Everyone knows the story: Here is a new building that will never see the light of day because of a complaint, and there is a workshop closed while already in production because of “disturbances”. Somewhere else, there is a farmer who will become a victim to his or her land deteriorating. Against the backdrop of increasing conflicts of use, living together in the countryside is the subject of emotional debate.
Newcomers settling in the countryside is one of the causes, but not a new one; a more recent factor lies in the changing image of agriculture and society’s expectations that affect the traditional rural population. But there are solutions for better coexistence. “The Furrow” editors have visited some initiatives launched in various European countries.
You will find the story of a German producer who lets his neighbours know about his activities in order to defuse tensions during sensitive periods, and that of a French farmer who provides information about farming to try and raise awareness among the general public. Other examples illustrate the importance of the social connection and dialogue in community cohesion. And there are other tools for living together, like adapting farming practices, or cooperation between farmers, private individuals, and local government on the issues of energy or power supply.
Today, village populations often only have a hazy idea of the agricultural calendar and practices. Explaining farm activities and projects is often enough to help prevent tensions without necessarily being time-consuming, as is shown in the case of the Grell farm, in Duvensee, Germany. With 500 dairy cows right in the middle of the village, it has been the subject of repeated complaints in recent years and then of a lawsuit, which blocked construction of a building in 2015.
So on the initiative of the German farming magazine Top Agrar the family decided to work on their image. By renovating the farm building’s roadside front, creating a website, a Facebook page, and a video clip on YouTube, they invested heavily in the project. “But the most effective measure was also the most simple,” reports Knud Grell, of the younger generation.
“Following the agency’s advice, we started to write to our neighbours to let them know what jobs were upcoming: Harvesting, transporting maize, and so on. A letter is quickly written, more personal than an e-mail, and more likely to be opened.” Each one ends with an invitation to get in touch in case there are questions. There have been many of them and the hope is that they will foster dialogue. “The initiative has had very positive feedback. As a result, we are less isolated in the village and the individuals who have initiated disputes are more cautious.”
In France, difficult circumstances have pushed Bastien Hennequez to develop a simple and efficient educational concept for the neighbourhood. In Arnières-sur-Iton (Eure), he farms 155ha, with 35ha of pasture and a small barn for the cows. Situated 2km from Évreux, his land has a hiking trail running through it and is surrounded by allotments.
“I have had problems since setting up in 2015: Children playing with the insect traps, horses in the fields left to fallow, motorbikes, quadbikes, garbage in the fields, and so on,” the farmer declares. “However, these remained minor problems.”
Until spring 2017: On a meadow next to a piece of common land, partygoers went running after the animals in the middle of the night and took photos of a cow calving. The calf did not survive. After failing to start a direct dialogue, the farmer chose to place information signs along the length of the fields because, according to him, the problem partly comes from the lack of sensitivity of urban people who have come to live in the countryside.
He designed three series of these signs: One, for children, about the plants and their commercial importance, another about the crop calendar, and finally one about how to avoid conflicts, reminding readers that the field is private property, that animals are no toys, and so on.
Dialogue and time spent together are the basis of a good neighbourhood. That is the point of farm open days, which are especially popular in the United Kingdom. Abi Reader, a farmer in Glamorgan, welcomed 3,000 visitors in 2017 as part of her “Open Farm Sunday”. Farming neighbours have also become involved, shearing sheep, giving talks on beef cattle, and doing cooking and baling demonstrations. “It is surprising who is happy to come and contribute in any way they can,” says Miss Reader. “If you can make the day a community thing, it’s even more appealing and it creates a sense of community wellbeing.”
Still in the United Kingdom, beef breeder George Brown invites the whole village to big celebrations like the Queen’s Jubilee. He butchers some animals and organises a buffet and fireworks. “We take the opportunity to open the buildings to visitors,” emphasises Mr Brown, for whom the event has an educational significance. “If you’re open about what you’re doing it helps to avoid potential conflict. It’s good to have people on your side, in case you want to apply for a planning permission, for example.”
If you’re open about what you’re doing it helps to avoid potential conflict.
In France, the department of Orne organises “farm hikes” for rural residents that pass by several farms. “We aim to share farming practices, to show real-life work with animals and to show our efforts to reduce inputs – that is, to address all those issues that bother people,” Violaine Lasseur of the Chamber of Agriculture explains.
The participating producers are trained in “positive communication”. They identify arguments for and against and play-act discussions, forcing themselves to see the issues from the general public’s perspective. Entertainment is used on site to stimulate dialogue, particularly theatre sketches. “A farmer and a ‘hiker’ have to improvise a discussion on a given topic, for example organic versus conventional farming. The playful element allows us to downplay sensitive subjects, but it is still a real dialogue that reveals the complexity of the issues. In this case, for example, the diversity of systems”, says Mrs Lasseur.
A similar initiative, this time in the Netherlands, is the “hutspot” tour, in reference to a very popular Dutch dish based on vegetables and sausages. The emphasis here is on the issue of traceability. During this bike tour, the participants collect the necessary ingredients for the recipe from each of the farms that they visit. The initiative attracts hundreds of cyclists. It’s an opportunity to discuss matters with consumers, who are always interested when it comes to what lands on their plate. “People from the countryside are no longer necessarily associated with agriculture,” says Cato Gaaikema, who supplies potatoes for the ‘hutspot’. “A better understanding helps us with practising our profession.”
In Spain, getting the village involved at harvest time is an age-old practice. It lives on in Galicia with the potato harvest: Friends, family and neighbours get involved. “Here, the tradition is to help on farmlands,” says farmer José Ramón González. According to him, it’s an unwritten and ancestral “code of good neighbourliness”, essential for a healthy social environment in the countryside. A simple helping hand on the farm or in a private home, shared investment in energy production or the establishment of a farm shop – work done together restores meaning in the rural community.
Sometimes, the farm itself is the project, as in the case of the Dutch initiative “Herenboeren”. This has allowed the creation of a communal farm financed with €2000 per household, plus about €500 in annual charges. The 200 participants receive 17kg of meat per person per year and an abundance of fruits and vegetables. There are two collective harvests that take place every week. At busy times, the neighbours help the farmer to plant or harvest crops. And the concept has been copied elsewhere in the country. “We hope that this will be the starting point of a new movement that will make agriculture more profitable and sustainable,” suggests Douwe Korting, one of the founders of the project.
The point of these collaborations is also to find a middle ground between technical and economic realities on the one hand and society’s expectations on the other. In France, following incidents of pollution in the 1990s, the commune Lons-le-Saunier (pop. 17,000) in the Jura mountains has been promoting conversion to organic farming in its catchment areas through agreements and by establishing outlets in municipal canteens.
“Where farming is close to an urban area, there are health worries and a strong focus of private individuals on practices,” argues Romain Mouillot, who converted in 2015. “But if people want certain types of systems in their backyard, they also have to be able to offer economically viable prospects to farmers.” The producers who have made the leap end up better off: As well as offering Mr Mouillot market opportunities for his beef, the town supports a diversification project for organic pasta.
When we talk about dialogue, we are also talking about a willingness to compromise. Many farmers are already adapting their practices, but some are getting involved on a larger scale and are spreading the word. In Germany, agricultural contractors have become well aware of the conflict that is beginning to take shape as the image of the profession changes. “People are less prepared to accept a special status for agriculture,” notes Julia Guttulsröd of the German contractor association (BLU). Therefore, the organisation has launched a plan with 10 points for its members and their clients. The measures are primarily aimed at changing driving behavior, such as reducing speed when driving through villages and selecting routes that cause less disturbances. Noise reduction during work at night or on the weekends is another aspect.
“Even if changing practices does not immediately seem economically beneficial, a good image and peaceful coexistence will considerably improve work efficiency,” says Ms Guttulsröd. “Employees are more motivated, identify more with the company and as a result are more meticulous. Clients and rural people are also more understanding and will offer more support in the event of exceptional circumstances.”
On top of that, there are also the individual initiatives that make a difference. In the Netherlands, brothers Sjaak and Henri Huetink, who produce lily bulbs, reshaped their practices to improve community cohesion. This initiative is by no means a waste of time or money since the lilies require a lot of plant-protection products. Their workers have strict instructions to stop treating plants with chemicals as soon as they see someone walking by.
They try to lease land far away from residential buildings, and if this is not possible, the brothers set up larger field boundaries. They even go so far as giving the residents living next to their fields the choice between a 10m wide strip of maize or flowers. “We cannot always avoid treating the crops, especially when conditions are unfavorable,” explains Henri Huetink. “But when they see the flowers and insects, people tell us: Whatever you’re spraying can’t be that dangerous.” Faced with criticism from colleagues who are worried about the growing demands of people living near arable land, the Huetink brothers are calling for pragmatism. “We need to be proactive, otherwise this will lead to more regulation. Farmers need to be aware of these issues. Our experience is that, today, 90 % of the time people tell us: ‘Do what you’ve got to do, we trust you’.”