‘If my pasture becomes a protected area, everything will fall apart’

Goat farmer Renaat Devreese (59) walks through the wet, tall grass in mushroom sandals towards a part of his land that could cost him dearly. He points to the field boundaries, which he has marked with a kilometer of “forest edges and hedges”. Looks great and the planting acts as a buffer against overblown pesticide and fertilizer from a neighbor who does not grow organically as he does. Further on, he dug two basins. All kinds of reeds now grow around it.

Devreese believes: your business should radiate the same quality as your product. So when he took over the business as a retired couple in the West Flemish coastal village of De Haan 35 years ago, he first started decorating. Until then, there was nothing but grassland for miles around. Over the years, an area of ​​ten hectares was created where the species thrives. The farm itself also went well. To begin with he had thirty goats, now there are three hundred. They graze in half-open stables.

Because Devreese owns an organic farm, he must not close his stables off from the outside world. It could not hurt, he thought, for the goat farm ‘t Reigershof is not located near a protected nature reserve. But when he recently looked at his ‘impact score’ with an online calculation tool from the Flemish government, he got the shock of his life.

The piece of land he himself created turned out to have been designated a so-called ‘search zone’ without his knowledge. This is an area that the Flemish Government retains as an opportunity to realize a protected area in the future if necessary to achieve nitrogen targets. “There have obviously been people on my land who have seen certain sods and species that are not there elsewhere,” Devreese says indignantly. “Suddenly we are less than a kilometer from a nature reserve created only by our way of farming. If this is officially designated as a protected area, we may have to go back to two hundred goats. Then everything falls apart. ” Because with a third loss of revenue, his business is no longer profitable.

Uncertain future

Renaat Devreese is not the only farmer in Flanders who is bewildered. Since the Flemish Government reached an agreement on 22 February this year in a final version of the programmatic approach to nitrogen (PAS) that some sectors (chicken, pigs) require a 60% reduction in nitrogen by 2030, the future of thousands of farmers. uncertain .. Just like in the Netherlands, Flemish farmers are therefore taking to the streets to protest against the nitrogen policy. A large demonstration is planned for this Wednesday evening along various motorways (although the Belgian farmers do not intend to block these motorways at the moment). With their action, the Flemish farmers also want to show the Dutch farmers that they are “not alone”, they say in a press release.

Also read this article about protests by former farmers in Brussels

As in the Netherlands, the Flemish government has been working on a PAS for years. In that order, the Netherlands and Belgium are the undisputed frontrunners when it comes to nitrogen emissions. Nowhere else are so many pets kept in such a small area. Flanders’ agriculture is responsible for more than 53 percent of the total nitrogen emissions – nitrogen oxides and ammonia.

Research has shown that both Dutch and Flemish natural areas suffer from respiratory distress due to excessive nitrogen precipitation. The Flemish Environment Agency has calculated that the critical threshold value has been exceeded in 80 percent of the protected nature areas in Flanders. The situation is favorable only in three of the 64 areas.

Letter on the mat

As early as 2015, farmers in Flanders received a letter stating their impact score on nearby nature reserves. Colors were used; with a green letter, up to 5 percent power, a farmer could expand, with orange – up to 50 percent – expansion was impossible. And farmers who were responsible for 50 percent or more of the nitrogen impact of a nature reserve would no longer get a new one after a permit expired.

With a green letter in hand, Gunter Klaasen (43) therefore dared in 2015 to give up his well-paid job in IT, sell his self-built house and take over his father’s farm together with his wife Daisy.to buy. He became the fourth generation of Klaasen, who started a farm on Arendonksesteenweg in Ravels, near the border with Holland. Green meant permission to expand, so Klaasen took out a loan of 2 million euros to build two new stables. He had an expensive ammonia-poor system installed in the roof. Despite tens of thousands of extra chickens – he now has 124,000 – his nitrogen emissions did not increase as a result.

Farmer Gunter Klaasen from Ravels wants support for farmers affected by the Belgian PAS agreement.
Photo by Nick Somers

At home at the kitchen table, Klaasen, dressed in a black shirt with ‘RED DE BOER’ on his chest, shows the permission for the extension, while Daisy stands behind him and bakes rice with chicken fillet. The last letter is from January 2020. It took more than a year, but then there were two brand new stables next to two old ones. The stables were only just in use when the nitrogen problem in Flanders picked up speed.

A chicken coop near Hasselt was not allowed to expand after a conservation organization successfully challenged the application. A judge judged that the impact on nearby nature was too great. Flemish Environment Minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA) did not announce a complete permit halt, as happened in the Netherlands in 2019 following a decision by the Council of State, but demanded that new agricultural permits could only be issued if there were no further nitrogen emissions.

Crocus chords

The revised version of the PAS, the so-called ‘crocus agreement’ from February last year, marked the end of a life’s work for some farmers; 41 companies ended up on a red list as ‘peak loaders’ and must close their companies by 2025 at the latest. More than a hundred orange farmers are offered a resort with a buy-out scheme. The area where Gunter Klaasen mainly lives and works is a nitrogen hotspot.

The new PAS makes it virtually impossible for green companies like his to expand. The threshold for ammonia emissions is so low that almost all farms must either make investments to reduce their emissions drastically or reduce the number of livestock significantly by 2030. For example, the number of pigs, almost 6 million in Flanders, must be reduced by 30 percent by 2030 .

Flanders allocates 3.6 billion euros to pay for the nitrogen dossier. In the Netherlands, three times as large, it is 25 billion. According to David De Pue, a researcher at the Flemish Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Research, the big difference between the two nitrogen agreements is that in the Netherlands ‘there is an area-oriented approach, rather than per company’. De Pue sees that the Netherlands will also immediately address soil and groundwater quality. It comes later in Flanders.

In April, there was tumult even in the Flemish parliament when it turned out that companies had ended up on the red list, which was not yet red in 2015. Especially the impending closure of the centuries-old Averbode Abbey, which was allowed to expand in 2015, was a disgrace in the Flemish media. Errors were allegedly made in determining the reference year.

Emotional scenes

But Minister Demir refused to tamper with the agreement. In recent weeks, she initiated discussions with Flemish farmers. Two weeks ago, it led to emotionally charged scenes in Merksplas. Hundreds of farmers told her that the uncertainty about PAS is becoming unbearable for them. A loop with her name was attached to one of the tractors they had come with. Since then, the minister has had permanent police protection.

Farm ‘t Reigershof by farmer Renaat Devreese.
Photo by Nick Somers

Until 17 June, all Flemish people could object to PAS through the municipalities as part of a public inquiry. Thousands did. But the question is whether anything is being done about these objections. Demir wants PAS to be transformed into legislation by the autumn. In the Netherlands, it is not necessary to determine before July next year how the provinces will reduce their nitrogen emissions.

Due to the Flemish PAS, chicken farmer Gunter Klaasen has his back to the wall. If he has to invest in his two older barns to curb his ammonia emissions, he will have to expand to get out of debt. And it is not allowed. He’s at his end. Last year, he received a fatal blow when he fell from a meter-high ladder. With a hollow look: “I could have broken my neck too. Then I got rid of it. ”

Klaasen participated in the protest of the Dutch farmers in Strø on Wednesday. Early in the morning he and eight colleagues drove to Gelderland by tractor. He thought it was his duty. Along the way, except for one middle finger, he only came across people clapping, he says. He fills up when he thinks back to ‘Dutch collegiality’. “In Flanders, people are not yet aware of what is hanging over our heads. In the Netherlands, yes. “He believes it is due to BoerBurgerBeweging and” more objective media “. In Flanders, according to him, the farmer is portrayed as a great sinner. Had he known this in advance, he would never have become a farmer seven years ago.

Klaasen has recently joined a steering group with which he is preparing protest actions. He now has regular contact with members of the Farmers Defense Force via email and phone. He assures us: it is only a matter of time before massive protests against nitrogen policy will also take place in Flanders.

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