1971-1974: Support for spontaneous peasant resistance
Boerengroep was founded in March 1971 as part of the student movement. In reaction to the democratization actions of 1968, the student movement developed the extra-university practice (B.U.P.), through which students tried to connect more directly to the problems of the disadvantaged groups in society. The large demonstration of half a million farmers in Brussels on March 23, 1971, made it clear that farmers were also a disadvantaged group. The Wageningen students realized that education and research were completely out of touch with the concrete problems of farmers and market gardeners.
The founding fathers of Boerengroep were leftists, had many contacts with critical farmers in the country and tried, from a small farmhouse on the outskirts of Wageningen, to stimulate the slumbering resistance to the prevailing agricultural policies of the time.
The Boerengroep members of that time were against the exploitation of farmers. They stimulated farmers to act against the “dictatorial regime” (terminology of the time) of the agricultural leaders who just let it all happen. Together with farmers, they established opposition groups such as the “Werkgroep Beter Zuivelbeleid” and “Landelijke Boerinnenbelangen”. The progressive intellectuals from Wageningen provided figures and arguments. They stood beside a stencil machine late into the night to multiply action pamphlets that were distributed the following day in Brussels or The Hague.
In addition to the literature review on agricultural policy, the practical situation in agriculture was studied. In the Betuwe municipality of Lienden, home visits were made to farmers. The conversations were about the farmers’ ideas about the EEC agricultural policy. The talks contributed to a better knowledge of the situation of farmers, but the idea of creating a working group of progressive farmers proved unfeasible.
In 1972, the events in Tubbergen (Twente) led to a shift of the work area of Boerengroep to the issue of land consolidation. In Tubbergen farmers protested against a land consolidation plan. The deployment of 200 riot police led to violent scenes. Boerengroep saw land consolidation as a means for the government to restructure agriculture. In 13 places (including Tubbergen, Diever, Hooghalen, Vijfheerenland and Eilandspolder) contact was made with action committees. By conducting research and providing information they tried to support the farmers’ resistance.
Also, on a theoretical level more attention was paid to the structural politics of the Dutch government and the E.E.C. Criticism focused on land consolidation and agricultural education as government instruments to favor large farmers over their smaller colleagues. These ideas were recorded in the brochures “Land Consolidation and Land Development” and “On Agricultural Extension”, published in 1973.
During this period, Boerengroep wanted to stimulate and support spontaneous resistance by farmers. The basis for this resistance was present, it was assumed, because after all capitalism also had its effect on agriculture. However, the expected resistance did not materialize, in particular because on the local level there were hardly any common points of struggle. Land consolidation turned out to be a bad starting point, because the interests of farmers were often contradictory and the problems were strongly region-specific. Boerengroep concluded that one had to work where conflicts between farmers, industry and government were to be expected.
From 1973 onwards, therefore, they focused more and more on contract farming. Several intensive livestock farmers, who had become the victims of legal uncertainty within their contracts, were supported by Boerengroep. The dependence on agro-industry was emphasized. The relationship between farmers and dairy cooperatives was also investigated. The changed practice and analysis were reflected in the brochures “Agribusiness or domestic colony”, “Agribusiness II” and “On farmers, bosses and banks” from January 1974.
Soon after the establishment of Boerengroep, outreach activities towards farmers, students and the media were started. They started with “De Nieuwsbrief” (forerunner of “Landbouwmaand” and later “Groenvoer”) to inform farmers about each other’s actions. From mid 1971 a cooperation with “De Groene Amsterdammer” was established in an attempt to draw the attention of progressive circles of non-farmers to the problems of farmers. Talks and discussions for non-farmers were also provided. In the autumn of 1972, the “Boerentoneel” was born, inspired by the Student Drama Festival in Twente. In the spring of 1973, the first play, “Entrepreneurial Spirit or Investment Spirit,” was performed about the consequences of land consolidation for farmers. The performances, intended from the beginning as formation plays, were pre-discussed with the organization and followed by discussions. The new play “Farmer of Profession” dealt with the farmer’s dependence on banks and industry.
In 1974 a new propagating activity was started, namely the film project that was carried out together with the film collective “De Rode Lantaarn” in Utrecht. In intensive cooperation with a group of dairy farmers in the north of the Netherlands, a film was made about the relationship between farmers and their cooperative. The scenario was discussed with the farmers. The film “De Samenwerking” finally premiered in February 1976.
1975-1978: Intensive accompaniment of progressive groups of farmers
From 1974 onwards, the activities of Boerengroep gained momentum. In June of that year farmers took to the streets en masse and in no time the whole of the Netherlands was jammed by tractor blockades. The actions came as a big surprise to Boerengroep. There were ‘wild’ actions that were organized outside the trade unions and in many places local action committees were formed.
Stimulated by Boerengroep, the local action committees united in the “National Action Committee for Farmers and Market Gardeners” (L.A.C.). “De Nieuwsbrief” was shaped more following the actions and appeared monthly since then. In cooperation with the L.A.C. a sound slide series was published, in which the demands were put forward. The slide series could be used as an impetus for discussion.
As a result of the support activities, contacts with agriculture increased significantly. Contacts were sought with rural youth organizations (the N.A.J.K. did not exist at that time). A meeting was held with the National Agricultural Committee of the C.P.J., which was considered so useful that since then two Boerengroep members have attended the meetings as observers. Boerengroep began to focus more and more on supporting and guiding core groups of progressive farmers and slowly but surely developed into a ‘mobile training and research institute’.
At the seminar in 1976 the structure of Boerengroep was changed for this purpose. Until then there had been the drama group, the film group, the newsletter group, the training group, the research group and the L.H. group. The new set-up tried to integrate research and education more. A sectoral or problem-oriented approach was chosen. This gave rise to the Dairy Group, the Horticultural Group and the Landscape Parks Group (soon renamed Land Development Group). The discussions after drama and film took on a research function. By analyzing the discussion, they tried to gain more insight into the problems of farmers and gardeners. The Dairy Group and the Landscape Parks Group made a play focused on the specific problems. The L.H. group tried to set up student surveys as an extension of the groups.
Dairy activities arose in January 1976 when, under the encouragement of Boerengroep, a meeting of dairy farmers from the L.A.C. was organized. For this, Farmers Group wrote a discussion paper on the cost of milk. Later the group of dairy farmers was further expanded. An advertisement was placed in “De Boerderij”, in which the working group, by then renamed “Werkgroep Beter Zuivelbeleid” (W.B.Z.), explained its ideas. The EEC policy was criticized and the idea of quotas was put forward as a solution to the surpluses. The Dairy Group accompanied the W.B.Z. and took charge of the secretariat. For the working group, the brochures “A better life for livestock farmers” (March 1977) and “Better Dairy Policy!” (March 1979) were written, in which the ideas about the current and future dairy policy were put forward. An information leaflet for the W.B.Z. was also written. In addition, performances of the dairy play “De Maat is vol” and the film “De Samenwerking” were accompanied.
The Horticulture Group came into being when Farmers Group was asked by the I.K.O.N. to provide a radio program. The theme chosen was “Horticulture and the Third World”. Boerengroep came into contact with a number of active fruit growers, who later formed the “Initiatiefcomité Beperking Appimporten Zuidelijk Halfrond” (Committee to Limit Apple Imports in the Southern Hemisphere) and set up an action to limit the import of apples from dictatorial countries such as South Africa, Chile and Argentina. Farmers Group was asked to help with the preparations. This included talking through the demands and liaising with the press. In April 1977 the largest foreign fruit auction was occupied by about 200 fruit growers to demand restrictions on imports. As a result of the occupation, they decided to publish a brochure. The Farmers’ Group had an important function in this. The Farmers’ Group wrote the brochure in consultation with growers in the Betuwe. Around the publication of the brochure “Keep the fruit growing!” in March 1978, an action plan was carried out in cooperation with the “Initiatiefcomité”, which resulted in a lot of media attention for the action. In cooperation with “De Rode Lantaarn” the film “De prijs van ons voedsel” was made, which compares the problems of African market gardeners with those of a Dutch market gardener’s family.
At the end of 1976 the Land Development Group also started to focus on guiding groups of farmers. One met an active group of K.P.J.-ers from Mergelland in Limburg, where a landscape park had been planned as part of the “Relatienota”. Farmers group was asked to prepare a survey on the issues. Through good cooperation this resulted in the brochure “Mergelland, what do you offer the farmer in the future?” which was presented at a manifestation in October 1977. As a result of the cooperation, the view of Boerengroep on land development changed. The K.P.J. did not reject land development but tried to use the government instrument in a way that was beneficial for farmers and nature.
After Mergelland, a cooperation was established with the “Working group young animal holders” in Eilandspolder, a peat meadow area in North Holland. Contacts in this area had existed since the early days of Boerengroep. A landscape park was also planned here and young farmers were committed to nature management by farmers. In cooperation with the working group, the Land Development Group drew up a user plan for the area. This plan was published in April 1978 as a brochure called “Eilandspolder: inrichtingsplan oostelijk vaargebied”. Also in Northwest Overijssel and Waterland there was a similar cooperation with working groups of young farmers.
At the 1977 seminar it was decided to start a women group in addition to the existing groups. The reason for this was that until then Boerengroep had only dealt with men, while it was precisely women farmers who were most directly confronted with the consequences of agricultural policy: low incomes, long working hours, tension at home, etc. Through conversations with farmer’s wives, the Farmer’s Wife Group tried to gain insight into the problems of farmer’s wives and the possibilities for organizing farmer’s wives. In the summer of 1978, the plan was conceived to make a film about the problems of women farmers in collaboration with “De Rode Lantaarn”. The film “If you marry a farmer” finally premiered in March 1980 and was intended as an impetus for discussion. A start was also made with the accompaniment of a farmer’s wives group in Drenthe.
From 1976, Farmers Group received an operating subsidy for its activities from the NCO. Several brochures were published on the relationship between Dutch agriculture and the Third World. In the summer of 1978, a Newsletter Special “Agriculture and Third World” was published and in the autumn a lecture series in cooperation with Studium Generale was organized under the title “Agriculture here/ Agriculture there”.
1979-1982: Theory formation on the political economy of agriculture.
At the 1979 seminar, the modus operandi of Boerengroep was again radically changed. The main reason was that the subgroups within Boerengroep had grown very far apart over time. The lack of a common Boerengroep vision was experienced as a major shortcoming. It was decided that Boerengroep had to ‘collectivize’ and four options were distinguished for this purpose:
- Basic training
- Exchanging experiences
- Continuous training
- Theory building.
They started with a basic education in Marxism for new Boerengroep members and in addition, they gave top priority to theory formation and continuous education in political economy. The aim was to form a common vision of “how capitalism influences agriculture and its workers” to provide “a plausible political perspective for farmers”. A theory group was set up to coordinate the joint vision formation and a set of guidelines for the work of the subgroups was made:
The development of ideas is given priority over their propagation.
The propagating activities should be primarily in the context of developing ideas.
Support activities should be reduced.
Research and theory building that should provide the basis for the economic struggle and the mobilization of peasants should be a task of Boerengroep.
New activities must be talked about in a political way throughout Boerengroep.
A political way of thinking and looking at things must become central in Boerengroep’s work.
On a number of successive seminars and theme weekends the theory formation was taken up. The place of family businesses in agriculture was the main focus. It would be going too far to elaborate on these theoretical exercises here. The theory formation led to a number of propagating activities that were mainly aimed at the Agricultural College. In the fall of 1979, for example, a lecture series was organized in collaboration with Studium Generale, where several Boerengroep members were now working. In September 1981, a course “Political Economy of Agriculture” was started in cooperation with Studium Generale and the Theme Group Regional Development. With the Agriculture Month specials “Agriculture and the E.C.” of February 1981 and “The Family Business in Agriculture” of September 1982, an attempt was made to bring the political-economic analysis of agriculture to the attention of farmers.
During this period, Boerengroep’s place in the agricultural world changed. While Boerengroep had until then been at the forefront of interpreting a critical view of agriculture, it was now increasingly relegated to the background. This was partly due to the emphasis on theory, which made the work of Boerengroep more introverted and less recognizable for farmers. However, changes in agriculture also played a role in the decline of Boerengroep.
A number of progressive agricultural organizations were beginning to establish their own place in the agricultural world. An important reason for this was that the countryside was becoming increasingly integrated into society. “Urban” progressive ideas began to gain a foothold in the countryside, especially among rural youth through contacts with young people who had moved away from the countryside and city dwellers who had come to live in the countryside. The N.A.J.K., founded in September 1977 as a partnership of 3 rural youth organizations, quickly developed into a critical voice in agriculture. Boerengroep could identify well with the broad outlines of the N.A.J.K.’s 1978 policy note “Farmer Staying” and by now a considerable number of former Boerengroep members worked in rural youth organizations. Also, the organisations that had guided and supported the Farmers’ Group in the past (W.B.Z., working groups in “Relatienotage” areas) started to find a hearing in agriculture.
At the seminar in 1979 it was decided to change the role of Boerengroep. It was decided to work based on a “two-stage model”: by supporting progressive “vanguard” groups (which at that time included the N.A.J.K., the W.B.Z., working groups in the Relatienotage areas and the Farmers’ Wives Group) through progressive theory formation and socially oriented research, the Farmers’ Group would contribute to the development of the progressive movement in agriculture. For research they cooperated with the I.M.G.O. (the predecessor of the current “Wetenschapswinkel”) e.g. in the context of a study on mammoth farms in intensive livestock farming. The general public in agriculture would be reached by the vanguard groups themselves.
Be that as it may, Boerengroep had less and less intensive contacts with groups in agriculture. In the autumn of 1979, the W.B.Z. formally became independent of Boerengroep and the actions of the Initiative Committee in the fruit sector came to an end. The contacts of the Land Development Group were diluted partly by the establishment of the Regional Development Theme Group (T.R.O.) in 1978, which was explicitly concerned with action research. Only the Farmer’s Wife Group, which found an enormous response among women farmers with the film “If you marry a farmer”, and the Arable Farming Group, which was founded at the end of 1980, continued to focus on guiding groups in agriculture (respectively farmer’s wife groups and the Working Group for Peatlands). “Landbouwmaand” (agriculture month) also continued to have many contacts in agriculture.
1982-1985: Boerengroep as a platform
After the discussions about the role of Boerengroep, a new period of prosperity began. The Land Development Group (by now renamed Theme Group Agriculture/Nature) provided the secretariat of the National Consultation on Relationship Areas and, in collaboration with the consultation, released the brochure “Agricultural Nature Management through Security of Use” and the slide series “Agricultural Nature Management in Relationship Areas” in the spring of 1984. The Farmer’s Wife Group took care of the secretariat of the L.B.B., made a folder about the L.B.B., drafted in cooperation with the L.B.B. in March 1984 a reaction to the new EC directive on equal treatment and published in May 1985 the brochure “Geen Rek maar Plek” (Not a Rack but a Space). The Dairy Group focused on current affairs (i.e. the superlevy) and in particular the consequences of the tradability of quotas. In addition, the secretariat of the National Consultation on Food and the Third World (L.O.V.E.N.D.) was provided. The Arable Group (now renamed Thematic Group Peatlands) attended meetings of the Working Group Peatlands and carried out research for this group. Finally, in 1984 the Theme Group Manure was established, which in collaboration with the A.J.W. Limburg published the brochures “Gierend door de bocht” and “Manure: stop or let it run” in the spring of 1986. All theme groups supplied articles about their field of interest for Agriculture Month. By publishing specials (e.g. on small farms and the world food problem) an attempt was made to give shape to the discussion function of the magazine.
1986- .. Subsidy discounts and project-based work
The upward trend was interrupted when the N.C.O., for years the largest subsidizer, started to cut back on the subsidy of Boerengroep like a bull in a china shop. In addition, Boerengroep, like other critical groups in Wageningen, had to deal with a declining number of volunteers. The subsidy cuts were the result of a changing mission statement of the N.C.O.. While the N.C.O. had previously attached great importance to raising awareness of Third World problems from the “own situation”, the emphasis now shifted to providing information on the Third World to a wider audience. The activities of Boerengroep did not meet these new tasks and moreover the N.C.O. began to focus more on the trade unions.
The result was that for a number of consecutive years Boerengroep was cut back very sharply. In 1985 the number of hours paid was reduced from 232 to 177, in 1986 to 147, in 1987 to 100, and in 1988 a further reduction could only be averted after an objection procedure. To make matters worse, the N.C.O. declared Agriculture Month in 1987 to be an ineligible activity. So, something had to change in the working method of Boerengroep. In 1985 an attempt was made to suffice by reducing the number of theme groups (the Horticulture Group and the Agriculture/Nature Theme Group were discontinued), but due to the continuing cut this was not sufficient.
In January 1987 it was therefore decided to separate Agriculture Month from Boerengroep and to work more project-based in Boerengroep activities. The choice was made for projects concerning dairy (with regard to dairy surpluses), arable farming (consequences of the grain war between the U.S. and the EC for the Third World in collaboration with the CON) and intensive livestock farming (the import of cattle feed raw materials). It was tried to pay enough attention to Third World in the projects to keep the N.C.O sweet and to spend the remaining time on developments in European agriculture (dairy: consequences of the super levy, dairy substitutes, BST growth hormone; arable farming: market-oriented policy; intensive livestock farming: manure surpluses).
As part of the projects, several brochures were issued (sent with Agriculture Month) and study days/conferences were organized. For the dairy project a “Dairy Export Newspaper” and two brochures “The white engine in revision” and “The EC dairy policy in discussion” were published and a study day on the EC dairy policy was organized. For the animal feed project, the brochure “Grain substitutes” was published and an international congress and a lecture series were organized in cooperation with Studium Generale. For the grain project, the brochures “Farmers’ Solidarity Worldwide” and “Farmers Worldwide Lose in Grain Trade War” were published. The International Grain Growers Congress was organized and the publication of the newsletter “Grain Connection” was started.
The project-based approach changed the work of Boerengroep greatly. There was less room for topics outside the N.C.O. projects, Boerengroep started to write brochures and organize symposia, and the relationship with the Third World became the central angle for articulating a critical view of agriculture. With this set-up they thought they had something to offer the progressive groups in the form of information and new ideas. Boerengroep chose to support progressive groups with information and ideas and decided not to focus on broadening ideas towards the wider agricultural public.
In the new set-up, the Farmer’s Wife Group and the Farmer’s Theatre became separate from the other theme groups. The Farmer’s Wife Group focused on research (on pregnancy and childbirth arrangements for farmer’s wives) and the development of discussion materials (a slide series on the division of roles between farmer and farmer’s wife) and thus did opt for the same working method as the rest of Boerengroep. In order to create space for the development of joint ideas, a common theme (remuneration of labor) was chosen. On this subject, in February 1988, the lecture series “Living poor, dying rich” was organized in cooperation with Studium Generale, and on theme weekends an attempt was made to formulate a common Boerengroep position. The Farmer’s Theatre linked up with this joint theme by means of a play about the problems of taking over farms.
However, the joint discussions on the topic of remuneration did not lead to a common Boerengroep position. One reason for this was that the subject did not sufficiently connect with the N.C.O. projects. At the 1989 seminar, the theme of remuneration was concluded without having led to the propagation of a Boerengroep standpoint towards the agricultural world. It was decided not to establish a joint annual theme again.
The 1994 Boerengroep statues state:
The foundation aims to stimulate and motivate groups of farmers, farmers’ wives, horticulturists, horticultural workers, rural youth, agricultural students and other groups of the rural population. We try to achieve that the above mentioned people will think about the social and historical factors which determine their situation and will consider them as changeable, after which it will be possible to develop actions and activities to achieve the desired change. The foundation also aims to stimulate agricultural students to adopt a critical attitude towards developments in agriculture and horticulture, both with respect to agricultural education and agricultural research, and their later professional practice.
The foundation tries to achieve its objective by all legal means and in particular by:
– providing information by means of written material, drama, games and audio-visual means;
– linked to that the farming of discussions
– coupled with preliminary and follow-up activities;
– guiding discussion and working groups in agriculture and horticulture;
– research into the situation in agriculture and horticulture in the Netherlands, in the European Union and on a global level, in connection with other production sectors.
2013 – Farmers’ Group back to the roots
Successive coordinators Klarien Klingen, Caren Krul and Elske Hageraats set a new course for Boerengroep: back to the ideology of the founding fathers of Boerengroep. In an interview following the 40th anniversary of Boerengroep, the then coordinator said: “Forty years ago, the so-called protest generation studied in Wageningen. The members of Boerengroep of that time wanted to change agriculture; they knew exactly what was wrong with it and what had to be done. Today’s farmers are less likely to take a stand, let alone encourage farmers to act against the ‘dictatorial rule’ (terminology of the time) of the agricultural leaders.” Klarien, Caren and Elske believe that Boerengroep should not only focus on connecting theory and practice, but also reconnect more with social movements and politics, as Boerengroep did in the 70s, 80s and 90s. For example, Boerengroep is involved in the establishment of Voedsel Anders (Food Sovereignty Movement Netherlands), Bodem Anders (a large congress on the importance of soil and the influence of agriculture) and Vereniging Toekomstboeren (La Via Campesina Nederland). Political topics are again brought to the surface. For example, a live Skype connection was made with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) prior to the peace negotiations, to talk about rural development in Colombia (despite this being prohibited by the WUR). Boerengroep was also involved in demonstrations and lectures on free trade agreements such as TTIP and CETA. Wageningen University is critizised for increasing connection (and influence) between research and corporations. Ties with Earth Farmer Consumer are being tightened again to better bring forward the voices from farmers’ unions. Boerengroep, through ABC, has therefore been invited to the Ministry of Economic Affairs to join the discussion on the Food Agenda. With ABC, a vision on the CAP was drawn up. In 2016, Boerengroep is part of the Dutch delegation to the Nyeleni Forum for Food Sovereignty in Romania, to talk with hundreds of small-scale producers about challenges such as land concentration, low prices, soil erosion, privatization of seeds, water, land, genes etc. Boerengroep takes the position that food does not belong in the free market and advocates for food sovereignty and fair prices for producers. Members strengthen their network by actively participating in the many conferences and meetings concerning food and agriculture.
Meanwhile, in 2013, Boerengroep established the Farm Experience Internship : a summer course founded by students, on agroecology in practice. Supported by chair groups FSE and RSO, farmers, horticulturists, soil scientists, researchers, future farmers are invited to share knowledge. Students from different countries do internships with Boerengroep to help organize and set up the FEI in their own countries. For example, they are currently working on an FEI in Ghana and Spain.