Manure in the Netherlands–
We’ve touched on this story in the Links and comment threads several times over the past year or so, but this article is the most thorough, dare I say balanced, that I have read. It’s a story of how farming became an industry, and how farmers, seeking to meet the demands of a market over which they had no control, have gone from stewards of the land to poisoners of themselves and their neighbors along with the ecosystems around them.
I grew up around small dairy farmers. My grandparents raised Angus beef cattle as a “hobby” while my grandfather worked for the railroad, and raising beef cattle could be demanding at times. In the winter, the alfalfa bales stored in the hay shed had to be distributed to the cattle each and every day. If the winter weather turned suddenly bad, they had to drive the 5 miles from their house in town to the farm to gather the cattle into the shed to protect them from the inclement weather. If a calving cow was missing from the herd, they had to walk the 160 acres to find her and help her or get her to help if she was having trouble giving birth. (One cow even earned the name Oklahoma because she invariably chose the most southwest portion of the farm, the part closest to Oklahoma, to have her calf.)
But all that was nothing compared to the dairy farmers. Every morning, the cows had to be milked or they were at risk of mastitis. There were no days off unless you could trade milking duties with another dairy farmer so each of you could have a few days off. Being a dairy farmer wasn’t a job or a business. It was more akin to taking monastic vows that determined how you lived 24/7.
That was 60 years ago. Then along came Richard Nixon and his Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz:
His mantra to farmers was “get big or get out”, and he urged farmers to plant commodity crops such as corn “from fencerow to fencerow”. These policy shifts coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining financial stability of the small family farm.
Set against Butz and his intentional undoing of the New Deal’s federal system of agricultural and environmental management was the writer, Kentuckian Wendell Berry. Berry saw Butz and his proto-Big Ag proponents as strip miners:
I conceive a strip-miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old-fashioned idea or ideal of a farmer. The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health — his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s.
Butz stood out because of his arrogant brashness, but his ideas were not of his own invention. They were the product of a Social Darwinist paradigm and its goal of profit-uber-alles. The sole measure of success of an activity was how much money it made, and collateral effects on the health of ecosystems or even human health were of no importance. As the Mongabay article details, this destructive approach to farming found its way to the Netherlands and either seduced or forced the farmers there to adopt its money-centric, Nature-be-damned ways.
The Mongabay piece focuses on the harm done to wildlife by the Dutch farmers’ practices. Ammonia clouds kill birds directly. Nitrogen poisoning leaches calcium from the soil, and the shells of songbirds are too thin or the baby birds legs are too brittle for them to survive. But the old adage about canaries in coal mines is obvious. If Dutch dairy farmers are doing this much damage to bird health, what about the health of the farmers themselves, their neighbors, all of the Netherlands? Berry’s strip miners have taken over from the real farmers, and everybody’s health has gone to hell.
The history is the same whether it’s agriculture or medicine or journalism. The drive to profit, the compulsion to compete, trumps all human values. As I read Mongabay’s article, words from a couple of Midwest boys I’ve listened to for 50+ years, words written about these very issues and a place I knew well, came to mind:
Twenty-four hours of barbed wire fence,
Fifty-five years of pollution.
Everyone knows now the puzzle was laid.
Can anyone recall the solution?
“Tarkio Road” Brewer & Shipley
Do we try to plow under these Dutch dairy farmers the way Earl Butz plowed under small farmers like my father? “Get green or get out?” Today’s Links contained another article warning about the political effects already being felt in Europe with that approach, and the Mongabay article details the strong political reaction in the Netherlands and beyond. Some of it was funded and promoted by Big Ag who always wants to sell more chemicals, more soy feed grown where the Amazon used to be. But some of it is legitimately grass roots and includes even some environmentalists alarmed by the effects the Dutch dairymen are having on their neighbors but feel it’s unfair to put all the burden on them.
Does anyone recall the solution? Jason Hickel is trying a class-aware approach that is picking up steam in Europe. He’s been joined by Georgos Kallis and Julia Steinberger in an effort to model a “Post Growth New Deal” that tackles the spreading environmental catastrophe without putting all the burden on “little people” like the Dutch farmers or coal miners or airline flight attendants. It won’t be easy where there are already so many “little people” who feel they’ve “played by the rules” as Obama loves to say, and are now targeted for economic destruction because the way they’ve been told to do things has fallen out of favor. And, of course, the biggest obstacles are the billionaires who seem intent on preserving their Social Darwinist world that rewards them so well. Wendell Berry saw them for what they were back when he wrote The Unsettling of America in 1977:
The world has room for many people who are content to live as humans, but only for a relative few intent upon living as giants or as gods.
It’s a complicated puzzle, hard to solve, but there’s little choice but to try.