‘Nitrogen is not a global issue’

The student who wants to be a farmer

Dutch farmers feel threatened by ever stricter environmental regulations. Yet psychology student Kai Boerma is still committed to his future with tractors and cows. ‘My grandad was a farmer, my dad is a farmer, and I’m going to be a farmer too.’
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Door Anna Koslerova

10 February om 11:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:15 uur.
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By Anna Koslerova

February 10 at 11:55 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:15 PM.

Farmers in the Netherlands are looking to leave the country and start over in Canada or Norway. So why are you still set on becoming a farmer here? 

‘It’s my passion! Taking care of the animals gives me a sense of purpose. If I don’t get up in the morning, the cows will go hungry. Also, farming is entrepreneurship, and I don’t like the nine to five thing. 

I see the environmental issues, but people still need to eat. I know I will need to transition to a more sustainable way of producing food. But in general, life on the farm is fulfilling. My grandad was a farmer, my dad is a farmer, and I’m going to be a farmer too.’

Do people understand when you tell them about your plans?

‘It depends on who you ask. My closest friends have heard me talking about this since I was sixteen. They’re rooting for me. But psychology students, especially from the environmental psychology department, are less positive. They’re concerned about the nitrogen emissions and such.’

Don’t you think they have a point? Last May, a court ruling forced the government to restrict activities responsible for nitrogen emissions. Farmers reacted to this by protesting all across the country. 

‘Well, the main thing was that farmers were urged to reduce the number of animals by half. If you have a hundred cows, you would only be allowed to keep fifty. I think the way they measure how much nitrogen is emitted by each sector is not sufficient for policy making.’

‘But regardless, we have to accept that we are impacting the environment and act upon it. My dad sees business growth in terms of the number of cows he has, but I know I will have to think differently. The model of ‘more cows means more food which means more income’ will soon be dead. I will have to invest in other things, like solar panels and windmills, in order to reduce the amount of energy that comes from fossil fuels.’ 

The European environmental agency reports that the levels of nitrogen losses from agricultural land to the environment are unacceptable. As a dairy farmer, you will be contributing with a nitrogen footprint. Do you feel responsible for that at all?

‘That depends. According to EU law, 7 percent of each country should be protected natural habitat.  If you take Finland, nature reserves constitute around 60 percent of the country. Germany and France have fewer nature reserves, but the ones they do have are fifty times as big as ours. In the Netherlands we have 166 nature reserves spread across the country. Within a radius of fifty kilometres around every one of them, there are to be no farms. A solution presented by us is that we should merge our nature reserves, instead of punishing farmers.

However, the Netherlands barely fulfills that 7 percent, so yes, it does need to be a conversation. But first we need to know exactly how much nitrogen is being released into the environment.’ 

But as a Dutch farmer, do you feel personally responsible for making the problem worse than it already is?

‘No. Not yet anyway, but maybe I will in a few years. The debate around nitrogen is still evolving. In the Netherlands it’s a big environmental challenge, but in other countries with more natural habitat it doesn’t pose a threat. I don’t think it’s a global issue, but a very Dutch one.’ 

During one protest in Groningen, farmers broke down the door of the provincial government building with a tractor. How do you feel about behaviour like this?

‘We had this course on mass psychology: how people behave when they demonstrate. Farmers broke down the door because, unlike in Friesland or Drenthe, they didn’t receive a satisfying proposal by the local government on how to deal with the proposed restrictions. 

As a farmer, I would say it was stupid to do that, because it portrays the community in a negative light. As a psychologist, I know this behaviour is to be expected. My professor pointed out this was a textbook definition of how a dissatisfied crowd escalates their behaviour.’

Did you join any of the protests?

‘I didn’t. I watched them from a distance, not as a farmer but as a curious student. I don’t mind being associated with the protests, but I decided to lean back and see what happens. My dad also never went to the protests. My uncle did, because the nitrogen restrictions affect him directly.’

Could you see yourself taking part in the future?

‘Yeah! It would be fun for the feeling of belonging and unity. Imagine sitting on a farm all day, isolated from the community. I feel as though I belong to dairy farmers, but I have nothing in common with people who grow potatoes, or farm chickens. In The Hague, everyone was there to support each other. Farmers came from all over the country to feel part of something bigger.’ 

You did your thesis on farmers’ mental and physical health. What did you learn?

‘Social isolation is the most crucial factor in determining farmers’ mental and physical health. Financial wellbeing and collective self-esteem come second. I also found that farmers on average are happier than the general population in the Netherlands. They are outside, active and they love what they do. They also have more control over their life than people who sit in an office and stare at a computer all day. That is why I want to be a farmer.’ 

You are taking over two hundred dairy cows at a time when veganism is on the rise. How do you plan to adapt?

‘We don’t have to, because 80 percent of the milk we produce is exported to other countries. Mainly to China, where there is a lack of safe milk for babies. Countries like India or China are not going vegan any time soon. The decrease in poverty there leads to an increase in consumption of luxury products, such as dairy. So I’m not afraid that we won’t be able to sell our milk.’

How do you envision your farm in twenty years?

‘We will have the same number of cows, but hopefully move towards more sustainable technologies. I would also like to have a big garden with locally produced food, which we would supply to families that live nearby. This way, we can eliminate some of the consequences of the food import industry, which poses a far bigger threat to our environment than our two hundred cows. I also want to invest in solar panels, windmills and machines that extract nitrates from the ground and prevent them from being released into the environment.’ 

Besides moving towards more environmentally friendly solutions, what kind of a farmer do you want to be?

‘A happy farmer, who spreads his enthusiasm for dairy products around. I want to continue sharing the farm experience with others. Many of my friends are going to be lawyers or social psychologists. They’ll live in the city and their kids won’t know what a cow looks like. I want to be able to show people where their food comes from.’


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