The History of Agriculture

in The Netherlands




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The Netherlands is a small country. It’s so small, you could fit it into the U.S. two hundred and seventy times.

But it’s big when it comes to making food. Remarkably it has the second largest agricultural exports in the world, mainly through being able to produce vast amounts of food on tiny plots.

The Netherlands isn’t exactly designed for mass farming. Because of limited space farmers have learned to eke out as much as possible from the land.

With a third of the country under sea level, the Dutch mastered how to make land using levees and built windmills to drain marshland to create fertile soil. This area just outside of Amsterdam, Flevopolder, is the largest artificial island in the world and didn’t exist half a century ago.

Nowadays over half the ground in the Netherlands is used for agriculture. It makes more food than it’s people can eat.

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But there was a time when the Dutch faced starvation. 1944 — and the Allies begin to liberate Europe. The Nazis occupy the Netherlands and begin a blockade of the North.

It created a food shortage so severe, the Dutch Government encouraged its people to forage for acorns and chestnuts. Tens of thousands perished from famine.

After the war, as the Dutch rebuilt, ensuring food security became a priority. The issue was important to the new Minister for Agriculture Sicco Mansholt — a former farmer and a resistance fighter in the war. He would begin to drive changes that would turn farming into big business.

Before the war, Dutch farms operated like those in most other countries. Small plots had a few livestock and produced a mixture of seasonal crops to service local populations.

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Mansholt wanted mass production, and built on a decades-long system of state support for farming. He pursued a policy of land consolidation. Larger, more productive farms were encouraged to absorb smaller, less profitable farms. It was all about using less labor to improve yields.

In 1963 the Government launched a fund to help older farmers sell up and to help young farmers start new businesses. State funding into research and technology such as fertilizers and machinery followed.

And thanks to aid from the US Marshall Plan, numbers of tractors rose quickly, helping farmers work more land.

Dairy production grew fast as cooling tanks and milking machines were invented. In 1960 the average Dutch dairy cow would produce 4,200 kg of milk per year; in 2007 this had nearly doubled to 7,880 kg.

Oversupply of milk wasn’t a problem — the Dairy Board created Joris Driepinter (a cartoon) and he encouraged kids to drink plenty of it.

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But technical innovation didn’t stop with machines. The dutch pioneered specialist greenhouses, creating conditions that would result in many more plantings than ever before.

Documentary: “These greenhouses are in the southwestern section of the Netherlands and they enable farmers to grow crops the year round.

With temperature and humidity carefully controlled, an elaborate water system keeps the crops properly moist.”

If you were to put all of the Dutch greenhouses together today, they’d cover an area the size of Manhattan.

Documentary: “Farming under glass, another example of dutch ingenuity!”

Then there was a huge discovery in 1959. The vast Groningen gas field would offer Greenhouse horticulture a huge boost. Farmers profited from the cheap energy, as their crops benefited from the heat and the added CO2.

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The Netherlands now has the world’s highest yields per hectare for cucumbers, chili peppers and tomatoes; all carefully picked for their profitability.

Reducing water use is part of making efficiencies too — today some farms use just four liters to grow a kilo of glasshouse tomatoes. The global average is 214 liters.

All this built on a rich culture of farming that already existed. The Dutch were master breeders of plants and livestock and were a nation of traders thanks to the ports at Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

The State built on this expertise to transform farming, including a focus on education and research, as part of a holistic approach to benefiting the entire industry.

It hasn’t all been good though: The Dutch have been criticized for getting ahead with over-intensive methods and using synthetic fertilizers to boost production.

They’re now working to change this. In 1999 the country used more fertilizer than any other European country, spreading on average 500 kilos per hectare. By 2014 though, the figure had more than halved.

By working together farmers, scientists, businesses and the state turned the Netherlands into a world leader in modern farming. Its knowledge and state of the art technology will be vital in tackling the future of a rising global population, with billions more mouths to feed.

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Tractor, Plow. Since The Netherlands is a small country, it must import most of its foodstuff. True or false?

Seeds, Sowing, Planting. Does The Netherlands have “normal” geographical features?

Field, Crops. Has The Netherlands always had very productive farms and bountiful harvests?

Fruit Orchard. Was there a turning point in Dutch agriculture? What major changed occurred in The Netherlands following the Second World War?

Weed, Weeding. Did traditional farming continue or has agriculture become based on science? What were some technological advances in farming?

Watering, Irrigation.
Dutch farms can only supply produce during the summer and autumn. Is this right or wrong?

Fertilizer, Pesticide, Insecticide, Pest Control.
Do farms in The Netherlands produce the same crops (fruits and vegetables) that they had in the past?

Harvest, Picking.
Everything is perfect in Dutch agriculture. Is this correct or incorrect? Have there been improvements in this regard?

Greenhouse. Does the future look bright for agriculture in The Netherlands?
Plant Breed, Variety. Agriculture is a very important activity in my region and country. Yes or no? What are some important crops?

Storage. Is there much trading in agricultural products? What produce does your country export and import?

Cereals, Grains, Fruits and Vegetables. Has farming changed (dramatically) over the decades?

Transport, Trucking, Shipping. Are there problems and challenges in agriculture? What problems or challenges does agriculture face?

Warehouse, Wholesaler, Refrigeration. My friends and I would like to be farmers. Agriculture is a very popular occupation.

Packaging. What might happen in the future?

Freshness. What could or should farmers, the government and ordinary people do?

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