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 Nell Westerlaken; taken with permission from Dutch newspaper
"De Volkskrant" of 15th January 2000. 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
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
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
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
"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".