‘Iacta alea est’

Farming Simplicity

I’m on holiday right now. I’m sitting in a gypsy caravan on the grounds of De Eemlandhoeve, an organic farm in the Netherlands known for championing multifunctional agriculture. It has won awards and recognition for the innovative way in which it seeks to re-unite ‘boer en burger’ (farmer and citizen), city and countryside, and for ploughing a pioneering course against the grain.

I didn’t know any of this when I booked. Holiday plans are limited in the current climate and I was just after another overnight waypoint as part of a larger cycling journey. My wife enjoys nature and the promise of being able to help out on the farm during our stay was enough to seal the deal.

When we got here it was clear that this was different. We got speaking to the farmer, Jan Huijgen, while enjoying our breakfast in the open air. He was so taken by my interest in everything about his project that he gifted me a copy of the book Cityside Oasis which is an account of his journey from ‘traditional’ agriculture to multifunctional agriculture written after having won the Manholts prize (for innovation in agriculture) in 2007.

It’s very much a David versus Goliath story. Multifunctional agriculture was then regarded as a nostalgic hankering for halcyon days. Agriculture was becoming industrial. You have to move with the times. Speaking with him and also reading some of the material opens your eyes to the forces at play in getting food to your plate. There has been a huge consolidation of land and production in processes that are so commercially driven that the quality of the produce is decreasing while the destruction to the environment is increasing. For farmers who are experiencing this massive migration it is a case of swimming with the tide or drowning. If you want to be commercially viable then you must learn to increase the yield of the land by any and all means necessary.

Being greeted with this future, Mr Huijgen, a thinking man (he studied philosophy in Amsterdam) from a long line of farmers, saw the writing on the wall. He was convinced there was a different future. One that respected the land, respected animals and respected people. So he started doing then, what many of us today regard as completely normal (thanks to people like him blazing a trail); he started a sustainable, multifunctional farm on his ‘traditional’ farming land. His vision has met with great success, and he’s not done yet.

It’s an inspiring story, and one I can’t do justice to here. The reason I’m writing about it is that it triggered two thoughts.

The first is that it is a great success story of doing things differently. Of charting a different course. Of having a conviction that things can and should be different, committing to it and seeing it through. It takes courage and hard work.

The second is that it mirrors very slightly the themes of simplicity and craftsmanship that have appeared on this blog. When the world makes food production industrial, and suffers for it, one can still survive by trusting nature to care for the soil in a way that artificial fertilizer and chemical pesticides can’t. That the ‘framework’ of industrial farming, with its one-size-fits-all approach can be bettered by the thoughtful, well-fitted ‘library’ when you are prepared to make to measure.

It’s a wonderful place. You can taste, smell and feel the difference.

Thursday 6th May 2021.