By John DePutter – November 20, 2017
“A tiny country…an agricultural giant.”
That’s how National Geographic described the Netherlands in a September 2017 article highlighting the nation’s agriculture and food prowess.
Holland’s agricultural strength — including world-leading science, engineering and innovation — is nothing new.
It was evident way back in the 1400s through 1800s when engineering feats hundreds of years ahead of their time were accomplished. Thousands of polders — low-lying tracts of land protected by dikes — were created, with massive windmills built to pump out the water. The end result was thousands of acres of new farmland below sea level, gradually changing the map of the Netherlands as the centuries progressed through the 1900s.
The hallmarks of that innovation live on. Today, the country is one of the world’s top agricultural producers.
Incredibly, the Netherlands actually ranks second in the world in terms of total value of agricultural output, trailing only the United States, which has 270 times its land mass.
Big player despite small size
Canada is no slouch on the world agriculture export stage — no question there. We achieved the world’s fifth-highest export values in 2016, according to a recent Ag Canada report.
But what might surprise you is that the Netherlands ranked above Canada in total export value. That’s amazing considering the size of the Netherlands is a mere 41,543 square kilometres. The entire country would easily fit into a small pocket of southwestern Ontario, it’s impressive.
According to a 2011 report by the CIA Factbook, the US has 1,652,000 million square km of arable land, Canada has 469,000 and the Netherlands 12,367. What’s more impressive, Netherlands makes room for about 17 million people squeezed into the relatively small land base.
Dutch agriculture is intensive and export focused. A large, modern food processing sector accounts for a significant portion of the US$78 billion-plus export value.
Feed the world? No problem!
Lots of people seem to have doubts about the ability of the world’s farmers to feed a growing global population.
But if they spent some time reading about the Dutch ag and food industry, some of those concerns might be alleviated.
Better yet, visit the country.
That’s what I did in late September/early October 2017.
While visiting relatives, I made a point to spend some time on farms and learn about the local agriculture.
I hadn’t been to Holland since 1979 and the farming then was far different than today. Here are some of my observations.
No urban sprawl
The first thing I noticed on the way out of the city of Amsterdam: a sharp division from city to countryside.
Here in Canada it can take miles to get out of cities. Gradually you work your way into the suburbs and then miles of industrial and commercial sections, gradually merging into farmland.
Not in Holland. The city boundary has a specific line. Outside the city is countryside. Farmland. No development. No urban sprawl. No commercial sprawl.
My host drew my attention to this, and I sense that it reflects the government’s visions and policies to allocate and preserve productive land for agriculture, not urbanization.
How do the Dutch punch so far above their weight?
The Netherlands creates a great deal of its agricultural wealth under glass. In other words, in greenhouses.
There are certain parts of the country with literally miles of greenhouses; hundreds of acres where temperatures, water volumes and nutrients are carefully and scientifically applied in the most efficient manner.
I didn’t tour any but saw some from the road. The recent National Geographic article* addresses Westland, the greenhouse capital, where “climate-controlled farms grow crops around the clock and in every kind of weather.”
*Go to: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/09/holland-agriculture-sustainable-farming/ to read that article.
Although I didn’t get to a potato farm either, the article also talks about a potato producer who uses “driverless tractors roaming the fields and a quadcopter in the air, that provide detailed readings on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients…” to produce reliable average yields of more than 20 tons per acre, more than double the global average of about nine.
Despite the country’s small size, it’s the world’s top exporter of potatoes. Onions too. It is the second largest exporter of vegetables in terms of overall value, according to the National Geographic article.
Crop and dairy farming
It’s not all about greenhouses and specialty vegetables.
Other forms of agriculture, which we in Canada might call “conventional grain crop and livestock farming,” are also alive and well.
I visited a dairy farm and here’s what I saw: A typical farm in many ways, not unlike Canadian dairy operations. Situated north of Amsterdam, near the city of Hoorn, the land base for this farm was 200 hectares (just short of 500 acres). The pasture was dotted with dairy cows.
Some interesting notes:
- – Dairying is big business. Based on data from 2015, there are about 18,000 dairy farms with 1.6 million cows in the country.
- – For grass and grain production in the country, it helps there’s lots of rain. In fact the average per year is about 76.5 cm. No wonder most of the land on this particular farm was tile drained every five metres.
- – Temperatures are moderate without the variations we see in Canada. In Netherlands in July, the average monthly temperature is around 19°C. There is a longer growing season than we have in much of Canada.
- – The farm I visited has 176 cows and 113 young animals under two years old. Upon arrival, the cows were grazing on a mixture of grasses including Timothy. The cattle are allowed outside from March through October; then are kept inside.
- – For dry hay, the yield is 5 to 6 cuttings each year — again, a result of ample rainfall and a long growing season.
- – The land grows hay for five years and then is rotated into tulips for a year. The dairy farm operators don’t grow tulips themselves; they rent the land to a local tulip grower. The landowners benefit from the rent paid and can sow improved grass species after the tulips. The tulip business is another huge industry in Holland.
- – Silage yields on this farm were 60 tonnes per hectare this year; last year 65 tonnes. The silage was piled in a large bunker-style area, which was being compressed by a heavy machine when we visited.
- – In addition to grazing and silage, the cattle are fed potato by-products which are readily available from a nearby processing company.
- – This farm has a rotary parlour milking system – a carousel – and can milk 100 to 110 cows per hour. We entered the centre of it via a tunnel.
- – When I visited, cows were milked twice a day and were averaging 30.2 litres of milk per cow per day with 4.24% butterfat and 3.6% protein.
- – About 55% of the milk produced in the country goes for cheese making. That’s one way the country adds value to crop and livestock industries.
- – Premiums for milk, cheese and butter are received for grass fed animals. The milk sold by this farmer was fetching 40 to 41 euros per 100kg (roughly C$60).
We all know farmland is expensive in Europe compared with Canada.
Farmland in this area trades at 75,000 to 85,000 euros per hectare. That’s more than C$50,000 per acre.
There are a few areas of highly valued pockets in the country where land will fetch 100,000 euros per hectare.
I also had the opportunity to visit a small farm in the province of Zeeland, near Terneuzen, where my father was raised before he immigrated to Canada as a teenager after WWI.
In this area, sugar beets are a big crop. It was harvest time. Piles of beets were seen on the ground. They were about to be trucked to processing plants.
Brown beans are grown on this farm and are common in the area. The Brown bean grown here is not our Navy bean. It is yellowish-brown colour and shaped somewhat like a kidney bean.
Yields are impressive — a common yield would be 3,500 kilo per hectare, but this year some yields reached 4,250 per hectare (3792 lbs per acre).
Given the wet climate, high moisture content of 30% is sometimes the case when the beans are harvested.
The beans on this farm were heading for a company plant called Termont Thomas, where they’ll pass through X-Ray machines to remove stones and other impurities before moving on to be packaged.
I found it interesting that this area grows a fair bit of wheat, as does the country, but it’s mainly for feed — not milling for food use. Although yields are high, protein content is low at around 11.5%. A basic yield of 9 tonnes per hectare, about 134 bu/acre, is common for wheat.
This farm also had a few very nice looking cattle. The breed is Groninger Blaarkop. You can understand why they have the nickname “Polderpanda.”
This is just a quick blog, not a full travelogue. Certainly not a full story about Netherlands agriculture, by any means. Many readers with a Dutch history will have more knowledge and more to say.
That said, my take-away is this:
The world has immense production capacity — especially if farmers and agriculturalists are willing to learn from the Dutch.