“Within Western Europe, together with Denmark and Britain, we were the most productive agricultural country.” Niek Koning sees two important causes for that position. The first one was agriculture technology. “Already in the high Middle Ages (around the 11th, 12th and 13th century) we had the development of the heavy horse drawn plough. With this heavy metal plough farmers in northern countries could till their fertile, but heavy soils. That allowed an increase in our population and the growth of cities.”

The second cause is the Netherlands’ unique location in a river delta by the sea. Koning: “The best located areas were the areas located near water. The Netherlands bordered at the North Sea, and it was situated in the delta of the Rhine and other major rivers. Before the Industrial Revolution, transport over water was about 10 times cheaper than over land. Water doesn't separate, but it connects areas.”

Thanks to the water, the Dutch were able to export milk, butter and cheese and import cereals. Our agriculture has been intertwined with trade since the Middle Ages. Koning: “We have always been in livestock. Compared to other European areas we were more specialized in livestock.” The Dutch could export a few percent of their production of for instance milk, butter and cheese, in the beginning to London, later to the industrial Ruhr Area in Germany. “With the money we earned we could buy cereals from the Baltic states.”

Close to London and Dutch cities
Throughout the centuries the Netherlands have always been densely populated country compared to France or Germany. The short distance of farmers to Dutch cities and of those cities to London stimulated them to intensify their output compared to inland Germany and France. The availability of transport led to low transport costs. Working in the neighbourhood allowed farmers to produce perishable products, which they could sell in the cities. Furthermore, “we had a lot of urban waste we could use as fertilizer or feed. Take the beer breweries, their residues could be used to feed animals”, says Koning.

Significant shift end 19th century
The industrial revolution has led to the transport revolution. “The dramatic change was, what our historians call the global agricultural crisis, in the closing decades of the 19th century.” It became possible to grow cereals in other parts of the world and ship it to Europe. “That caused a dramatical decline of the agricultural prices, which forced European countries to respond.”

According to Koning countries responded differently. The French and Germans protected their farmers and prices. “Otherwise they had no means anymore for investment.” Since the Dutch had a productivity advance, they could make a different decision and decided to organize a new productivity leap. “Government stepped in, came up with a whole network of agricultural schools, experiment stations, extension officers, etcetera, to increase the productivity advantage that we had.”

A new change
Since approximately the 1980’s that long historical line changed. Urban life has taken over the country, turning the rural countryside almost imperceptibly but surely into a kind of park between urban areas. Dutch farmers have difficulty noticing that they have changed into urban farmers. “Our farmers were amongst the most productive of the EU. They were protected by the borders of Europe.” What will change in the historical logic of the Dutch agriculture, for Dutch cities and the population will continue to expand? Half of the Dutch now live in urban areas. “We have no longer the advantage of producing around the cities. Most our farmers have changed into urban farmers.”

Moreover, farmers are faced with a lot of restrictions imposed by the urban policies, according to Koning. “The life of Dutch farmers has become less easy. Their competitive advantage is eroding. The traditional market policies are no longer in the interest of Dutch farmers." Koning believes that "innovation within the agri-industrial complex will continue, but no longer in the old way.” The Dutch farmers' share in the raw materials processors buy will drop. They'll buy them elsewhere and could move their plants.