Het moet Anders - Time to Change

The Changing World of the Dutch Cow


At two o’clock in the morning my phone rang. It was Jaap, from his holiday address in Drenthe. He had received a call from his milking robot, that there was problem. Only half awake, I passed through the scullery and went to the stalls via the old cow corridor. The problem was solved soon enough, but I heard a heavy noise from the back of the cow house. We had put number 39, a heavily pregnant heifer, with number 458 in the straw stall. Number 458 had calved the day before, and number 39 would take a little longer, or so we thought. I squeezed past the milking robot and walked along the feed alley to the straw stall. Number 39 was lying there, in an odd position, against the wall. Two legs were sticking out from the back. I returned Jaap’s call. He could watch by means of the app on his smartphone and the camera positioned over the straw stall. I put my cell phone on speaker in the straw. I took hold of the slippery legs and leaned back. At every contraction I pulled. Soon enough the head appeared. A little later the calf was lying in the straw. We looked at each other. Fortunately, it was gasping for air. The mother got up and turned around. She started licking the calf clean. ‘It’s a female calf, Jaap,’
I said to my phone. ‘You can go back to sleep.’ I fetched some iodine from the ledge and put it on. Bram, the farmhand, was on his way. Twice a year we’re at the farm for a week, and there’s always help at hand. Jaap and Annelies are on holiday with their daughter Suzan and we’re taking care of their farm. It’s an average farm with some 85 dairy cows and some 130 acres of land. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot, and by now I could manage quite well on my own. But I’m not a farmer, and we don’t want to take full responsibility for the farm. Hence the farmhand. Usually it’s a lad who will be taking over his father’s farm in due time. And when he does, a new farmhand will appear on the scene. The first one, in the winter of 2000, was René. After René we had Dirk, Richard, Christiaan, Gijs and John, and now we’d arrived at Bram. He’s not from a farm himself, but he hires himself out to assist dairy farmers. Most of what knows he has learned from older farmers. He loves to hear how they did things in the past. Jaap Hemke is pictured on p64 of my book Hollandse Velden (Dutch Fields), with a football over his head, on the point of doing a throw-in. I took the picture in February 1996 at the A.G.S.V. soccer pitch in Aartswoud. Jaap’s farm looks exactly like the one in the background. It’s on the same road, half a kilometre to the right. His parents had just moved to a service flat in the village. Jaap had taken over the farm from his father four years before this throw-in. Jaap and I became friends when I was looking for original soccer players for an ad campaign in the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper. Jaap could get some time off during the week for me. He made a couple of sliding-tackles on the empty pitch, so he would have some dirt on his thighs, and I ended up shooting an entire film. A week later I returned to show him the results. Edith went along with me. It was in March, the lambing season. Jaap said to her: ‘You’d better put on these overalls and those boots, so you can feel if they’re positioned all right.’ Within twenty minutes Edith had helped to deliver two lambs. In the autumn he rang. If we’d be prepared to take care of his farm for a week in January. So we did, and we would be doing it time and again. In 2015, I got a call from the Nederlands Fotomuseum (the Dutch photography museum in Rotterdam). I was commissioned to make a contemporary image alongside a work from their collection. People would understand the present better if we would put it next to the past. That was the idea. This was the moment to use my experiences at the farm. In all those years I had hardly photographed any of it, other than a few private shots and films. The only thing I had produced at Jaap’s farm was Schapen tellen (Counting sheep), a children’s book, published in 2007. From the photo museum’s archives, I picked some pictures from the book Rundvee (Cattle) by photographer Cas Oorthuys. I wanted to give a contemporary picture alongside his images. The milk quota would stop, I wanted to paint a picture of the changing world of the Dutch cow. The post-war upscaling of farming had reached its limits. The image we had of our cows was changing dramatically. We were in the middle of a worldwide debate on a proper balance between food production and good stewardship. Rundvee (Cattle), published in 1948, was commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture. It shows the world of dairy farming shortly after the Second World War. The farmers are still milking their cattle on a stool in the field. On average they’ve got ten cows. Those are roughly the same numbers farmers had in the 17th century. But they’re on the brink of a leap forwards, you can see that towards the end of the book. Oorthuys is present when the first mechanical milking is being done. On the other side of the ocean they had been doing this before the war. Soon enough mobile milking equipment started appearing in the Dutch pastures. Shiny drums were attached underneath the cows, and through tubes the milk ended up in a tank. The machines were powered by jeeps left behind by the Canadian military after the war. In those days the authorities only had the annual May count to go by to know what went on in farms. Every year in May an agricultural inspector took his position behind a table at the local pub. One by one, the dairy farmers came to see him and told him over a drink how many cows and how many acres of land they had, and what their yield had been this year. All data were taken down by hand in summary lists per province. And this is how the government shaped its agricultural policies. Nowadays the authorities literally look on from above at the parcels, by satellite. Even in Brussels they know exactly how many minerals are brought to and taken from the farm. Everything needs to be specified in detail. In Jaap’s farm there’s a shelf over his desk in the scullery. On it, is an impressive row of folders containing nutrients recycling assessments, pit inspection results, health inspection results, soil sample results, exterior results, receipts for fertilization accounts, milk control results, phosphate references, statements of payment entitlements, documents about meadow bird conservation, and so on.


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Het moet Anders - Time to Change
Sale, Damwoude, 2015 p.14-15
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