Neigh­bour­hood: cul­ti­vat­ing a good rela­tion­ship

The coun­try­side is a space to live and to work. And thus often an are­na of con­flicts of how to use that space. A chal­lenge that needs to be tack­led by farm­ers them­selves.

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.

Com­mu­ni­cate

For young Ger­man farmer Knud Grell a bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the  neigh­bours clear­ly paid off.

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.”


Inform

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.

Bastien Hen­nequez from the French region Eure turned his field bor­ders into edu­ca­tion trails.

“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.


Open doors

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.

George Brown

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.

A lot of vis­i­tors are guar­an­teed when UK farms open their doors on “Open Farm Sun­day”.

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.”


Col­lab­o­rate

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.

In Spain the tra­di­tion of the whole vil­lage help­ing out at har­vest time is still alive.

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.

Farm­ers and neigh­bours work­ing side by side: Com­mu­nal fields of the Dutch project “Heren­boeren”.

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.


Adapt

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.

Many farm­ers are adapt­ing their prac­tices, e.g. by chang­ing their dri­ving behav­ior, such as reduc­ing speed when dri­ving through vil­lages and select­ing routes that cause less dis­tur­bances.

“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’.”