Marielle Schalk: “we can’t go green when we are in the red”

A lot has happened in the last few weeks. It all started with the first article in the ‘cattle factories’ series by Flemish newspaper De Standaard in which colleagues, neighbours and friends were made out to be polluters and clans. This made us so angry that we sought each other out. That particular event was what triggered us to take action. Our actions are mild, but have an important message.

Our municipality is a rural community with many young passionate farmers in all different sectors.  We want to move forward and work very hard to preserve and consolidate our farms. For some of us, that means farming more intensively and optimizing every process in the cycle, other decide to add a branch to their activities or go bigger. We have a wonderful selection of local products here in Hoogstraten. It is all these different types of agriculture that make our municipality so unique. We produce food for our region but also for the communities where there is no room for agriculture. We share our space with industry and busy highways surrounded by windmills and nature. It makes this community unique.

It is clear that it is getting more and more difficult to have the space to work, and even clearer that the agriculture will pay the price. Nevertheless, agriculture has always been one of the most important economic pillars in our region and this is still reflected in the residential areas where blocks of flats are named after historic buildings: the dairyfarm, the auction, the brewery. And it is precisely the generation that has farmed so intensively and doubled the number of animals a few times that is now complaining about the large stables where our generation is producing sustainable food. With increasing demands on food safety, animal welfare and sustainability, it is becoming increasingly difficult to earn a living while farming on a small scale, especially in a time where space is getting rarer and more expensive. You can’t farm extensively when the land is under such great pressure.  Honestly, we don’t know what to do anymore. Because we too know that we have to take care of the piece of earth we live on.

Our agriculture has been in transition for some time. We are all looking for feasible alternatives to do our job in a more sustainable way. Small adjustments to our business operations can already yield serious environmental gains. I understand it is impossible to know everything, but clearly it is getting urgent for us to explain to our community what it is that we do and why we do it. I don’t expect a pat on the back, but a little support for the farmers who mean well instead of an aggressive media campaign against agriculture in general would be nice. You see, the problem is that you can’t go green when you’re in the red. As farmers, we cannot include our costs in the consumer price. We are always dependent on what the retail wants to pay us. Having to read that this has been going on “for centuries”, while this is the reason for the large scale of exploitations, bothers me to no end. Let me give you an example: I recently read in an article that a farmer should not complain, but in that same article there was a reference to the large-scale exploitations, stating that those make a profit. A profit on a leek that is sold just two cents above production cost…

We have so many more demands to meet than 50 years ago and the conditions in which we farm are becoming more and more expensive. Everyone wants to invest in sustainability, but if this situation doesn’t change for us, there will not only be no more space on the land, but no money left in our wallets. Add to that the difficult position of the young farmer who, on top of everything else, has to take over a business and then has to spend loads of money on permit applications and investments in sustainability, and you can only conclude that it is becoming terribly difficult to work in agriculture these days. These are times when there is no longer any awareness of what farmers are doing and what wonderful steps towards sustainability are being taken by farmers.


I can only be very proud of my colleagues. Time and time again, we turn problems into solutions and look for opportunities to improve ourselves and connect with citizens. I hope that our actions will generate more interest in our work from the community, but also from politicians. It is time to take an objective and open look at agriculture instead of looking for a scapegoat for our own consumerism.

Author: Kim Schoukens

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