Bathmen (Netherlands) (AFP) – At “Piggy’s Palace”, his farm in the Dutch countryside, Erik Stegink watches his pigs cavort in the mud and fight over chunks of broccoli, lines of worry etched on his face.
Stegink says he doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to carry on earning his livelihood, as he awaits government measures aimed at limiting emissions from farming by cutting livestock numbers and possibly closing farms.
“We don’t really feel heard,” sighs Stegink at the farm in the village of Bathmen, near the eastern town of Deventer.
“Sometimes we don’t even feel welcome in our own country anymore.”
But Stegink — whose farm features a playground with a slide for the pigs and allows people to hug the hogs on weekends — is doing his best to give Dutch farmers a voice.
The bespectacled farmer is also the national president of a rising political force in the Netherlands: the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, or BBB).
On the back of rowdy farmer protests against the climate plans, opinion polls show that this young party, is poised to make a remarkable entrance to the Dutch senate in local elections on Wednesday.
Founded in 2019, the BBB currently has just one MP, co-founder Caroline van der Plas, but government plans to reduce livestock numbers and even close some farms have caused its popularity to surge.
It could even become largest party in some rural northern and eastern areas in the provincial polls, which are used to appoint representatives to the upper house of parliament.
The Dutch demonstrations have attracted global attention, with farmers blockading highways, dumping manure and garbage on roads and rallying noisily outside politicians houses.
In villages across the country the Dutch flag can be seen hanging upside down — a symbol of the protest movement.
Populists, far-right politicians and conspiracy theorists have also backed their cause, with even former US president Donald Trump coming out on the side of the Dutch farmers.
A fresh protest was being held in Saturday in The Hague ahead of the elections.
But in the Netherlands the issue is very much linked to the soil of a small country that is proud of its status as the world’s second largest agricultural producer after the United States.
Farmers say their livelihoods are being sacrificed on the altar of climate change.
“Farmers are desperate,” said Elly van Wijk, a 60-year-old cattle farmer, BBB national secretary and Senate candidate.
“It’s despair due to years of lack of clarity in policies, laws and regulations, which are constantly changing,” she told AFP.
The Netherlands plans to release 25 billion euros by 2035 to help the agricultural sector significantly reduce its emissions of nitrogen, a greenhouse gas emitted in particular by fertilisers and livestock effluents, damaging the environment.
But the government, which aims to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50 percent by 2030, in particular through a reduction in livestock, has not yet presented its definitive measures and the sector fears forced farm closures.
‘In the dark’
Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government says it has no choice but to reform the farming sector.
It says that large construction projects — which also emit nitrogen — are needed to ease the Netherlands’ housing crisis but have been suspended by a court ruling on environmental grounds.
While the climate crisis is widely acknowledged in the low-lying Netherlands, Rutte has faced criticism for the sudden announcement of the farm plans.
Some farmers are aware of the climate emergency but also feel that their desire to innovate is blocked by arbitrary regulations and indecisive politics.
“Our government leaves agricultural entrepreneurs completely in the dark, we don’t know which way we should go”, says Jos Bolk, 51, cattle farmer and local candidate for the BBB in the eastern province of Gelderland.
The BBB says it wants to rebuild a “connection” between town and country and plans to contest the next European elections in 2024.
It has been encouraged by the growing anger among farmers in Germany, Belgium and France.
Elly van Wijk said the debate went beyond the farming sector but was “in fact about the culture, the traditions of a very large part of the Netherlands”.
“Where are we going? What values are we losing?” she said.
© 2023 AFP