My First Impressions of Netherlands

I recently had an opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Netherlands for the very first time. My trip had several objectives including attending a conference by the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists ( IFAJ), who incidentally sponsored  my trip through Corteva, one of their long term strategic partners. In addition to attending the conference, I was able to travel up and down the country to experience the Dutch culture and agriculture first hand.

The congress which was hosted by the Dutch Roots Foundation, under the theme “Dutch Roots: Small Country Big Solutions”, was an absolute success and an eye opener.  I walked away with a lot from my trip and I can safely say, it was an experience of a lifetime.

I must say Netherlands is a very clean country, with beautiful, unique Dutch architecture. Most of the time I was there I didn’t see a single police man. Very strange for me. Where I come from, going over a kilometre in the city without coming across a cop is unheard of, it’s a rare phenomenon. On top of that, I didn’t see a single hill from my travels across the Dutch country. No rocks! Normally when you fight a bully back home, you can pick up a stone or rock and throw it at the guy. In the Netherlands, I suppose you’ll have to think of something.

The Dutch transport system is out of this world. Always on time, the buses I used for my excursions around the country were virtually new. I couldn’t help but think about some of the buses you’ll find on our roads back home. It’s a common occurrence to pass a bus with a dark cloud of smoke trailing behind it, making you wonder how they passed those road worthiness tests that they supposedly go through.

The first thing I noticed when we descended into the country by airplane, were green patches of cultivated land. Wherever you looked, there they were, divided  by roads or waterways, tiny by agricultural standards. One of the farmers told me that on average their agricultural land is about 40-50 hectares. Despite its small size, roughly 41 500 square kilometres, Netherlands is the world’s number two exporter of agricultural produce by value, second only to the United States, which  is 270 times its size. Just for comparison, the Central District where I’m from in Botswana, is 146 531 square kilometres. Roughly 3 times bigger.  With over 18 million inhabitants, the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.  According to the World Bank, agricultural land in Netherlands stood at 54.53 % in 2015. That’s more than half the size of the country.

The biggest impression I have of Netherlands is the dynamic use of innovation and technology in agriculture.  From milking robots to feed mixing machines, technology makes life easier for Dutch farmers.

Under normal circumstances, a dairy farmer has to wake up at the crack of dawn to ensure that he milks his cattle at least three times a day, do other farm work, guess the quality and quantity of milk from individual cows. He might even have to haggle with processors over the quality of the milk. With milking robots, there is no defined milking session times, cows go to the machines at their pleasure, day and night, rain or sunshine.

Because the robots milks each teat individually, the farmer is able to assess the quality and production level of each cow, teat by teat. The system stores all the data from each milking sessions making herd management and breeding plans easier. Potential health issues are also detected and addressed  as early as possible. Using information from the milking machines, a farmer is also able to ramp up productivity of his herd through maximising feed efficiency by using automated feed mixers such as the KEENAN Mixer Wagons.

Then there are farmers, such as van Dongen, whose farming practices are entrenched in sustainability. Farming with nature, in order to preserve the earth for future generations.  Their model is simple, through an organizations such as Skylark Foundation, farmers manage the sustainability of their farm with a sustainability plan and peer to peer review of their farming methods.

A quick look at the Foundation’s website shows that farmers, processors and other players in the value chain all value the significance of knowledge sharing and collaborations. There are 10 sustainability indicators and they  include soil fertility, soil loss, product value, nutrients, crop protection, water, energy, biodiversity, local economy and human capital.

According to the website, every participant defines their own targets for each indicator in a sustainability plan. Exchanges with colleagues and professional support mean that every year, the farmers can use the shared data to elaborate new measures to improve their farm management resulting in over 320 annual regional group meetings as well as school classes on the farm to share crucial information, knowledge and experiences.

I couldn’t help but envy how these guys work together, mind you van Dongen was complaining that they still needed more farmers to come onboard. With knowledge partners such as Rabobank and value chain partners such as Heineken, this is the kind of collaboration that we need back home. Just a fraction of this type of teamwork could revolutionize the local agricultural sector to unprecedented heights.

As much as I fell in love with the tiny Dutch nation with its beautiful meadows and water canals, as well as their highly advanced way of farming, I have to say, I don’t see myself living in Netherlands. It is really expensive to be a farmer out there. I always thought land, especially agricultural land, was expensive in Botswana. I have changed my mind. With prices ranging from €10,000 to €57,900 per hectare, you must be a billionaire to acquire land in the Netherlands, or, at least you should be in good standing with financial institutions to even dream of owning a piece of farm land. At the time when I was there, €1 was equivalent to BWP12,69. You do the Maths.

Then there are all sorts of regulations and restrictions, levies and penalties. One such regulation is the phosphate rights. This is one aspect I’m still struggling to wrap my head around. Imagine paying someone top Dollar to take manure from your farm. Organic manure for that matter. While we are struggling with the cost of manure in my country, Dutch farmers are paying millions of Euros to get rid of manure from their farms.

There is one poultry farmer who is paying a power station that uses chicken manure to produce electricity to collect manure from his farm. Now, Imagine you pay these guys to take manure from your farm, they use it to produce electricity, which you then buy from them, how crazy is that?

Through my travels and meetings with farmers around the country, I saw a lot, and learned a lot about the use of technology in the Dutch agricultural sector, sustainable food production and the challenges and opportunities that exist. From the state of the art Alltech Copens, which produces fish feed, to the Poultry Expertise Centre in the poultry city of Barneveld. When it comes to sustainable land use and innovation in agriculture, we can all learn a lot from the “Flying Dutchmen.”


NB: This article appears in the September print edition of Farmers Review

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