Boeren in betwist landschap : strategische keuzes van boeren in een waardevol agrarisch landschap

Volker, C.M.


Until recently, rural landscapes used to be largely the unintentional and self-evident by-products of agriculture, of farm-based labour. This situation has changed dramatically. Now recognized as public spaces, rural landscapes and the nature they include are expected to fulfil important functions for society as a whole. Farmers' management of such areas is increasingly being seen as necessary for non-agrarian functions such as recreation and tourism, the development of new nature areas and the preservation of the cultural heritage.

In this dissertation, the transformation process is studied from a sociological perspective. Chapter 1 ascertains that the management of a landscape occurs in a very complex social environment. The various claims on rural landscapes mark them as contested areas. Valuable rural landscapes that combine several supralocal collective qualities depend on state intervention for their survival. At the same time, state intervention needs support, notably from farmers, who are the owners and users of agricultural land. Farmers are expected to incorporate politically expedient management measures in their social and agricultural practices. They have not yet done so. Taking care of the environment as a collective good in an affluent urban society is very different from controlling nature for the market-driven production of food and raw materials in advanced land-based agricultural systems.

The aim of the study was to contribute to the debate on the future management of valuable rural landscapes, by achieving insights into the opportunities for sustainable management of landscapes by farmers. The study focused on management that accommodates the need for more features of nature in rural landscapes. Three facets are presented:

A historical outline of the supralocal urban interest in nature-based rural landscapes in the Netherlands. This is followed by an outline of the modernization process in the agrarian domain paying particular attention to transformations in the system of agricultural production.Perceptions and practices in farm management, derived from a social survey of farmers in Northeast Twente, in Overijssel province, the Netherlands. In order to predict the strategic preferences of these farmers regarding the place of nature and landscape in their professional skills and market orientation, a model is developed and applied, using empirical data from the social survey.Finally, several strategies for achieving the support and participation of farmers are suggested, with the aim of increasing the likelihood that both valuable landscapes and farmers will survive.

Chapter 2 discusses the views on nature and on landscape characteristics within three socio-political discourses. Rural landscapes in the Netherlands fit in a centuries-old tradition of planned land use, based on collective intervention in nature and in the physical environment. The discourses stress different opinions about functions of the countryside, nature and urban-rural interactions. Part of the growing public awareness of rural landscapes in the Netherlands is a new attitude to nature that is able to emerge in urban environments. This attitude is to do with admiring and enjoying nature rather than with taming and exploiting it. The rise of modern industrialized society brought with it a new function for rural areas: that of being a green and pleasant land. The twentieth century has seen the emergence of a new institutional field in which nature and landscape organizations have evolved to meet the growing demand for nature reserves and landscape parks. Late twentieth century Dutch public opinion is greatly in favour of nature, but less in favour of on-farm nature conservation and has a poor opinion of farmers as managers of nature.

Chapter 3 discusses developments in Dutch agriculture, and state intervention in the conservation of valuable features of nature and landscape related to the agrarian domain. Parallel to the social movements that aimed to emancipate the urban working class, a process of emancipation of farmers emerged, followed by the modernization of the system of producing food by farming. Whereas small-scale farming assured a stable and rich semi-natural landscape that could be enjoyed by city dwellers, the agricultural production system developed in the opposite direction, of mechanization and industrialization. The post-war revolution in agriculture resulted in deruralization: that is, in agricultural production shifting from a territorial basis to a sectoral basis. Small-scale region-based mixed farms were replaced by modern specialized farms. This process was supported by land consolidation projects, that had enormous repercussions in terms of the loss of biodiversity, of valuable nature elements, of characteristic landscape features and of multiple land use.

From the 1960s onwards, vehement conflicts emerged because of the claims articulated by the agriculture and nature conservation lobbies and the separated prospects for urban and rural development brought about by the distinctive planning systems. At the political level, a compromise was reached with the Policy Document on the Relationship between Nature and Agriculture (1975), which featured a zoning of agricultural land. Under this Policy Document, two types of valuable rural landscapes were to be protected against further optimalization of agricultural land use. The Nature Policy Plan of 1990 launched a more pro-active strategy for nature: a National Ecological Network was proposed, in which existing woodland, nature reserves and valuable rural landscapes were to be preserved and rehabilitated. In addition, transition zones and new areas designated for large-scale nature development were to be established on agricultural land. To meet these targets, the policy-making process had to be adjusted. Additional support was needed. In recent years therefore, policy making focusing on subsidizing the traditional state and non-governmental organizations for nature management has been replaced or complemented with result-oriented measures, open to more land users in rural areas.

Meanwhile, Dutch agriculture has reached a cross-roads. The choice is between the transformation process continuing towards knowledge-based, capital-intensive, technologically advanced food production systems that have a narrow perspective on the sustainability of farms and the environment ('traditional modernization'), and the features of an impending second wave of modernization, comprising agrarian and structural diversification of rural areas ('rural renewal'). The result is the occurrence of two different and partly contradictory development patterns, making the future of Dutch rural landscapes more unpredictable.

Chapter 4 outlines the prospects for Dutch farmers. Three processes of integration have entered their domain. In agriculture, farmers face a process of increased regulation and techno-economic commercialization of the production system. In nature and landscape conservation, they face the claims made by the social movement industries advocating the development of 'new nature' as a new mission and a new market. Finally, a process of increased state intervention and state support entails taking the environment into account as a collective good (the quality of nature, soil, water and landscape). This latter process is accompanied by new style regulation, in which farmers are challenged to assume more responsibility and to achieve more self-regulation to bring about rural development.

The consequence of this is that the world of farmers has become much more complex. Now farmers have to learn how to deal with their shrinking freedom of action in conventional agriculture and how to manage the diversity of new claims made on their land. Large areas of the Dutch countryside have already been designated for de-intensified agricultural production. But how likely and inspiring do recent developments seem to Dutch farmers? Dutch farmers seem to be facing difficult choices and much uncertainty.

Chapter 5 outlines to what extent Dutch farmers are willing to choose in favour of modified, sustainable practices to benefit nature and landscape in their farm management. It includes the results of a social survey conducted in Northeast Twente, covering 81 randomly selected respondents farming 5 ha land or more. These farmers contend that there are still considerable amounts of nature and landscape elements on their farms. With few exceptions, the perceived annoyance caused by such elements is low. In most cases the protective measures are restricted to promoting the conservation of meadow birds and small animals. The farmers are familiar with most initiatives for protecting and promoting the development of nature and landscape elements, but their interest in participating in such initiatives varies. It turns out that their stewardship of nature and landscape elements as part of their farm labour is modest. They prefer the skills needed for optimizing agricultural production. When questioned about preferred combinations of income, they give priority to income from conventional agricultural production. Many farmers are unimpressed by the incentives offered to steward nature and landscape. Questioned about the level of farm management, half of the respondents replied that they prefer the tasks of the skilled labourer, followed by organizational tasks. Only a few favour the true entrepreneur, capable of responding adequately to off-farm developments. Their plans for future development focus on enlarging the farm rather than on specializing or diversifying the farm business. They display considerable enthusiasm for new captial investments and personal improvement of knowledge and skills in agricultural production. Many respondents voice concrete objections to having more nature and landscape elements on the farm, basing their motives on economics and loss of freedom. When asked to range the actors in the networks important to ensure that their plans would be achieved, the respondents reported that stakeholders in the production network and the family were the most essential. Stakeholders for the management of nature and landscape occupy a marginal position in their networks.

In order to construct a predictive model, chapter 6 explores some theoretical insights relating to farmers' preferences. Theories in rural sociology and the literature on strategic management yielded elements for this model. Chapter 7 discusses the entire model and its constituents, both conceptually and operationally. Strategic preferences, operationalized as a two-dimensional construct covering the interest of farmers in nature and landscape in their professional skills and in their market orientation, result in three groups of farmers. One group has no interest in nature and landscape (33%), the second group prefers the current balance (status quo) between production and nature on the farm (44%) and the smallest group (23%) shows interest in having more features of nature and landscape value on the farm. As a consequence, change-oriented farmers dominate over continuity-oriented farmers, but opinions about the likely prospects vary. The first group opts for traditional modernization paying attention to environmental problems rather than to nature and landscape. The smallest group prefers nature and landscape-included rural renewal.

Regression analysis was used to determine predictive variables for these preferences. The number of variables with statistically significant influence on preferences is found to be limited. Perception variables prove to be much more important than structure and farm characteristics in agriculture, including the presence of nature and landscape elements. The external orientation of farmers, that is their interests in external initiatives and economic activities in nature and landscape, has by far the most predictive value. The internal orientation, covering the preferred level of farm management and the hindrance experienced from stewarding nature and landscape elements, is not decisive at all. The predictive value of the internal orientation, the farm characteristics and the presence of elements of nature and landscape are overshadowed by the external orientation of farmers.

Chapter 8 focuses on how the contribution of Dutch farmers to the management of nature and landscape can be improved, making both the quality of the environment and the livelihood of farmers more sustainable. It is concluded that there is still a considerable cultural gap between the persons who have interests in one and the same valuable rural landscape. To the urban population, nature is part of a hedonistic value orientation. To farmers, nature is part of a rural way of life. As a consequence, state policy measures intended to do justice to dominant visions of nature in a highly urbanized society meet considerable resistence in local rural situations. This is particularly striking if measures are placed in the perspective of creating new nature ('nature development') in that situation. Though some Dutch farmers display interest in urban visions on nature and landscape, little of this interest is incorporated into modified farming systems and practices. For most farmers these urban visions are a 'narrow' farm target.

It is recommended to integrate the communication and participation of farmers into an innovative policy-making process. So far, Dutch farmers have not provided the landscape that urban people desire. The latter would like to have a more natural landscape. The strategy for achieving a more sustainable future for valuable rural landscapes in which farmers perform as knowledgeable participants in the social process has four strategic elements:

First, a break-through of the status quo can be achieved by retaining external actors as innovators in the region.Second, the relationship between demand and supply of valuable rural landscapes should be established. There are three feasible options. One option excludes farmers as future managers, devolving their contributions to a variety of other actors involved in the landscape. The two other options include opportunities for farmers, provided they are ready to adapt a more open and flexible attitude to the products and services urban people want. The first deals with the preservation and reproduction of traditional valuable features of nature and landscape. It implies development in favour of the cultural heritage. However, this option does not offer a structural solution for each valuable rural landscape and all farmers (the landscape as open-air museum). In the alternative option, the stewardship of landscapes should be based on 'normal' economic activities and services. In contrast to conventional agriculture, however, the alternative option means a wider and more flexible orientation to the environment as a natural resource and a more demand-driven economy (the landscape as part of rural renewal). The best prospect is offered by organic farming, if possible with profitable side-activities. In addition, stewardship continues to be necessary for non-marketable qualities such as the preservation of features of nature and landscape in the light of the cultural heritage and biodiversity. These stewardship activities are dependent on political decisions and government commitment rather than the mechanism of the market competition.The third element is improved network management. At present, Dutch farmers qualify themselves as a group of outsiders in the network for nature and landscape management. Additional networks at the local and regional level could achieve the connection of the networks for agricultural production and nature conservation, featuring intermediary functions. Better network management should also improve the coherence of the conditioning, stimulative and challenging measures in the policy-making process.Finally, more attention should be paid to incorporating measures in farm management. Dutch farmers do not lack information but they do lack instrumental knowledge about initiatives for nature and landscape management. This could be remedied by setting up regional centres for communication and innovation that bridge the gap between a programme of action at the institutional level and the implementation of measures at farm level.