Life of a pig farmer: Brabant blues

It's raining in northeast Brabant. It's been pouring for days, there are puddles on the fields, they reflect the lead-gray skies. The ground is loose, boggy and rough with corn stubble. Coming from the north we passed an almost invisible border. If you take a winter drive from Ravenstein, Grave or another village below the Meuse river, and go southwards, you can see it. The fields along the river are plowed in straight patterns, while a few miles south they are untended. That's where the sandy grounds start, a more loose type of soil where farmers start plowing only in spring. Clay grounds are plowed in the fall, so that the heavy dark ridges can freeze open and the land is easier to tend in spring. This habit dates from the time when farmers worked according to the reassuring rhythm they learned from their fathers. Brabant is the province in Holland most heavily filled with pig sties. Author The density of farms increases on the sandy grounds, and behind. Almost at every farmer's house there is a long, low shed. These sheds contain pigs. Cow farmers control the river clay, pig farmers occupy the hinterland. At one of these farms, a yellow brick house with four sheds and three silos, a truck is unloading a shipment of animal fodder: UTD mix-fodder, feeds profit. This optimistic slogan comes from a time when the word minerals registration was not in the dictionary, and not every pound of fodder had to be registered, the time when cows and pigs were estimated according to their quantity of dairy and meat, and when nobody cared how much manure the animals produced.
That was before, ten years ago. The Ministry of Agriculture is now calculating the amount of nitrogen from animal manure the land is still able to absorb. This will probably come to approximately 170 kilos per hectare farmland, which is the quantity produced by twenty meat pigs in one year. These pigs never see that land; they only leave their sheds when they are put on transport to the slaughterhouse, 110 kilos old. Not much later they are sausages or ready to cook on display at the butcher's, 6 Euro for one kilo of pork chops, and 1.80 Euro for four ounces of ham. Not even half of that money goes to us, the farmers say, it isn't enough to pay the bills and still make a living. Nobody knows better than the pastor why Brabant has so many pig farmers: "Only one son could take over the farm, usually a cow farm or a mixed farm. The other sons went to trade schools. Technological developments made it possible to be a farmer without having to own a lot of land. You can keep two thousand pigs on 1 hectare, but not cows. These technically schooled farmers' sons, built themselves pig sties". Xavier van der Spank was a church worker with ZLTO farmers, the southern branch of the Agricultural organization, the former north-Brabant Christian farmers union, until he retired last year. He now dedicates all his time to what he used to do on the side: being a pastor for the 250 souls in the parish of Bokhoven, a village along the Meuse river. Van der Spank lives in the parsonage next to a monumental little church where he preaches to his flock and where he winters his clivias. "You used to get big families, especially on the heathlands, which is bad soil for farmers. These families were like the clivias. I hardly give the plants water and fertilizer now, and especially then they start flowering. The more infertile the soil, and the greater the poverty, the more children are born". It was precisely this fertile manure, he says, that brought some relief to the peasant farmers of the arid soil. Paradoxically, this same factor is now destroying a lot of farmers. "Too much is not good either. In the early nineties I attended a meeting of pig farmers, and all that was discussed there was an increase in production, even at that time when there was a manure surplus. Trouble was bound to come of it". But farmers don't know when to stop, they think they can't do anything else, and stagnation means decline. "But it's a myth that they can't do anything but be pig farmers", says Van der Spank resolutely. "In this way of thinking I recognize the culture of the past. Your father was a farmer, so automatically you are one too. I have told many farmers: you have a technical education, you can manage people, so you can do other things". Another factor is that pig farmers are less focused on their animals, according to the pastor. "A cow farmer has a bond with his soil and with his animals. He has to manage the lands, and has to reckon with seasons and nature. A cow is a big investment, it gestates for nine months, it is with you for years. A meat pig is taken to the slaughterhouse before it is even one year old".
One pig may not cost an arm and a leg, but a pigsty complying with environmental and animal welfare standards surely does. And invest they did. Jan van Sleeuwen (60) from Boekel couldn't help it that all four of his sons wanted to become farmers just like him and his father before him and even his father in law. Jan is starting to take things easier. "Taxationally, that is, I still help with the work but I prefer to leave the manure registration to the boys". His fingers wouldn't fit a computer keyboard, thick and callused as they are. He's been living on the edge of the village or the edge of the open fields - depending on which way you look at it - for two years now. The kitchen window offers a view of the land, and in the waning light of the afternoon the yellow wandering headlights of a giant tractor meandering over the fields can be seen. They had sent their eldest to a trade school, says Jan, but with his plumber's diploma he still wanted to go into farming. Pastures for cows was unavailable, the milk quota had been put into operation, so he started with pigs. The four sons and their father together now own four pig farms and one cow farm. They were good years, the early nineties, Jan has no qualms about that. We always invested, he says. We bought soil for the milk quotum, seven years ago we converted a poultry farm to a pig farm, and in 1996 we bought an old pigfarm for the boys to renovate. "We were modernizing, you can say". Then there was an outbreak of swine fever. It started in northeast Brabant, near Boekel. "On a Friday in February", Jan says. "Fourth of February 1997", interjects Mien. The conversation falters. "Only five kilometers from here. One or two days later the mayor told us, he was the president of the ncb-department of Boekel. We erected a crisis team. We had to decide which farms were to be cleared and find a place where the pigs could be put down. Those were terrible times. There were some farmers who just couldn't bear to watch. It's something you don't wish on anyone". One day my son Jos came home. "Mine are ill", he said, "and inoculating won't help anymore". Two days later it was all over. That night father and sons gathered around the kitchen table with the vet. You'd better report the other pigs tomorrow, the vet told them, you cannot stop this. "6400 pigs", says Mien, "a little more even". A farmer's emotions for his animals may not be as deep as those of a city dweller, but don't tell Van Sleeuwen that their animal's welfare is no concern of the farmers. While Mien has left the room for a minute, he says, hands side by side on the table: "I told everyone I spoke to at the time, they're only pigs, things can always be worse. But still, this swine fever. Oh boy, those empty pens. Never again, darned. It makes me want to curse out loud. But what good will it do me". Most pens in northeast Brabant remained empty for a year, as long as swine fever was still around. No income for a whole year. What did still go on were payments for new pens, more modern and more animal-friendly, that farmers had built in the years before. At the Van Sleeuwen residence they celebrated the first piglets of their new pigs in June 1997. But the prices farmers got for their pigs had decreased heavily in the meantime. "We can't take anymore. We were used to a good income", says Jan. "Now you have to make ends meet". Give up? "Never crossed my mind. It's entrepreneurship, you know. Entrepreneurship gives you the courage to go on". The living room wall is decorated with framed pictures of their grandchildren, all ten of them. "I don't think they can ever be independent farmers. But maybe as a family. Let's hope so".
What is poverty in a farmer's family? "They don't talk about poverty easily", says the pastor. "Not even when they have no money for groceries or to buy things for their children. They withdraw on their farms. The ZLTO has a social fund for real emergencies, for when a washing machine breaks down or some such. These last few years it was mainly pig farmers who made use of this fund". Poverty, says ex-farmer Theo Bongers, is invisible with farmers. "Everybody has a vegetable garden, they grow their own vegetables. Farmers don't feel the need to visit theaters or go out to dinner, or visit movie theaters every week. They don't have much need for luxury". For a farmer, says Jan van Sleeuwen, poverty is having to sell the farm and live in the village, in a council house. "The civilian society cannot really understand why a farmer can't live in a council house. You have to look at it from the other side in order to understand. Explain to me why someone living in an apartment has to go on holiday three times a year. Not that we never went on holidays, we've been to Spain and Austria, but not since swine fever broke out. You just don't feel like it anymore, that's all".
It is not the stables that are the heart of a farm, but the kitchen table. That's where company gathers, where important talks take place, and decisions are made over a mug of coffee or tea, depending on the hour. The kitchen table at Jos and Margret de Kleijne's in Landhorst is round and made of pine. At 11:30 Margret puts on the brussels sprouts and leaves to get their five children out of school. Lunch is served hot. The family owns 65 dairy cows, 60 calves and 29 hectares of land. Jos easily uses terms such as extensivation area, a-zones and ceiling-bound areas. Like any other farmer, he knows exactly how many minerals go into each cow and into the soil (fodder, fertilizer), what comes out (milk, manure), the difference between them and where it goes. Modern farmers are lost without their computers. Jos (37) is fifteen to twenty hectares short to comply with Minister Brinkhorst's new manure plans, but he doesn't complain. "Farmers are always a bit conservative. From a social viewpoint it would be better if we change, and for ourselves too, for that matter. We are fairly late with that in the agricultural sector. Every project that now exists for farmers should have been around ten years ago". An ad in the Dutch trade journal The Farm, titled "Cows and Opportunities" set him on the trail of a rural project for working as environmentally friendly and economical as possible. "You have to think along", says Margret, now busy at the kitchen counter, "you can't sit still". "We aim to get our minerals registration ready early. Earlier than legally required, so before 2003". But then the Minister of Agriculture Brinkhorst put down another measure, and now Jos is short some paper hectares. Still, he will survive the reconstruction, as his farm is located in an extensivation area where cow farming is allowed, but the chickenfarms and pigfarms in the neighbourhood will have to relocate or close down. "Nobody can tell what the government will pay them. In agriculture we often think we know what it's all about, but increasingly we are finding out that we don't". In his book How God disappeared from Jorwerd, journalist Geert Mak wrote: "Farmers, even the most modernized, knew better than city folk that they didn't know everything. They eagerly used every computer technology God gave them, but they knew that the progress of knowing would never diminish the magnitude of the unknown". For modern farmers such as De Kleijne the source of this unknown now lies more in The Hague than in the whims of nature.
He went to work, they say in Brabant, he's sold his animals. He stopped farming and went to work. You are a farmer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, working is something you do for a boss from 9 to 5. You cannot become a farmer, you are born a farmer, like your father and your grandfather. Farmers never used to go bankrupt, now they are falling like flies. It's another one of those winter days when the light doesn't seem to want to break through over the fields south of the Meuse river. A scruffy falcon is sitting in the rain on a post by the wayside, head between its feathers, soaking wet. The fields, pastures, farms and businesses lie side by side in a monotonous row, there's nothing to focus the attention, until you see a sign around the bend: It's a purple sign, "how many more pigfarmers will have to die". An unofficial action, unsupported by the ZLTO. "Let them blow off steam, it has to come out", the pastor had said earlier with therapeutic insight. You can see that in summer it must be beautiful here in the rural surroundings of Wilbertoord, where the house of Theo and Nel Bongers is, when crops cover the fields and the trees are full of leaf. Cycling country for city folk; recreation is an important part of the reconstruction plans. How it will smell then is another question. Behind almost every farm there is - still - a pig sty. The sty behind the Bongers's house is empty, Theo (40) went to work a year ago. The 170 breeding sows supplied a "good living" after Theo had taken over the company from his father in 1990. In the eighties father and son built new pens, something that was enthusiastically encouraged by the government through the Act on Investments. It wasn't so much swine fever that did in the business, although 1997 was an insecure and miserable year. Theo worked in a factory for a few months - "I didn't come home happy, it's a different mentality altogether" and later rented pens elsewhere. After the swine fever outbreak his troubles started. He lost a number of his steady buyers, and on top of that the government started talking about a forced decrease of the pig stocks. According to the new rules his 12 hectares weren't enough to deposit the manure. Meat prices remained low, and "there were new laws and rules every time". "The government does nothing but make promises, it's a cold reorganization". One day Bongers had a good talk with his father, a difficult talk, and after that another one with the accountant. His father understood. "Thank goodness, otherwise I would have thought twice. This is something you don't just go ahead with". He feels let down by the government. "In this country they want to be in the lead with environmental plans and the development of tourism too much. That is in itself a good thing, as long as you don't do it at the expense of the sector that made Holland great". Theo found a job for a company operating in Plants and Public Gardens, so he could work outside in the open air. Emotionally it is sometimes hard on him, he says, when he sees his hollow, empty pens, but reason tells him that he made the right choice. And not only reason. "We have a lot of friends who cannot close down because of financial burdens. They have to make payments. Selling is no use, because the business isn't worth a penny anymore. They are stuck. They sometimes tell me: "you were lucky that you could get out on time".
The countryside dismissed No longer do trees grow high in the countryside that's what has changed most in the past ten years. Until the mid-eighties production increases in agriculture were synonymous with progress, and with scaling and mechanization it seemed that the sky was the limit. Measures to stop excesses - manure production was soaring - failed to be taken. The mighty bulwark of farmers and the agro-industry had its feet planted firmly on the ground in the Hague, where the CDA (Christian democrats) governed. In the nineties the agrarian sector and the government had to pay for this unchecked growth. Pressure from consumers, who wanted more than just low prices, and the ever-increasing cost of manure removal, turned out to be stronger than the agrarian powers. Animal welfare, environmental management and nature preservation became more important. Especially the pigs received a lot of sympathetic interest from the public. Just as in unsteady parts of business life, substantial clean-up operations are now necessary in agriculture. In the new and controversial manure policy the number of animals is linked to a certain surface area, something that is a problem mainly for pigfarmers: they often have little or no land at all. Pigfarmers will also be facing the mandatory decrease of their livestock. In September it was announced that Dutch farmers have to comply with the EU Nitrate Directive as early as 2003, instead of in 2008. All these measures together will finish a lot of farmers. Their numbers will have halved in ten years. The Hague is firmly at odds with the farmers on the subjects of manure and environment. The agricultural organization (LTO) walked out on Minister Brinkhorst at the end of November. The Dutch Rabobank once the letters "bo" stood for "boerenleenbank" (agricultural loan bank) fears that most pigfarmers have no option but to shut down. Too many debts, too little perspective. Parts of the country will be closed off to agriculture, so that nature isn't compromised any further. The provinces of Gelderland, Limburg, Overijssel, Utrecht and Brabant are making new plans for rural areas. Agricultural space must be used more efficiently, zones will be appointed for durable agriculture, there will have to be more natural areas and recreation facilities have to be improved. The coalition agreement has reserved 1.2 billion guilders for this "reconstruction". The Reconstruction law is waiting to pass the Senate, after which a start can be made with a renovation of the countryside that will take ate least ten to twelve years. Brabant has the most intensive cattlefarms of Holland. It houses a quarter of all chickens, 15 percent of all cows and 40 percent of all pigs. Within four years two thousand of the six thousand cattle farms will have "involuntarily" closed, thinks the provincial government. The number of cows and pigs has to be reduced roughly by half. At the provincial authorities in Brabant they are working on a plan to reconstruct the sandy grounds, in cooperation with the Brabant Environmental Federation (BMF) and the Southern Agricultural Organization (ZLTO). In November the European Union promised 119 million guilders to the weak region of northeast Brabant to aid with the reconstruction. A typical pig area, the region was hard hit by the outbreak of swine fever in 1997 and most pigfarmers had no income for almost a year. "We want to make it clear to the farmers that being a farmer is a choice", says Bart van Leerdam, of the ZLTO department northeast Brabant, carelessly indicating a breach in culture with this remark. "The money that was set aside by the EU for this region is mainly destined for this switch. We will support farmers who want out of the business, but we will also assist those who want to stay in".
Those environment guys Farmers and environment protectors have lived like cats and dogs for a long time, not lastly because the farmers felt that of old they were the daily managers of nature. "We farmers didn't believe in the eighties that those environment guys would win", says Jan van Sleeuwen, pigfarmer in Boekel. "They may be better with words, but they are going way too fast. Now relations are getting better, farmers are beginning to see that consumers and society have different demands, but you cannot change everything at once, which is what the environmental organizations want". "To reach a durable balance between agriculture and nature", says Frans Dotinga of the Brabant Environmental Defense (BMF) somberly, "half the pigs have to go. At least. Maybe three quarters even". Before the new manure laws pigfarmers were spoiled because they could unload their manure with farmers without many problems, he says. "They have had time to take measures, the farmers. It's been known for a long time that there is way too much manure". The ZLTO and the BMF see part of the solution in biological agriculture, but the great quantity of outside capital in the pig sector the Rabobank's capital makes the switch to free-range pigs too expensive for a lot of farmers. Nature development isn't going at a fast pace either, says Dotinga. "Many municipalities just don't think about it, and of course there are a lot of farmers in municipal governments. We have to drag each portion of nature away from the gates of hell".

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