Farmers with a view. Farmer Luink van der Laan can take those words literally. From his kitchen window he has an indefinite view of the land. Van der Laan runs a family farm. His grandfather and father worked on the land before he took over the farm. ‘The crop farm has about 150 hectares of land,’ says Van der Laan. ‘I am involved since 1975. In 1993 I have given up dairy farming and turned to crop farming for health reasons. We are growing potatoes, beet and corn.’ The ‘Farmers with a View’ project started in 2003. The Management of Nature and Rural areas Foundation (Stichting Beheer Natuur en Landelijk gebied or SBNL for short), an organisation for private and agricultural management of nature, approached a number of farmers asking them to participate in a nature project. Luink van der Laan: ‘The peat areas have been the subject of study and discussion for many years. Besides, the public image of the area is not altogether positive. We wanted to do something about it. We started this project from the ground up, i.e. from the farmers themselves. Our most important aim is to show that farmers, also in a large-scale crop-farming area, are perfectly able to develop and look after nature. At the same time it will allow us to make a contribution to improving the image of the region.’

The Drenthe prize for agriculture

The participating crop farmers, representing about one thousand hectares of farm land, together with the Laboratory for Agricultural Soil Analysis in Wijster and SBNL, set up a global nature development plan the farmers could use to get started. Frequent consultations in the winter of 2003/2004 were followed by the ‘Farmers with a View’ project , a plan that stood out from the start with the combined crop farmers’ vision of the future resulting in the nomination for the Drenthe prize for agriculture ‘Better farming in Drenthe.’ In March 2004, members of the jury for this award came to see the area near Eerste Exloërmond. The nomination and the jury visit encouraged the farmers even further in their efforts to speed up the implementation of the project. The Prize for Agriculture was indeed presented in April 2004, and a brief time later the first measures at business level were introduced. Those measures were simple and aimed at daily practice. All participants have sown a mixture of grasses, grains and flowers along the outside edges of their properties, along ditches and on surplus land. This has created a wonderful breeding area for birds. Plant species include wheat, facelia, buckwheat, Persian clover and various grasses and flowers, such as poppies and cornflowers. Before long, nature lovers were spotting skylarks, yellowhammers and blue-headed wagtails. Partridges and quails are also feeling at home. And after many years the Montagu’s harrier has returned. At his farm, Luink van der Laan made around 2.5 hectares of land available for natural crop farm edges. ‘The project of the ten participating farmers covers 14 hectares for crop farm edges on top of the 12 hectares for the province and the water board. No manure is scattered on a 3.5-metre wide strip along water drains to prevent it from being washed out into the water. This covers an area of approximately 26 hectares.’ The current providers of subsidies consider the ‘Farmers with a View’ project as innovative, because hardly (if any) space and attention has been given in the peat areas to the development of nature and forms of recreation until now. What is more, the crop farmers have taken it upon themselves to develop the area in this way. In this way they set an example for others who may be encouraged to join.

12-kilometre walking track

Luink van der Laan: ‘Having only just started, the prize was an enormous boost to us. After this recognition there was no way back, so we had to move forward. We had the idea of opening the area to the public via walking tracks and we felt the need for getting more farmers involved, allowing us to establish an unbroken chain of natural crop land edges in the peat areas, connecting the Hondsrug to Westerwolde. We are currently in the process of doing so. The walking tracks will give holiday-makers access to the wide and often regarded as monotonous landscape, and we hope those holiday-makers will learn to appreciate the area.’ A hut on the land behind Van der Laan’s farm serves as an information centre. In the hut are brochures on the ‘Farmers with a View’ project and a description of the 12-km walking route through the area. A parking lot has been built next to the wooden structure. The route description tells about the area and informs the hiker on how the landscape reveals the history of this part of the province of Drenthe. For instance, at the time the soil was turning to peat, many areas served for transporting peat and were later used for transporting fertilisers and crops. The walking track runs along the wastewater farms as part of the Nieuw Buinen potato flour works ‘Hollandia.’ A bird observation hut, built as part of the ‘Farmers with a View’ project, allows bird watchers to spot the wigeon, the grebe, the snipe and the small plover on the former wastewater farms. The walking track also runs along the Kakenbroeken and the Uilenbroeken, an area of approximately 300 hectares around the Achterste Diep, in which modern technology and development of nature are going hand in hand. This is the place where 25.000 antennas of the Lofar radio telescopes are searching in the universe. Various grass species in the area are doing well in the swampy soil. These grasses provide a larger biodiversity. Benches in various places along the track are offering a welcome rest to the hiker. Not a luxury one can do without, says Luink van der Laan. ‘The walking track runs across viewing spots and along arable land edges. The track is not sealed. To walk the entire 12-kilometre track requires a certain level of fitness.’

Financial hiccups

A few words about the financial side of the story. The crop land edges are six metres wide. ‘It means that I am losing out on about 1500 euro of income for every hectare I am making available for the development of nature. This is made good by subsidy. But with prices of agricultural products currently rising, the subsidies will have to go up as well, or else the farmers may have to pull out.’ In spite of all the positive things said about the project that is so near to his heart, the financial hiccups can be frustrating at times. ‘We have been able to start this project with the help of LEADER subsidies, among other things. It would not have come off the ground without these funds. We managed to get a large number of sponsors supporting the walking track. Unfortunately, the subsidies for nature development projects on arable land are granted for only three years. In our case, it was for the 2006 – 2008 period. These are subsidies used for starting projects. Obtaining structural funding is very hard. We are now in the process of doing so. Making funds available for only three years does not make any sense. The projects are ongoing. Stopping the project after a few years would be bad for our image and for the region. It would also be a substantial destruction of capital. You see, all those farmers are passionate about it. They make their land available. They do not necessarily want to take advantage of it compared with cultivating the land, but they do not want to lose out on it either. In other words, structural subsidies are necessary to keep the farmers’ income intact. At this point in time we are looking at all the options that are available. It takes much time and energy. Something will have to change. Continuous LEADER subsidies or other funds should be made available.’

Sponsoring crop farm edges

Farmers in the peat region unwearyingly continue their activities. A follow-up plan under the title ‘View on field birds’ has been drawn up. It earned the first prize in the 2007 Boerenland-Vogelland competition. It allows the continuation in achieving a number of objectives. Van der Laan and his colleagues like to generate more publicity around field birds, get more farmers involved in the project, obtain government subsidy and engage the business community in supporting the field bird project. The ‘Farmers with a View’ Foundation, SBNL and the ‘Grauwe Kiekendief’ study group have launched the Netherlands Field Birds Fund. Businesses will be able to sponsor a crop land edge of one of the participating farmers. Farmers consider the lack of proper subsidy schemes for field bird projects as a serious shortcoming. They would like to see the provinces allocate funds and make these funds available to favourable areas for crop land edge management under the Agricultural Management of Nature Subsidy Scheme, a new version of which is currently being worked on. In the meantime, farmers in the peat region have also applied for a subsidy at the Minister for Agriculture. Luink van der Laan: ‘We hope we can manage things financially because what is happening here has a great impact on the whole region.’