Het Weigevoel in het Groene Hart van de Randstad : een studie onder melkveehouders in het Westelijk Veenweidegebied naar hun bereidheid en mogelijkheden zich te ontwikkelen van productieboer tot plattelandsondernemer

B. van der Ploeg

Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


Introduction: narrow versus wider farm development

There is a growing interest in the multifunctionality of rural space, in which both agricultural production and other functions are considered to be important. An OECD publication (1994) refers to these other functions as follows: 'Rural areas are home to a wide range of natural and man-made features - also called amenities - including wildlife and flora, ecosystems of special interest, recreational areas as well as cultivated landscapes, unique settlement patterns, historic sites, and social and cultural traditions that cannot be transferred or recreated elsewhere.' The title of the OECD publication, The contribution of amenities to rural development, is at the heart of the story told in this book. One of the points that will be brought forward is that it is not at all easy to bring about positive contributions to economic development via amenities. On the contrary, as Blöchliger says in the mentioned publication, besides our target option 4 (see box), there are three other possible interactions between amenities and rural development. Below is an overview of options for rural development in relation to destruction versus promotion of amenities.

development leads to the destruction of amenities,e.g. standardised farming practices develop at the expense of unique regional characteristics;non-development leads to the destruction of amenities,e.g. farming fades away, taking cultural landscapes along with it;preservation/promotion of amenities leads to non-development,e.g. severe constraints on farming such as prescribed high water tables in the study-area;preservation/promotion of amenities leads to development, e.g. the creation of a financial spillover from city dwellers who are 'consumers' of the countryside according to farmers who welcome the role of 'local environmental manager' (Fuller 1990).

back-lash from 3 to 2

This study

This book is about the feasibility of the win-win solution presented as option 4. This feasibility is analysed from three points of view:

farmers as emerging 'local environmental managers', representing the supply-side of wider farm development;

society present in governments, citizens and consumers interested in other kinds of products and services delivered by farmers, representing the demand-side of wider farm development;

interaction between farmers and society, especially markets as organisations that enable exchange to take place (between farmers and society).

The main sources of information for this book are:

A survey about wider farm development in 1996 among 105 cattle farmers in the peat-meadow area to the north of Amsterdam (Waterland). This survey was part of an international multidisciplinary research project to support EU Agri-Environmental Programs (regulation 2078/92). The sociological perspective on individual farmers (attitudes) and social organisations (support system for wider farm development) in Waterland was elaborated in Van der Ploeg (1999).

A follow-up survey in 1999 on 33 dairy farms in this sub-area Waterland at the northern fringe of the peat-meadow area of the western Netherlands;

A twin-survey of the foregoing, also in 1999, on 33 dairy farms among young farmers (up to 40 years) and their wives at the southern fringe of the peat-meadow area, between Rotterdam and Utrecht (Alblasserwaard/Vijfheerenlanden);

Desk research by two research institutes (Agricultural Economics Research Institute, Alterra for Research on Green Space), for four provincial governments in the Randstad area into future possibilities of land-based farming in an urban environment. This identified several factors in the development of conventional and wider farm development:

factors internal to the farming sector, including changing EU price and market policies;

factors external to the farming sector, especially the urban market for wider farm development; and

factors at the interface of rural and urban, especially the urban influence on prices for agricultural land (relatively high) and the limiting consequences of this for scale enlargement in conventional farming.

This desk research included an analysis of the (potential) effective demand for new

products and services delivered by farmers, given the existing market organisation.

An ongoing research (May 2001) by the same institutes for the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Fisheries about the consequences for farming as an economic activity and as a supporter of the so-called 'green heart' of the urbanised Randstad area. This study focuses on the central part of the peat-meadow area halfway between the study areas mentioned above.

The study areas Waterland (1,2) and Alblasserwaard (3) are front runners in the grass-roots movement for wider farm development. Both farmers' nature organisations (Waterland, Den Hâneker) are among the oldest and largest organisations of this type in the Netherlands.

It should be noted that farming in both study areas seems to be more compatible with wider farm development because of the relatively low cattle density compared with the central part of the peat-meadow district.

The reality of rural development in the Netherlands, in particular in the peat-meadow areas

In the Netherlands the first option (see box) was most clearly the case in the era of scale enlargement and specialisation in farming, when there was an emphasis on adapting sites to allow for application of uniform farming systems. This emphasis on site reconstruction was probably stronger in a manmade country like the Netherlands than in most other countries. Particularly in the period 1950-1980 most rural regions underwent changes during land consolidation and reallotment projects. Policies for water management provide an example. Agricultural production goals in most cases determined at what level water tables should be managed and, consequently, how the rural area should be reconstructed (system of waterways, dams, pumping stations or mills and drainage at field level).

After about 1980 other goals besides agricultural production became more important as factors in the design of land consolidation plans. New plans were often the outcome of clashes of interests in the rural area, although officials preferred the label 'integrated planning'. Plans were adapted to the wishes of farmers, tourists and stakeholders of nature and landscape values. For some regions the view even prevailed that farming systems should be subservient to nature and landscape goals. This applied to the so-called 'relation policy areas' (Ministry of Agriculture) and especially to some small marginal peat-meadow areas (wetlands or fens) that were brought under EU mountain farming regulations. In these areas physical handicaps for conventional farming were conserved or even brought about - e.g. high water tables in the peat-meadow areas - if this was considered necessary for nature and landscape qualities. On the other hand farmers were eligible for subsidies if they were willing to participate in a management agreement scheme (EU regulation 2078/92). This income subvention was to prevent the preservation of amenities from leading to the non-development of farms (option 3) and eventually to farming fading away and taking with it - as a backlash effect - the typical meadow landscape and natural species like meadow birds and botanical grassland (option 2).

Recently awareness is growing of nature and landscape values in rural areas outside the management zones ('white zones'). Besides the management agreements based on acceptance of constraints by farmers, now there are also schemes that reward actions by farmers that are beneficial to nature or landscape, especially in field margins but also all over the fields (e.g. protection of birds' nests). In these schemes, grass-roots farmers' nature organisations mediate between subsidising authorities and individual farmers who conclude contracts on 'nature production' (option 4).

'Development' in terms of internalising amenities in farm economics

Option 4 is a special case of internalising amenities in farm economics. It represents internalisation in which economic decisions refer to amenities as benefits (economic resources) to the farm business. Internalising amenities in farm economics takes a different direction if negative effects on amenities from farm development/functioning are regarded as a cost factor by the farmer.

Both kinds of internalisation presume changes in the context of economic decision making compared with a former situation in which so-called externalities existed, sometimes of two different kinds: (a) positive externalities such as cultural landscapes and (b) negative externalities such as the pollution of natural resources (van Kooten 1993). An example of a context change that allows for internalising a former positive externality is mentioned above in option 4 as the creation of a financial spillover from city dwellers who are 'consumers' of the countryside to farmers who accept the role of 'local environmental manager'. An example of a context change which solves former negative externalities in the Netherlands is the so-called system of mineral balances that imposes a fine on farmers who exceed norms with regard to the physical 'input minus output' rate (Mineral Surplus) on their farms. In our case-study, an even more relevant illustration is that governmental regulations for the management of surface water can be designed in favour of amenities. This is done by prescribing high water tables that are needed for sustainable organic (peat) soils and thus for the continuity of the typical peat-meadow landscape and nature. In zones with very high water tables (up to the grassroots) income compensations are given to farmers ('mountain' area regulation), but in zones with moderately high water tables (60 centimetres below surface), farmers are likely to have more financial problems due to yield reductions and relatively high production costs.

From a farmer's perspective one kind of internalisation is described in positive terms (benefits) whilst the second type is stated in negative terms (costs). From a non-farmer's perspective the two might be seen the other way round.

In the view of non-farmers, the first can be associated with expenditures, assuming their willingness to pay for amenities. The establishment of markets is crucial here, following Tomlinson (1996) who described them as institutions that enable exchange to take place, in this case between (a) farmers who commit themselves to the 'cultivation' of rurality and rendering services to visitors to the countryside and (b) urban people who derive satisfaction from their stay in a rural area or simply from the idea that farmers are taking care of rural amenities. Bryant and Johnston (1992) describe this type of 'consumption countryside' with its active role for farmers, in areas that are close to urban centres, as 'agriculture in the city's countryside'. This implies that farmers in wealthy urbanised societies can make a living out of the 'cultivation' of rurality (nature, landscape and a clean and relaxing environment) and its economic exploitation (e.g. agritourism). This type of agriculture in densely populated regions implies a delicate combination of: (1) articulation of differences between rural and urban space, (2) establishment of functional linkages between rural and urban systems (e.g. a public footpath passing farms), and (3) economic linkages to create the financial flow (spillover) from urban people to farmers.

As a consequence, farmers might have to abstain from adoption of what is labelled progress in mainstream farm development, especially if this would destroy amenities. A complication is that amenities are not always just there (in the countryside) but sometimes exist primarily as a 'social construction' (concerning rurality) in the eye of the beholder. Farmers may try to produce 'counter-social constructions' for instance by suggesting that the countryside is most attractive if it is alive and not an open-air museum. A striking illustration of contested social constructions is the introduction of automatic milking systems in dairy farming. This can be presented as a symbol of industrial farming systems clearly at odds with the idea of rurality, but in our study area it is presented by an organic farmer as a way to give back to cows the natural situation of being milked more than twice in 24 hours.

The second way to internalise amenities in farm economics for non-farmers has environmental benefits (including the prevention of environmental harm) without financial costs. If society wants farmers to behave in an environmentally friendly way, it can use a 'soft mechanism' (convincing them about standards of good farming practices) or a 'hard mechanism' (overruling by collective decision making, obligatory standards and, if necessary, charges on those 'negative externalities' which are not strictly forbidden). The 'soft mechanism' appeals to countryside stewardship, the 'hard mechanism' leaves little choice to farmers other than to evaluate farm decisions differently than before. For broad-minded farmers there is a middle course, called 'license to produce'. These farmers are searching for positive action (the creation or conservation of amenities) as a possible substitution for a future more painful 'hard mechanism' that would be imposed from outside. A major incentive might also be the desire to improve the image of agricultural products. Being broad-minded in conventional farming is not far away from wider farm development, in which 'environmental services' and quality products are perceived as means to realise additional value for the farm, especially when a farmer's orientation to the world market is (partly) replaced by an orientation to niche markets.

For non-farmers a 'free ride' to amenities might depend on their power or influence to reduce farmers' free property rights over land to conditional property rights. The reader should remember the example of the Dutch system of Mineral Balances and the conflicting interests between farmers and non-farmers regarding policies on water tables. It is highly relevant that non-farmers in recent years have gained much more influence in Dutch drainage boards (Dutch 'waterschap'), because these boards can also prescribe water tables in ditches between farm fields. Farmers in an urbanised society like the Netherlands are a small minority. Yet real possibilities for 'free rides' to rural amenities are limited for the urban majority as long as farmers cannot be replaced as 'environmental managers', as in the case of peat-meadow landscapes. Because farmers have to make a living in a market economy, there is always the danger of option 2 above, the fading away of farming, taking along with it the highly valued cultural landscape.

The city's green heart: a case of wider farm development

The peat-meadow district in the western Netherlands covers about 100,000 hectares of land and water. At some places there is a peat layer of 10 meters or even more. The land surface in this area has been sinking continuously since the time of reclamation around the year 1100. Locally the peat has already almost vanished, due to oxidation of the soil. For the conservation of peat soils it is essential to maintain high water tables in the broad ditches between the meadows. Drainage boards have legal power to prescribe such high water tables to farmers. Depending on the level at which the water tables are fixed, for conventional dairy farming peat-meadow areas represent seriously disadvantaged farm locations (wetland zones) or moderately favourable farm locations, zones in which water tables are at least 60 centimetres below grassroots.

The peat-meadow district is surrounded by several urban centres including Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht. The area is popularly called the cities' green heart ( Groene Hart van de Randstad ). The green heart was protected with some degree of success from urbanisation by physical planning and also by physical local conditions (high cost of building houses on soft peat soils). The green heart is a powerful symbol in Dutch politics because it is thought to prevent the Randstad cities from growing together. Besides this, the meadow landscapes, like other polder landscapes, are seen as a part of the Netherlands' national identity. The high level of bio-diversity of the peat meadows, especially on extensive grasslands, is an additional reason to protect this green heart. The district also has a function in international ecosystems, especially for migrant birds.

Farming in the district in recent history reflects some of the dominant trends in this sector during the era of industrialisation. Most important here are two trends towards uncoupling of farming:

from its natural environment (relatively) and

(b) from direct interaction with its nearby urban markets (rather drastically).

The relative uncoupling of farming from the natural environment can be illustrated most clearly by the case of fertiliser. Initially the peat-meadow district was known for its highly productive grasslands, due to the 'natural nitrogen' set free by the process of oxidation in peat soils. This comparative advantage became less important with the introduction of chemical fertilisers. On the other hand the disadvantages of the soft soil became more clearly visible when farming was mechanised, including the replacement of boat farming by tractor farming, and because of higher cattle densities induced by the use of chemical fertilisers.

The rather drastic uncoupling of farming from direct interaction with nearby urban markets can be illustrated with the disappearance (to a large extent) of some typical farming systems in the area. The most interesting farming system was found in the centre of the current Green Heart. There, until the 1960s many farms had an integrated system of cheese making based on the output from dairy farming and providing the input (skimmed milk) for pig production. These pigs were called 'butchers' pigs', as compared with 'bacon pigs' for the export market. The farming system of cheese production and dairy farming on the one hand and pig production on the other was prosperous and extremely laborious for farmers and their wives (in charge of the cheese making). It was also marked by high land use intensity (cattle density). However, there was a large diversity in land use within each farm. Fields at the back of the farm properties - deep in the polder - were often managed in an extensive way, which in turn allowed for a rich biodiversity.

Until about 1980 both uncoupling tendencies were stimulated by the prevailing forces in agribusiness and governmental policies. Since then there has been a counter-movement directed at recoupling farming with its natural environment. In some parts of the peat-meadow district, the so-called relation policy areas, extensive grassland farming was promoted by (a) restrictive policies on water table management and (b) financial support policies or management agreements. In recent years this was followed by a grass-roots movement (farmers' nature organisations) backed by government subsidies, aiming at higher qualities of nature in zones where circumstances allow rather intensive agriculture production practices.

In recent years there has also been a counter-movement aimed at recoupling farming with nearby urban centres. In government initiatives - e.g. the Valuable Landscape Project (WCL) in Waterland - and in farmer initiatives such as the city's garden ( binnentuin ) of the regional farmers union WLTO, a restoration of linkages between urban and rural systems was put on the agenda. There is a close connection between this 'social recoupling' and the 'ecological recoupling' mentioned above. Farming is to be made an ecologically and socially friendly business. Some of the proposed changes can be classified as ecological widening of farm development (e.g. nature conservation by farmers) whilst others can be characterised as the social widening of farm development (e.g. farm tourism). The orientation to special quality products with high value added is here considered deep farm development

Delimitation of wider farm development as a possible way out

The most striking change seems to be that the countryside is no longer regarded as the property of agriculture, to be adapted to the production needs of farmers, but is increasingly claimed as the property of a range of mainly urban groups (nature conservationists, tourists etc.), who believe that it is agriculture which has to adapt to the needs of amenities in the local countryside and not the other way around. Farmers, particularly in urbanised areas, are faced with a double-bind dilemma, involving conflicting external claims: (a) an urban society asking for rurality and (b) a world market urging cheap production. Internalising amenities as additional costs in farm economies can easily transform this double bind into a deadlock for farm development.

Against this background, the positive way to internalise amenities into farm economies is taken as a goal in this case-study. The combined 'cultivation' and economic exploitation of amenities is called wider farm development. Three main types are distinguished:

deep farm development, e.g. organic farming and regional quality products such as on-farm cheese making, where amenities are tied up in agricultural products provided that consumers want to pay for the additional labour, care and out-of-pocket-costs to the farmer compared to conventional products;

ecological widening, especially the management of nature, landscape and/or physical environment features such as 'clean water ditches', as an economic activity done alongside agricultural production;

social widening, particularly farmers rendering paid services to visitors to rural amenities, e.g. on-farm tourism and educational/recreational excursions to farm fields with nature management.


Farmers and farmers' wives show mostly a general attitude pro or con wider farm development.

Farmers who are enthusiastic about the most popular type of wider farm development (ecological widening) relatively often are positive about the unpopular type (social widening) or at least they are less negative about this option compared to other farmers.

This applies to farmers' wives as well, taking into account that they generally are more positive about social widening compared to their male partners.

This general attitude of farmers for or against wider farm development is found independent from a general attitude for or against conventional farm development (scale enlargement, intensification and specialisation in dairy farming). This does not apply to farmers' wives: positive feelings about wider farm development relatively often go together with negative feelings about conventional farm development.

Farmers who welcome ecological widening or deep farm development (especially organic farming) often say this enables them to derive more satisfaction from their occupation as a dairy farmer: it makes them a real farmer again. These farmers may be positive about social widening because as a dairy farmer the then have a license to produce.

The future growth of wider farm development will be limited primarily by a lack of effective demand for new products and services offered by farmers and less by limitations at the supply side of it, especially if many farmers and farmers' wives would refrain from involvement in wider farm development.

The empirical analysis of room for wider farm development at both (supply and demand) sides was done within the frame of current market institutions. Emergent institutions were taken into account only in a conceptual analysis.

4) A considerable economic growth of wider farm development of at least 100% seems feasible. However given the prospects of declining economic margins under 'Agenda 2000' this will not be sufficient to improve the rather poor incomes of farmer families in the peat-meadow area. Probably these incomes will go down considerably which might result in a development mentioned before as option 2: farming fades away, including cultural landscapes.


The outcome of this study indicates the existence of a social dilemma in the green heart of an urban area. City dwellers who prefer to have a free ride in the countryside will eventually find that green pastures and cultural landscapes, in this case of a low-lying peat area, will have been replaced by swamps. Farmers and non-farmers both would be losers without an acceleration into wider farm development.

An ongoing research about perspectives for 'a green heart - with farmers - on its way to a higher level' explores possibilities for an acceleration in wider farm development in which parties (agriculture, city) will offer much more to each other.

The generous offer from the agricultural side could have two main components. The first component has a negative connotation for production-oriented farmers: the acceptance of higher water tables and consequently of higher losses in the use of grass yield in grazing and the preparation of silage. It would make this agricultural land even more marginal. On the other hand, the main benefits would be a reduction of the large emissions from decomposing peat soils of global warming gasses (CO 2 , N 2 O and CH 4 ), a longer life expectancy for the remaining peat layer annex typical landscape and nature, and savings in future water management for this low country confronted with a declining soil surface and a rising sea level. The second component in the generous offer from the agricultural side also has positive connotations. Quality of products and services from wider farm development can be brought to a much higher level by a systematic combination of ecological widening, social widening and deep farm development. Examples are eco-tourism at farms (ecological and social widening) and 'holistic courses' at organic farms (deep farm development and social widening). An example at regional level is a 'fine food and drink trail' (deep farm development and social widening). In each case the mechanism behind additional value added is that one activity gives a special cachet to a second type of wider farm development.

The generous offer from the city's side could be the creation of a fund with a deposit as high as the reduction in the use value of agricultural land due to measures, such as higher water tables, in favour of the countryside as a public good. From such a fund yearly payments can be made to farmers who have land in the target area for measures in favour of the public good. This fund in its management and donation can be a mixture of public and private partnership and of city and land partnership. This idea of funding as compensation for the loss in utility value of land caused by severe measures (beyond environmental baselines) was developed for the stimulation of nature-oriented farming. The severe measure proposed was the total exclusion of external input of minerals at a farm. In the peat-meadow area a more relevant severe measure is the possible prescription of high water tables in favour of the public good. This prescription without countervailing institutions would destroy farming and with it valuable elements of the public good, especially the cultural landscape and the typical nature. In the green heart of the Randstad, especially in the urban vicinity, an additional severe measure could be the establishment of rights for public access to land that always was the exclusive territory of farmers.

Original languageDutch
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Röling, N.G., Promotor
  • Nooij, A.T.J., Promotor
Award date23 Nov 2001
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789058084903
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • dairy farming
  • agricultural production
  • agricultural development
  • sustainability
  • farmers
  • entrepreneurship
  • economic sectors
  • rural development
  • rural areas
  • innovations
  • modernization
  • physical planning
  • peat soils
  • grasslands
  • agriculture as branch of economy
  • zuid-holland
  • peat grasslands
  • west netherlands
  • groene hart

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