Selling his farm in the Netherlands and moving to Germany to start over was not an easy decision, said Henk van Hegen — “but I no longer saw a future in the Netherlands for my son.”
Van Hegen and his family are part of a growing group of Dutch farmers packing their bags and leaving — many of them moving to Germany, Denmark or Canada. They’re blaming their country’s increasingly tough rules on agricultural pollution and emissions for their decision.
“We’re not only exporting agricultural products but we’re also exporting farmers,” said Klaas Johan Osinga, a senior adviser on international policy for Dutch farmers’ association LTO.
Land prices in the Netherlands are among the highest in Europe. That makes it attractive for farmers to sell and “go to Canada or Denmark and buy a much bigger farm,” he said.
But there’s fear that the migrating Dutch farmers will bring their hyper-efficient techniques to their new countries — creating the same pollution problems that forced them to leave their homeland.
Farmers in the Netherlands — dealing with the constraints of living in a small, densely populated country — have been emigrating for a long time. But that flight has intensified over the last five years as farmers feel they are bearing the brunt of new regulatory measures to curb biodiversity loss and climate change.
The Dutch Statistical Office CBS calculated that only 100 farmers emigrated between 2010 and 2015. Agriculture broker Interfarms — which helps farmers buy and sell land — estimated that since 2015, when new rules to curb phosphate emissions went into effect, that increased to about 75 farmers per year. New rules cutting nitrogen emissions are expected to boost the number of farming migrants even higher.
“I have lost all trust in the [Dutch] government,” said van Hegen, who now runs a farm between Bremen and Hamburg with his wife and 23-year-old son.
In 2015, van Hegen built a barn in the Netherlands to house an extra 140 cows. But three years later the Dutch government introduced so-called phosphate rights for dairy farms in response to the dramatic increase in the number of dairy cattle following the abolition of a milk production quota in 2015. Phosphate and nitrogen, which contaminate the soil and groundwater, are released from manure.
Van Hegen estimated that buying rights for the extra cattle would have cost around €400,000. “The government said that it was our own problem and that we should have known that there was a cap on growth coming … but that wasn’t true,” he said.
Phosphate and nitrogen crises
The problems with Dutch farms stem from their efficiency and intensity. Despite being tiny, the Netherlands is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of dairy and the second-largest global exporter of food by value after the United States. Wageningen University estimated that Dutch agricultural exports last year totaled a record €95.6 billion.
But there’s a price for that: the nation’s 3.8 million cows produce so much manure that there isn’t enough space to get rid of it safely. Agriculture is also the largest source of excess nitrogen in the EU’s protected Natura 2000 areas.
A series of court rulings are forcing the government to crack down. A 2019 verdict froze new permits for activities that emit nitrogen, hitting transport, farming and infrastructure. For agriculture, strict measures were suggested, including halving the number of permitted livestock and a voluntary buy-out scheme for polluting farms. Thousands of furious farmers laid siege to The Hague in protest.
“Regulatory constraints and bureaucracy, as well as high land prices: these are important reasons why some farmers are choosing to emigrate,” said Osinga.
Agricultural broker Ineke Borgman, who helps Dutch farmers find new land in Germany, said farming in the Netherlands is defined by “too many people and activities in a small space.”
“It’s cheaper to lease land [in Germany] and you don’t have to buy phosphate rights,” she said, adding that moving abroad is also a good option for younger children of farm families whose older siblings stand to inherit farms in the Netherlands.
But not everyone is happy with the arrival of the Dutch farmers. In neighboring Belgium, they are accused of worsening the nitrogen problem.
“The amount of nitrogen in Belgium is at the same level as in the Netherlands; 22 to 23 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year,” said Stan Geysen of environmental association Natuurpunt. This places Belgium and the Netherlands among the top nitrogen polluters in the EU. “Protected nature areas in both countries are overburdened … but in Belgium, they just continue handing out permits.”
Dozens of farmers in North Brabant, a Dutch border region where pig and chicken farms are concentrated, are moving to Belgium, according to local media, profiting from Belgium’s looser rules limiting the size of factory farms.
“The Belgium regulatory system is at the moment like a cheese with a lot of holes, ” said Geysen, but he added that the government is in the process of drafting new rules to curb nitrogen pollution from farming.
“In the end all these measures are just a Band-Aid; instead we need to focus on reducing the size of our agriculture,” he added.
But keeping farms small makes it difficult for them to survive, said Osinga from the farmers’ association LTO. “Farmers are dealing with market pressures, price pressures, and the only way they can escape this is by economies of scale or more efficiency,” he said.
Other countries are also tightening their rules — making it likely that the Dutch migrant farmers will soon face the same regulatory squeeze they felt at home.
Ammonia emissions from farming have steadily increased since 2014. Austria, Croatia, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain all reported higher-than-permitted emissions levels in 2017, according to the European Environment Agency.
Germany has seen its own growing farmers’ movement stage large protests in recent months, also in part over environmental regulations.
“It’s a matter of time until there will be a similar court case in Germany,” Volkhard Wille, chairman of the conservation group NABU in the Lower Rhine region, said, referring to the Dutch nitrogen case. “If you look at nitrogen emissions in northwestern Europe, you will see that the values in the Ruhr area and the Lower Rhine do not differ significantly from those in the Netherlands.”
Eddy Wax contributed reporting.
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