One of the most striking differences I observed in the farm landscape between the Netherlands and France is the curve. Curved roads, waterways and fence poles.
In the Netherlands ditches are straight (due to my father’s work 😉at the Heidemij in the 60ies and Mantsholts’ agricultural politics a decade before, with the post war intentions 'no hunger and no poverty' in mind), roads are straight, asphalt is straight, the fencing poles are uniform, farm plots are spacious and square, without difficult corners or trees blocking machinery or sunlight. And of course it is all flat!
In Flanders -still flat- the roads are less straight and the road surface often terrible. The plots are a mixture of large and small. And gradually in the North of France (Picardie) the flat spacious landscape gives way, to bended roads, hedgerows and fences made from chestnut wood, cut roughly in two or more poles. Not half as efficient but twice as beautiful.
Efficiency decisions are calculations. The Dutch (farmers) seem to be guided by numbers; the French by ‘joie de vivre’. Compare a sandwich for lunch or a 3 course meal with wine. But while France is known to be an agricultural country, the tiny Netherlands produces more.
The farm administration of Arie Maris' grandgrand father (1848)
The landscape in the south of Picardie and Normandie is lovely. Hedgerows are not just a blessing for a biker in the wind, but clearly a place for birds, insects and other animals. But a lot of work to maintain! Arable and grassland with an occasional old tree are not as efficient as the Dutch ‘pool tables’, but a pleasure for the eye and a home for biodiversity. It’s completely obvious that there are more birds (I wish I could tell their names...) in these landscapes then in the ones that are straightened up.
Efficiency comes at a price, and we are usually not aware of it. Yes, the revenue is better, but is the work more rewarding? Can numbers really make one happy? What kind of story can you tell about efficiency versus the story told by the tractor tracks that curve a tree in the middle of the field? Just sense the difference between the farmer who welds a piece to his machine himself, because he was not happy with the size and was able to design and do it himself and the one that orders a machine from a catalogue with a bank loan. And how efficient is the landscape or the soil maintained with large machines, loads of fuel and fertilizer, free from ‘competing nature’ really? All farmers I spoke with, talk preciously about their soil. Their ideas have changed, they say. It’s no longer just a ‘container for roots’, that must be cleaned from diseases and fertilised now and then, but a living asset that needs to be fostered and ‘messy’ nature helps to create resilience. I saw increasingly 'green manure' and fewer uncovered soils, when I got further south.
'Efficiency' brought prosperity, but it is never enough and will ultimately only bring the price down. It satisfies the bank account for a while, but also kills pleasure, pride, and self-esteem, that are attractive elements of a farm lifestyle. And will the highly criticised subsidies help? I doubt it, when I hear the numbers from one of the farmers. That money merely raises the prices of a hectare of land and benefits the land owner (might be a farmer, but not always).
A better price for farm products or better practises, would be much better. Part of the joy that the organic farmers describe, is due to a reasonable price, they can take more ownership of the way they produce. Yes, usually with more labour, energy and a lower yield/ ha.
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