Knowledge, networks, and niches: Dutch agricultural innovation in an international perspective, c. 1880-1970

Harm Zwarts

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The September 2017 issue of the National Geographic magazine contained an article wondering why the Netherlands is the second world exporter of food. The answer is found in the innovativeness of Dutch agriculture. This study explains the success of Dutch agricultural innovation by looking at its historical roots. Why and how were Dutch farmers able to become among the most innovative in Europe?

This dissertation points out, firstly, that preconditions in the Netherlands were favorable. Close to the Rotterdam port and urban-industrial agglomerations, Dutch farmers profited from the growing demand for higher-value agricultural products, which lead to ongoing specialization and diversification and brought Dutch farmers at the technological frontier. Secondly, since the late nineteenth century the Dutch government stimulated agricultural R&D, more than elsewhere in Europe, where protectionism was often the norm. Public research institutes and agricultural consultancy were vehicles through which knowledge and innovation was exchanged. Thirdly, Dutch agriculture had a high level of self-organization, visible in the high density and variety of Dutch agricultural cooperatives. This resulted in a horizontal knowledge exchange between farmers and a collaboration between public institutions and farmer organizations. These public-private networks provided the knowledge exchange that was necessary to farm at the technological frontier.

With these findings, this dissertation makes two contributions. Firstly, whereas many scholars see agricultural innovations as a product of the need to lift ecological conditions or of changing land-labour ratios, this dissertation shows that also proximity to markets is an important determinant for agricultural innovation. For Dutch farmers, the need to innovate was driven by the need to secure their position on urban markets.

Secondly, some agricultural historians claim that knowledge-intensive growth of twentieth-century agriculture was driven by an ‘industrial paradigm’, which prescribed that agriculture should follow the methods, goals, and productivity growth of the industrial sector. This paradigm was allegedly spread among farmers by experts while disregarding the tacit knowledge of the individual farmer. However, the knowledge-intensive growth of Dutch agriculture, though certainly driven by a kind of ‘industrial paradigm’, was supported by the Dutch farming population. Intensification was seen by farmers themselves as a way to cope with international competition.

The main part of this inquiry is conducted through case studies concentrating on specific innovations or particular subsectors. These case studies are put into a larger perspective by an analysis on the national level, which enables a twofold comparative approach. Firstly, findings from the Dutch case are compared with international equivalents. Secondly, this study compares regions within the Netherlands to clarify how and to what extent agricultural innovation differs locally. This study uses a wide range of data and sources. The quantitative data consist of trade statistics and agricultural statistics, while qualitative material comes from agricultural periodicals, parliamentary minutes, government documents, and other archival records, such as minutes, annual reports, and correspondence from agricultural cooperatives, research institutes, and other actors.

This dissertation starts with an introductory chapter that presents the relevant literature, discusses the methodology and approach, and demarcates the main concepts. Hereafter, part I of this dissertation places Dutch agricultural innovation in its wider context. Chapter 2 studies uses insights from New Economic Geography to show that Dutch agriculture profited greatly from its proximity to expanding markets in Western Europe. Chapter 3 focusses on the national political context and describes why the Dutch government suddenly decided to support agricultural R&D since the late nineteenth century.

Part II of this dissertation concentrates on case studies. Chapter 4 explains why the Netherlands transformed into one of the largest users of artificial fertilizers in the early twentieth century. It finds that Dutch agricultural consultancy - one of the most elaborate of its time, as an international comparison reveals - was pivotal in exchanging knowledge on fertilizers. The case of Jakob Elema, agricultural consultant for Drenthe from the 1890s to the 1930s, exemplifies how individual consultants improved local networks and professionalized local knowledge exchange.

Chapter 5 discusses agricultural cooperatives. The case of sugar beet cooperatives shows how their members were part of a larger peer group in which they participated in the knowledge exchange of the larger group. Since the late 1920s the sugar beet cooperatives jointly conducted R&D, eventually setting up their own research institute. Chapter 6 explains the rise of the acreage of greenhouses since the 1910s. The concentration of Dutch greenhouse acreage in South Holland, close to the port of Rotterdam, resulted in a high density of experimental fields, study clubs, and suppliers, which improved knowledge exchange. Together with investments from cooperative rural banks and state guarantee funds, this explains why the Dutch greenhouse horticultural sector became the largest of its kind worldwide. Chapter 7 concludes by summarizing the main findings and reiterating the main line of argumentation

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Frankema, Ewout, Promotor
  • van Nederveen Meerkerk, E.J.V., Promotor, External person
  • van Cruijningen, Piet, Co-promotor
Award date4 Jun 2021
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463953412
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jun 2021


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