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Protecting the health of the soil resource

Dutch farmers receive outside assistance to maintain a sustainable crop rotation on a small land base

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Dutch potato farmer Gert-Jan van Dongen may not own the land he farms on but that isn’t stopping him from being concerned about its future.

Van Dongen runs a potato farm near Zeewolde, Netherlands, but doesn’t own the land, instead renting it from the Dutch government. Land rents in the Netherlands average 791 euros per hectare (C$490/acre) per year as of 2016, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency. This is the highest land rental price in the EU. However in Flevoland, where van Dongen farms, rents are even higher at 1,536 euros per hectare ($950/acre) per year.

Dutch potato farmer Gert Jan van Dongen in the doorway of his potato shed near Zeewolde, Netherlands.
photo: Ashley Robinson

Flevoland was originally a lake. But in the 1930s, the government drained it in order to create more farmland.

The land is extremely fertile. It is a clay soil base with peat underneath, due to a forest which covered the area before it became a lake.

“You have a virgin soil because there’s grown nothing before… we’ve got a very nice soil,” van Dongen said during a visit during the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists Annual Congress.

While van Dongen’s family has been farming for generations, he doesn’t expect his own children to take over the land. However, he does still believe the land needs to be protected for future generations.

Sustainable barley

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Arable land for farming in the Netherlands is extremely rare and valuable. As of 2016, land was selling at an average of 63,000 euros (approximately C$100,800) per hectare as of 2016, according to Eurostat. This is one of the highest prices for arable land in the EU. Cities are growing and gobbling up land, making it important that any farming land is kept fertile and profitable.

For van Dongen that meant focusing his operation on sustainable agriculture and cropping rotations, however, he realized he’d need some outside advice if he wanted to go about this the right way.

In 2002, Dutch-based brewery Heineken approached some farmers — they wanted to make a ‘green’ beer from sustainably grown barley. They explained that it wasn’t possible to only grow barley and have a sustainable farm — they needed to grow a variety of crops.

From there the idea for the Skylark Foundation was formed in 2006. Heineken would donate 25,000 euros (C$38,000) every year to the foundation and so would a couple of other big companies. Several other smaller companies would contribute anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 euros per year to it, for a total of about 150,000 euros (C$229,000) in funding. The foundation would then work with farmers to make their farms sustainable by providing consultation services and research work.

Gert-Jan van Dongen holds a sugar beet he just dug up from his farm near Zeewolde,
photo: Ashley Robinson

“That’s the reason we made the project and we work together with Heineken and they give money to us to do this. And every year they (contribute) a large amount of money because they believe that sustainable farming in the Netherlands is important for the future,” van Dongen said.

He and other farmers also pay an annual fee to be part of the organization and have access to its services. The European Union also provides some funding. Approximately 400 farmers are part of the organization, which represents five per cent of Dutch farmers.

“Most of the farmers went in because they believe the soil is being damaged… we ask too much of our soil,” van Dongen said.

He uses a four-crop rotation of potatoes or onions as his cash crops, winter wheat for a cover crop, flax which is used for linen and then sugar beets.

Part of the project involves long-term planning for the soil health of the farm. Farmers have to write out a 10-year plan and then must revisit and revise that plan each year.

While the organization has helped van Dongen to bring down costs by reducing his chemical inputs, it has not helped him to get more money for his crops. While he does get a bit of extra money for growing sugar beets sustainably, the rest of his crops are sold at the same prices as non-sustainably produced crops.

About the author


Ashley Robinson - MarketsFarm

Ashley Robinson writes for MarketsFarm specializing in grain and commodity market reporting.

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