows in the meadow are part of a serious problem is contrary to age-old clichés that are cherished not only by the farmer, but also by his customers, argues Sander van Walsum.
The farmer: he was just there for centuries. In the midst of social unrest, war, meteorological turbulence and epidemics. He sowed and he reaped. ‘And the farmer, he plowed on’, wrote Johan Werumeus Buning in 1935: a tribute, in times of crisis, to the diligent worker who escaped the delusions of the day.
Unlike the contemporary farmer – the Dutch one at least – he would have been averse to innovation, economies of scale and other antics of modern times. At harvest time, he allowed at most a steam-powered threshing machine into his biotope: an imposing colossus that visited all grain farmers in the area. When all the grain had been separated from the ear, the threshing machine was driven to the winter storage area, and the autumn fair began in the village center – a fixed benchmark in the farmer’s life rhythm. However much the world around him changed, he plowed on his father’s land.
In the years between the two world wars, this typology was published enthusiastically by folk and racial experts (two categories that are not identical to each other). The peasant, ‘a disappearing human type’, was contrasted in his simplicity and purity with the degenerate city dweller.
Writer Roel Houwink, co-author of Disappearing People and People by the Road – photobooks with portraits of rural residents in all parts of the Netherlands – wrote that the ‘levelling of the emotional life’ had had an effect on the facial features of the city dweller. He contrasted this with the ‘originality’ and the ‘depth’ of the rural face – although modernization would eventually also undermine the primal power of the peasant. Outside the urbanized parts of the Netherlands, ‘race experts’ searched for the last pure, unspoilt Dutch. Frisians, Saxons and Zeelanders had the best credentials.
On balance, in Dutch history the farmer has only played an extra role. He rarely spearheaded revolts—such as the Jacquerie in France, when peasants turned wild against the landed gentry in 1358, or the German Peasants’ War (1524-1525), a violent attempt by peasants to wrest themselves from their place at the bottom of the feudal pecking order. The standard works on the genesis of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands deal with preachers, skippers on the deep sea, rebellious noblemen, the merchants of the Hanseatic cities and the regents of Holland. But the farmer is largely absent from the story of the origin of the Netherlands.
This may be due to the fact that the landed gentry had to relinquish its social dominance – against which peasants elsewhere rebelled – to the settled bourgeoisie, and to the fact that in the year 1600 already more than half of the population of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht lived in cities. The peasant may have had less to complain about in the (relatively) egalitarian Republic than in feudal Europe, but he also had little to gain from it.
Only in times of social ferment did farmers sometimes want to join the ‘rebellious rabble’. For example, in the Disaster Year 1672, angry farmers tried to prevent their land from being flooded in a (desperate, but ultimately successful) attempt to stop the advance of the French invasion army. Only when Prince Willem III, the captain-general (commander-in-chief) of the States army, issued the death penalty for sabotage of the water line, did the water level rise to a level that seriously inconvenienced the French.
In 1748, when the Republic was in decline, farmers (followed by city dwellers) seized the property of the so-called tax tenants – who collected taxes on behalf of the government, enriching themselves in the process. But these acts of rebellion were, for many centuries, a rarity.
In the 19th century, progress took shape in the cities, not in the countryside. Anyone who enters the keyword ‘boer’ and the period 1880-1930 on Delpher, the database of Dutch newspapers, is referred to figures rich in reports for agriculture and horticulture or – more often – to the Boer Wars in South Africa, in which ‘tribe relative’ The Dutch felt strongly involved.
During the ensuing economic crisis, which began in the agricultural sector as early as the 1920s, farmers seemed to bear their fate (falling prices of agricultural products, the heavy burden of rents, general poverty) rather resignedly. In protest against the government’s unwillingness to protect the agricultural sector against the bleak economy, some farmers dumped their milk in the ditch or organized ‘demonstrative meetings’. However, this mainly spoke of impotence. Speakers bemoaned the poor prestige of the peasant, and “the difference in treatment of the rye, the grain of the small farmer, and of the wheat—the grain of the great farmer.”
Although about 20 percent of the working population at that time worked in the agricultural sector (against just over 2 percent at the moment), the social and political influence of this group lagged far behind its size. Of the political parties, the NSB (founded in 1931) seemed to be most concerned with the fate of small farmers in particular. The party therefore had a relatively large following in the Achterhoek and Drenthe.
Under the influence of the food shortage, especially in the last winter of the Second World War, the prestige of the peasantry increased among starving city dwellers. They traveled en masse, on foot or by bicycle, to the countryside to obtain food. ‘The traffic on the country roads (was) comparable to that in the Kalverstraat’, one of them said afterwards. Sixty-two percent of the Amsterdam families participated in one or more hunger journeys, the sociographer GJ Kruijer calculated shortly after the war.
On average, they bought 42 kilos of food per trip. At prices that were not as exorbitantly high as on the black market in the big cities, but which did reflect the imbalance between supply and demand. ‘This inequality resulted in an enormous transfer of wealth from the cities to the countryside’, wrote Ingrid de Zwarte in her acclaimed study The Hunger Winter (Prometheus, 2019). ‘Many farmers enriched themselves during the Hunger Winter and abused their position of power.’
De Zwarte was also unable to answer the question of whether greedy farmers were the rule, or were they the exception. Some areas in North and South Holland enjoyed a bad reputation among the ‘tractors’ – participants in the hunger marches. ‘Eventually they didn’t want linen any more’, one of the tractors testified after the war. They wanted gold. Some had a sign in their yard: “No more linen.” So you didn’t even have to knock on that door.’
On the other hand, according to this leader, the farmers’ compassion increased as they moved further away from Amsterdam. Conversely, farmers complained about the behavior of the Amsterdammers: many were said to have been ‘demanding and anti-social’. “They urinated in the barn, lit matches in the hay, and seldom showed gratitude for the food and shelter they received.”
The stories of farmers’ self-enrichment will have impressed their contemporaries more than the stories of farmers trying to practice distributive justice—and thus become more firmly entrenched in the collective memory. Perhaps the majority of the farmers were quite willing to oblige the tractors – given the fact that the Amsterdammers among them, according to De Zwarte mostly from the ‘working class and lower middle class’, nevertheless managed to get hold of 42 kilos of food per trip . In other words, you didn’t have to be wealthy to succeed in the countryside.
And the farmer himself? He has always felt misunderstood by the townspeople. That has been a constant over the centuries. Perhaps that is also the reason why no other professional group has cherished her quality – that of farmer – so strongly, as a kind of nickname. In fact, he enjoyed a solid reputation in the post-war Netherlands as a paragon of industry and as a guarantor of food security. His prestige grew as the share of the ‘agri-complex’ – agriculture and all related activities – in the national income shrank: from 20 percent in 1950 to about 5 percent today.
This apparent paradox is part of the (also apparent) success formula of the Dutch farmer: he has been able to produce more and more food at ever lower prices. Unlike its pre-war predecessors – predominantly small farmers with a mixed farm and a small sales area – it is part of a global, industrial production chain. At the same time, the Arcadian image of the farmer has proven to be shockproof.
The farmer himself likes to pose as a guardian of nature – who simply cannot escape the laws of scale enlargement – and as a producer of honest food. Its customers went (and still go) into that mythology, which is at the heart of a message currently being given out through the Star. The idea that vast fields and cows in the pasture are part of a serious problem goes against age-old clichés – and the (supposed) self-interest of consumers who have been spoiled for years with rock-bottom prices for agricultural products.
A climate-conscious minority (whose size does not want to increase substantially) is willing to pay more for free-range eggs and animal-friendly meat, but according to the British writer/zoologist George Monbiot – exponent of the degrowthmovement – a system in place that is unsustainable in any case with an expanding world population. In other words, they are fooling themselves.
In doing so, he is far ahead of the budding awareness of consumers who still have to get used to the idea that the agrocomplex forms a burden on the climate and the environment. The sympathy that angry peasants enjoy with a large part of the public indicates how deeply ingrained rural mythology is in society.
Many Dutch people (and political parties) still believe that the Netherlands – the world’s largest food exporter after the US – is agriculturally self-sufficient, while three quarters of our daily food comes from abroad and farmers are also heavily dependent on imports for domestic production of fertilizers, concentrates and fuel, among other things. For every calorie of food value, we now use six times as much fossil fuel as in 1950 The Correspondent recently.
For consumers, these figures are rather abstract. Just like the fact that two-thirds of the agricultural land in the Netherlands is used to grow food crops for animals. They are guided in their choice by the price of an item, and perhaps, secondarily, by the number of Beter Leven stars on the packaging. But a drastic change in their consumption pattern is of no immediate, personal benefit.
They can still be persuaded to take shorter showers or use less heating because the benefits are visible on the energy supplier’s next term overview. Not flying is – despite the ongoing chaos at Schiphol – a bit more difficult. But breaking with the apparent success formula of Dutch agriculture? No, that requires a total change in doing, letting and thinking. A Umwertung aller Werte. Their support for the farmer is therefore not so much motivated by sympathy for his need as by their own unwillingness to recognize that the feast of consumption is finite. So the farmer plows on for a while.