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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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’.”