September Song

Filed in Episode 3 by on September 30, 2017 0 Comments


It’s the end of September. The leaves are starting to turn in earnest now.  fullsizeoutput_70fMany already lie on the ground, waiting for me to sweep them up. The first chestnuts have fallen too (reminder to self – collect some before they’re all gone). The last few days have all started with mist – each day lasting a bit longer – but the sun usually breaks through – and suddenly there’s that warmth on your back reminding you that you’re not quite ready for winter yet.









The harvest has started. Farmers are getting the corn (maize) in with their threshing machines, their huge tractors and their huge tipper trucks. It’s hard to drive down any road here without seeing them in the fields or sitting in a queue behind tractor and truck on its way to its destination.



At night UFO’s take over the fields


I don’t much like maize as a crop. Aesthetically or for what it represents. I probably wouldn’t mind the odd field but it’s everywhere, growing in huge fields and dominating the landscape. Well, actually pretty much obscuring the landscape from July onwards .


May 28


July 6









And what is the crop used for? This isn’t that nice, tasty corn on the cob or even what Bonduelle supplies in tins. No, this goes for animal feed, corn starch and bio-fuel.

So corn pretty much symbolizes industrial agribusiness and monoculture for me. OK, it’s not strictly monoculture. There are also huge fields of potatoes and beets, which will be the next to be harvested. But these too are destined for the same goals.

But one day I was following a tractor and truck up the road, when it turned off into a farmyard and I realised it was delivering animal feed to a dairy farmer. Farmer to farmer. So at least it isn’t (all) travelling hundreds or thousands of kilometers to be processed and travel back again in a different container. And it’s sparing another few hectares of rain forest from being turned into a soya plantation. Oh, and being stuck behind a tractor gives you more time to look at the autumn colours.

So I decided it was time to learn a bit more about maize. I looked it up in the Dutch pages of Wikipedia. I learned that one hectare of maize absorbs 22 to 44 tons of CO2 and produces 16 to 32 tons of oxygen per year, which is considerably more than one hectare of trees. Of course the stored carbon gets back into the atmosphere a lot quicker than with a forest (maximum one year) but it’s still impressive. I also learned that the majority of seed corn is controlled by a couple of major international corporations (e.g. Monsanto) – impressive in a less positive way.

Almost half of the arable land in The Netherlands is used for maize. Potatoes take up a bit more than half that quantity, sugar beet about one fifth and feed beet a tiny proportion (maize has largely replaced that). Potatoes are grown for (human) food, for starch and for planting on. Since 2000 there’s been an increase in the share of arable land used for the potato crop but this is primarily for starch. The total area of arable land is still only half of that given over to grass and only slightly more than half of that used for dairy farming. I assume there’s some overlap in those figures (but see below). Over 50% of the country’s farms are dairy, meat or wool producers (grazers). All agrarian production has diminished since 2000 with sugar beet the most dramatic and only onions (don’t ask me why) increasing significantly.

Dairy farming (in fact animal farming in general excluding sheep) is intensive and becoming more so. Many cows and nearly all pigs spend their entire lives penned up in stalls in a shed. And the sheds are becoming bigger and bigger and increasingly look like the factories they are. I see fields of grass belonging to dairy farmers, where no cow ever grazes. The grass will become feed for the cows in the stalls (and yes, of course farmers need winter feed too). At the same time the supermarket chains seem to be  promoting organic milk from cows that graze in the meadows. But read the small print. Then we learn that each cow gets a few hours outdoors for a limited number of days in the year. I calculated that meant each cow spent on average one sixteenth of its adult life outdoors.  These of course are the same supermarkets that force absurdly low prices on farmers, which is good for our purses but drives higher production volumes – aided by the EU having done away with the milk quota. Two thirds of Dutch dairy production is for export – exchange value, not use value – mostly cheese to Europe (Germany, France, Belgium) but lots of powdered milk to Africa and Asia.

Now I’m fortunate that there’s quite a lot of small meadows and copses, forest and heathland and meandering streams around here. In some of the meadows small groups of cattle graze.

  fullsizeoutput_704 I like cows. They’re calm and restful, charmingly disdainful of human hustle and bustle but stop and talk to them and they’re interested. The ears prick up and orient towards you, clearly aware that some kind of communication is taking place and seemingly satisfied to keep it at that level. And then they get bored and go back to rumination.

There’s much less of all this than when my partner lived here as a little girl but a lot more than, say, 20 years ago. There’s a more recent increase in broads strips of wildflowers growing beside the maize, potatoes and beets or in small fields left otherwise fallow for a year.

I wonder what makes all of this possible and what its growth represents. Is there a direct biological advantage for the farmers (soil enrichment)? Do they just do it for the love of it? Can the regular working farmer afford it or is it all people of independent means? Or nature/conservation organisations? Are there subsidies? If it continues to grow is it a threat to production farming? Would farmers welcome a return to a smaller scale and, if so, what needs to change to make that possible?

This is a systemic issue to which there are by definition no simple answers. There are no answers that don’t confront us with questions that go way beyond what kind of countryside we like.

It’s the last day of September. I saw the first piles of harvested beets today. Maybe I’ll come back to this in October. Maybe I’ll dare to suggest some answers to my questions.




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