We moved here to our house in the Achterhoek in the Netherlands ten years ago. Our closest neighbours, a field away were a dairy farmer and his wife. In January 2007, the farmer sold his farm to Herman Bongen and retired. Herman had worked on the farm since he was a teenager, and his dream had always been to become a farmer himself.
So in 2007, the dream became a reality for Herman and his girlfriend José. We, and the rest of the neighbourhood welcomed them to their new home and workplace.
Since that time, much has happened, both good and bad. The good has been the fact that Herman and José have become happily married, and have two lovely children: Baastian and Linde.
The bad has been the struggle that Dutch dairy farmers have had to keep their heads above water in a bad market.
It’s a struggle that has, in the last couple of months, become too much for Herman and José. They have decided to put their dairy farm up for sale. Herman told me the news some weeks ago.
José posted the news on her Facebook on the 27th August. This is what she wrote (translated from the Dutch):
More and more often we are asked: ‘Is it true? Are you getting rid of your cows?’
I waited to get in touch because my plan to write a pointed political essay just wasn’t happening. It was supposed to be my final statement about a hypocritical political system and society which shows such compassion for sustainability and the well-being of animals, but in the meantime allows for the supermarkets to demand the lowest possible price, using mega-margins over the backs of farmer and cow, flushing the market with cheap bulk milk. But my political words are gone.
No, we have not gone bankrupt. We do not have to leave our home. We did not sell the place to Fortis (a Dutch bank). And my husband Herman also does not have Parkinson’s disease. (Could be an interesting research project: how facts change through the grapevine, fascinating!) But we are putting our farm business up for sale.
Up to now we have always been able to pay our bills -something unfortunately not every farmer is able to say-, through hard work and using every bit of our savings. But we have had to surrender to the depressing feeling: ‘what are we doing this for?’. The romance which was still surrounding farm life, even in the 21st century, has gone.
The most straightforward and accurate explanation of our situation I saw yesterday: ‘Farming: the art of losing money while working 400 hours a month to feed people who think you are trying to kill them.’ Very funny, if only it wouldn’t be so terribly true.
The reason for our decision is very simple: a milk price of 25 cents at a production cost of 35 cents. ‘A farmer with a brain will not become a farmer anymore ’, I read recently. That is so very true.
We cannot produce our milk any cheaper. Technically we are a success story. The vet and feed specialist are always praising our cows for their healthy looks, our good quality silage heaps, the low level use of antibiotics and how well-run the whole farm is in general. Those very healthy cows, their very well-being, we will not sacrifice any of that, ever.
The practical bottleneck is mainly our high mortgage. It never was a matter of course that Herman would become a farmer. It demanded extraordinary cooperation, a sharp mind, long hours and, yes, that mortgage, in order to set up a modern business with 90 dairy cows and 50 hectares of land. I am so very proud of his passion to achieve all this!
Our very nice veterinarian was the first one to know. He was shocked: ‘You are doing such a fantastic job! You’ve got such a great farm!’ He’s right! But for two whole years now we have been totally knackered. We have bottomed out financially, whilst we will still have to replace our big barn from ’72 which includes shifting hundreds of square meters of asbestos. ‘The milk price is finally going up’, the news said yesterday. A bit early, because the new price will be publicized on Monday. But even if it does go up: even 26 cents results into a loss of 5000 euros per month. The bank will probably give us more credit, but the turn-over is low, losing money every moment. So when does one throw in the towel?
Other than the financial bottleneck there is the social one. Because of the low milk price, we cannot hire people, which makes Herman’s days longer and longer. He is more than fed-up with 80-hour weeks, how little time he’s got for the children, how his body is suffering. Also, we are fed up with not being appreciated economically, politically and socially for our efforts; worse at times. How the political parties and media get their knowledge about dairy farms from Wikipedia (how often have I had to write that the use of hormones is outlawed since 1961 and that milk and meat from animals with antibiotics in their system are not allowed to go into the human food chain?). And how new whimsical laws are made whilst crucial decisions are delayed yet again.
With great vigour we have educated ourselves this past year on how to convert to organic: a thought which had been with us for a longer spell of time but never yet got the attention it deserved. Both we and our farm are supposedly very suitable, the organic advisor told us. Only… we do not have enough land. And manpower. And there is already a waiting list. Because the consumer demands but does not buy.
The final straw was when Herman recently heard the news: ‘It is far cheaper for the consumer to buy their organic products in the supermarket.’ ‘Why are we still doing this… Does no one understand that taking good care of our cows costs money?’
I thought I’d given up on the idea of turning this into a political statement, but yet…’When our harvest fails, you are meant to get worried’, a headline said in a newspaper in an article about the loss of harvest caused by bad weather in the south of Holland. ‘When driven, responsible, intelligent farmers give up, you are also meant to get worried’, I would like to add.
Because we are not the first, and certainly not the last. Where will our milk come from twenty years from now? And how much influence will we have by then over the way it is produced? That is what worries me terrifically.
For us the facts are: by getting out now, now that our debts have not dug huge holes and we’re still ‘young’, we hope to be able to make a fresh start. A house in the countryside, being self-sufficient (also twenty years from now we will still remember how to produce good food!), possibly turning it into an educational project for youngsters… you never know.
I keep on trying to focus on all of that: how relaxed and fun life could be, yet again. How wonderful it will be to have time for each other again. To have the peace of mind and spare time for a hobby and a normal social life. But that does not come easy, this new kind of dreaming. Because we are leaving another dream behind, a whole life as a matter of fact. Yesterday I watched as in the evening light our cows ambled out of the milking parlour back into their beautiful field, sheltered by woodland. And I could not help myself from sobbing out loud for the umpteenth time…
Her Facebook post went viral, and has been shared more than 18,000 times. She and Herman have been interviewed by the Press, and have appeared on Dutch television. Whilst the focus on the situation that they are in, and which is shared by many Dutch diary farmers, has been good, it does not change it one iota. The hard decision to sell the farm seems to be the right one.
It’s come as a shock to all of us in the neighbourhood, but there seems to be no alternative. I said to José the other week that the best way of viewing this was as the beginning of a new chapter, a new adventure, in their lives. To use a somewhat well-worn cliché, when one door closes, another often opens. It may seem trite, but that has often been my experience in life – I sincerely hope it will be the same for them.