Its beginnings in Agronomy (Landhuishoudkunde)

The old name for General Agricultural Economics was Agronomy (in Dutch 'Landhuishoudkunde'). Originally this name reflected the general science of agriculture. With the reform of higher education after the period of French occupation, a professorship in Agronomy was established in 1815 in Leiden, Utrecht and Groningen. Its introduction to Dutch universities was in line with the thinking in Germany at that time. The first professor on the subject was Jan Kops, in Utrecht. The subject was obligatory for theology students, with the aim that, as preachers as in the countryside later on, they would be able to render not only spiritual, but also material help. But by 1831 theology students were no longer required to follow the course in agronomy. This implied a considerable reduction in salary for the professors. The salary at the time consisted of a basic income supplemented by course fees paid directly to the professor by the students. As the students stopped coming to agronomy courses, and the professors received permission to teach the subject to students outside the University, the Groningen professor Van Hall reacted by starting an Agronomy School in Groningen. With the introduction of a new higher education law in 1878, professorships in agronomy were discontinued, and in the meantime, in 1871 the Agronomy School in Groningen was closed due to lack of funds.

The term 'Agronomy' slowly began to take on a new meaning from 1870, and that was 'the science occupied with finding the causes of farmers' prosperity'. Only in 1904, the subject was re-introduced at the higher educational level - this time at the State Higher Farm, Horticulture and Forestry School (Rijks Hogere Land-, Tuin- en Bosbouwschool, RHLTBS) in Wageningen. It was then a subject almost completely separate from the natural sciences. The first teacher of Agronomy there was Ir. S. Koenen. He was appointed in 1906 at the RHLTBS. With the shift of the RHLTBS to the School for Agriculture (Landbouwhogeschool) he was the first professor of ‘Landhuishoudkunde’ in Wageningen. Koenen's professorship was, however, of short duration, since he died in 1922. Five years passed before Dr. Ir. G. Minderhoud was appointed. He was, from 1927 until his retirement in 1959 at the age of seventy, professor of Agronomy/‘Landhuishoudkunde’.

From Agronomy to Agricultural Economics

In his textbook 'Introduction to Landhuishoudkunde' published in 1947 (p.2), Prof. Minderhoud describes Agronomy as that part of science which is concerned with the prosperity which results from agriculture”. Over the years, one can observe that a more general approach, focused on the agricultural sector (say agricultural economics) was separating itself from an approach focused at farm level (similar to farm management or business economics). With the retirement of Prof. Minderhoud the advisory commission opted for a deepening of the study area by appointing two professors, Prof. Horring and Prof. Van Riemsdijk.

In 1959 Prof. Horring became regular professor of ‘Algemene Landhuishoudkunde’. Horring had been, from 1940 to 1959, director of the Agricultural Economics Institute (Landbouweconomisch Instituut, Wageningen Economic Research) and in 1949 he had been appointed as part-time professor in ‘Staat- en landhuishoudkunde’ in Wageningen. Dr. Ir. J.F. van Riemsdijk, head of the department of general economic studies and also deputy-Director of the Wageningen Economic Research, became professor of ‘Bijzondere Landhuishoudkunde’ (or in the present terminology: Farm Management or Farm Business Economics) in 1960. When Horring, who had studied at the Netherlands School of Economics (Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool) in Rotterdam, also became special professor for agricultural economics at the University of Amsterdam in 1960, he commented in his inaugural speech that he had objections to the name 'Algemene Landhuishoudkunde'. His preference was towards the name General Agricultural Economics. Although the formal name of Horring's chair was 'Algemene Landhuishoudkunde', in the course of time his field tended to be referred to increasingly as 'general agricultural economics'. The addition of 'general' came on the one hand from the formal name (Algemene Landhuishoudkunde) and, on the other hand, was necessary to differentiate it from farm business economics. With that, Horring was the first Professor of General Agricultural Economics. He liked to work with a small group, to prevent the administrative work he remembered well from his directorship of Wageningen Economic Research.

In 1971 the University Administration Reform Law (Wet Universitair Bestuurshervorming, WUB) came into force, applying to the then School of Agriculture, later called Wageningen University & Research. Before the WUB, the professorship was considered the basic faculty unit. Its direction was in the hands of the holder of the chair: the professor. Then scientific associates were added to the unit. One of the consequences of the WUB was that specialty groups (vakgroepen) were established as the organizational unit of instruction and research. By this term a group of persons occupied in one specialty area was meant. The specialty group was directed in each case by the permanent core of the group. Within the specialty group all members were to consult regularly on matters of teaching and research. Decision-making power lay no longer with the professor, but with the leadership of the specialty group. If there was only one professorship in the specialty group, then the name of the chair was usually given to the group. The organizational unit surrounding the chair General Agricultural Economics was the specialty group 'General Agricultural Economics'. Prof. Horring died in 1972. Shortly thereafter the specialty group General Agricultural Economics was made up of three persons: Dr. Ir. P.C. van den Noort (lector), Ir. A.J. Oskam and the secretary Ms. C.S. de Groot-Hoevenaar. It took quite a while to find a successor for Prof. Horring, but in the meantime the honours were taken by Van den Noort and the group was extended to include various other colleagues (G.J. van Dijk, L.H.G. Slangen, H. J. Silvis).

With the appointment in 1978 of two professors in General Agricultural Economics, this period of uncertainty came to an end. Dr. P.C. van den Noort was appointed professor, with the assignment of 'general agricultural economics, especially general economic aspects of agriculture and its natural resources', which in 1989 was changed to General Agricultural Economics. In 1978 Dr. Ir. J. de Hoogh was also appointed as professor, with assignment 'general agricultural economics, particularly the principles, purposes and instruments of agricultural policy'. This assignment name was changed at the beginning of 1988 to Agricultural Policy. For the relative small specialty group General Agricultural Economics, having two professors was a luxury. The question was, how long it would last? In 1991, Prof. de Hoogh retired. The faculty chair in Agricultural Policy was retained, in spite of pressure from within the University to have fewer professors. In 1993, Dr. Oskam was appointed as Professor of Agricultural Policy. With the departure of Prof. van den Noort in 1996, the assignment of Prof. Oskam was renamed to General Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Policy (or shorter ‘Agricultural Economics and Policy’). With respect to the name of the chair and the number of professors, the group was back to the situation of the early 70s, except that the agricultural policy area got more attention. In the administrative structures too, there were pronounced similarities. The beginning of the WUB (1971) and the end of the WUB (1997) marked the beginning and the end of the specialty groups. The specialty group General Agricultural Economics ceased to exist in 1997. As before the WUB, the chair was again seen as the basic unit, and the formal decision-making authority again was in the hands of the chair holder. That is the most important similarity with the situation of around 1970. In practice, decision-making still takes place at level of the chair group.

Intensification and extension of the scientific basis

In comparison with the situation before 1970, great differences have appeared in the meantime. One difference is that for the last few years the chair group has consisted of about 25 people, of whom about ten (including secretaries) are in permanent employment, circa ten are AIOs and PhD students working on their doctoral thesis, and a few are temporary collaborators, including post-doc researchers and, regularly, a number of foreign guest associates. This concentration on training and accompanying PhD students also has consequences for teaching and research. A large part of instruction is now given in English. The chair group also fulfills an active and central role in the WASS Graduate School. The 'old' Course program M10 'Economics of Agriculture and Environment' is now phased out. Within the present Bachelors-Masters system the teaching of the Group is more oriented towards the M.Sc. Subjects such as economics of agribusiness, institutional economics, rural economic analysis, and economic modelling run in different course programmes. The chair group provides, among other subjects, B.Sc. and M.Sc. instruction in econometrics, and organises special courses for PhD students in applied econometrics. From 1988 until 2008 the chair group has also provided the chief editor of the ‘European Review of Agricultural Economics’ (first Oskam, later Burrell); a task that has put the group in the centre of the discipline in Europe, emphasizing its disciplinary background. A fourth change is in the name. Since 2000 the name of the chair group has been Agricultural Economics and Rural Policy (Agrarische Economie en Plattelandsbeleid). Agriculture in western countries has a large influence on the landscape and rural environment. Income growth and employment are above all concentrated in the service and industrial sectors. Furthermore, the countryside has an important function as a residential area. Therefore, the rural economy is much broader than the agriculture sector: this means a widening of the study area, prominent not only in the name of the chair, but also in the teaching and research of the chair group.